marek-warszawski

Warszawski: Time for Fresno to become professional soccer city

The recent formation of Fire Squad Fresno, a booster group that rallies before, during and after Fresno Fuego matches, is more evidence that the city is ready to support a pro-level soccer team.
The recent formation of Fire Squad Fresno, a booster group that rallies before, during and after Fresno Fuego matches, is more evidence that the city is ready to support a pro-level soccer team. sflores@fresnobee.com

It’s time to get the ball rolling on professional soccer in Fresno.

As many as 17,000 soccer fans will cram into Chukchansi Park for Friday night’s clash between Mexican league rivals Chivas de Guadalajara and Club Atlas.

Twenty four hours later, about 3,000 will turn out to see the Fuego play their Premier Development League season finale.

The first number (17,000) overstates Fresno’s potential as a pro soccer market. Liga MX has a huge following in the U.S., and many fans are apparently coming from out of town.

The second (3,000) sells it considerably short.

“I really think Fresno is ready for professional soccer,” said Scott Alcorn, the outgoing Fuego coach who will be on the sideline for the final time Saturday.

“It’s something that has never been done in the Valley. Pro soccer would be something that’s totally new, and I think we’re ready for that.”

I think full-time pro soccer is a missing component of the Valley sports scene.

Jeremy Schultz, Fuego general manager

In case you’re confused, the Fuego are an amateur club composed mainly of college players on their summer vacation.

Pro soccer would be a whole new ballgame.

The U.S. has three professional leagues stacked into three tiers. At the top is Major League Soccer with teams that include the L.A. Galaxy. In the middle is the North American Soccer League with teams such as the New York Cosmos. At the bottom is the United Soccer League with teams such as Sacramento Republic.

What would it take for a team like the Fuego to make the leap from the PDL to the USL?

Number one would be a financial commitment from ownership. Players in the USL get paid an average of $2,500 per month over a seven-month regular season from March through September that is nearly three times as long as the PDL’s. (Star players can command $6,000 to $7,000.)

Number two, more than likely, would be a venue better suited for soccer.

No one wants to see Fresno join the ranks of cities with pro soccer franchises more than Fuego General Manager Jeremy Schultz, who calls the USL his “personal long-term goal.”

However, only recently did that goal start to make financial sense.

“The USL has asked us for the last eight years if we want to move up to the next level, but it hasn’t been in our best interest given the economic challenges of 2008 through 2012,” Schultz said.

“It wasn’t time for us to make that move. But over the last couple years the Fuego has been profitable, which is a great accomplishment.”

According to Kenn.com, a blog that tracks attendance figures for lower-level pro and amateur soccer teams, the Fuego lead the PDL at 3,094 fans per game. Which is 803 more than it averaged a year ago.

That’s significant because this is the first year since 2010 that fans actually had to purchase tickets instead of being able to print them for free off a sponsor’s Web site.

Another sign of the Fuego’s rising popularity: the recent formation of a booster club, Fire Squad Fresno, with membership at 150 and growing.

“You look at some of the cities where soccer is flourishing, and I really believe Fresno has the fabric of a soccer town,” Schultz said.

“It’s ingrained in us. We kind of grow up with a little chip on our shoulder how we’re viewed in this state, and I think that mentality is perfectly suited for soccer.”

So what’s the holdup? For one, uncertainty over the team’s future ownership structure.

The Fuego is owned by Fresno Soccer Club LLC, a group that includes Managing General Partner Chris Cummings; his brother Bill Cummings; Jaime Marquez Sr. and Jaime Marquez Jr. of El Mexicano brand foods; and local businessmen Tony and Francisco Alvarez. Schultz also was recently given a small ownership stake, a reward for eight years of service.

But the largest chunk of Fresno Soccer Club LLC (40%, according to Chris Cummings) belongs to Fresno Baseball Club LLC, the ownership group of the Grizzlies baseball team that is currently for sale.

40%Percentage of Fresno Fuego owned by Fresno Baseball Club LLC

This is where things get a little complicated, since Cummings is also managing general partner of the Grizzlies and owns a sizable piece (but not the largest) of Fresno Baseball Club LLC.

According to Cummings, whoever ends up purchasing the Grizzlies also will get the option of buying the 40% interest in the Fuego. If they decline, the other partners, including himself and his brother, have agreed to absorb those shares.

“We don’t know what a potential buyer of the (Grizzlies) is going to want to do with the soccer interest,” Cummings said.

The other hitch is Chukchansi Park itself. The field typically used by the Fuego measures 106 yards by 68 yards, which falls short of soccer’s minimum standard.

The USL would require a field of at least 110 by 70 (and preferably 120 by 80), and to do that at The Chuk entails removing the pitcher’s mound and sodding the entire infield — at a cost of about $15,000.

While promoters of Friday night’s Liga MX exhibition can afford to make those modifications (and are), that arithmetic doesn’t pencil out for the Fuego.

But even bringing the field up to size standards doesn’t solve everything. Most of all, it doesn’t bring the seats any closer to the action.

“Chukchansi Park is a beautiful venue, but it’s a baseball diamond,” Schultz said. “At some point we have to look at being in a soccer-specific venue to truly maximize the potential soccer has.

“Our fans want to be close to the field. This setup is nice, but it’s challenging for the soccer purists.”

Soccer is gaining in popularity. The kids who grew up playing soccer their whole lives now are now parents of kids who are playing soccer their whole lives.

Chris Cummings, Fuego managing general partner

Schultz envisions a 5,000-seat facility that would give the team room to grow its current fan base but also create demand for tickets.

Cummings says a public-private partnership between the Fuego and a municipality or school district where both share the construction costs “would be the way to go.”

“If we had a facility that was truly designed for soccer, I think we could draw a lot more people,” Cummings added.

I completely agree. Pro soccer in Fresno, or another city wise enough to invest in this rapidly growing sport, is an idea that’s nowhere near offside.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee

Finishing touch

PDL FINALE: FRESNO FUEGO VS. FC TUCSON

  • Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Chukchansi Park
  • Records: Fuego 6-4-3, FC Tucson 6-2-4
  • The skinny: Fuego close out Premier Development League campaign against FC Tucson. Team will honor coach Scott Alcorn in his final game for Fuego after he announced in closing weeks that he would step down at season’s end.
  • Tickets: $5 children $7 adults; free for youth clubs and participants ages 4-18, with tickets available at box office as part of Fan Appreciation Night
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