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Soccer: The New Flavor of Tucson Sports

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  For more than 60 years, through the terms of 10 different presidents, Tucson has had some type of off season baseball played within its city limits. Big league teams came to Tucson during the colder months of spring and winter to prepare for the longest regular season of any popular professional American sport.

Major League Baseball had a strong foothold in Tucson. A big part can be credited to people like Jerry Colangelo. He's been highly involved in Arizona sports since the late '60s when he became the general manager of the expansion team at the time, the Phoenix Suns. He and Roy P. Drachman, who was inducted into the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, were an integral part of revitalizing the baseball scene in Tucson in 1998 when Tucson Electric Park (TEP), known as Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium since 2010, was built. At the time, TEP was on the cutting edge of sports facilities. On its opening night, a crowd of over 11,000 were in the stands watching an official MLB spring training Cactus League game. 

The Colorado Rockies, who played at Hi Corbett Field, The Chicago White Sox, and Arizona Diamondbacks, at one point or another, all used to play their spring training games in Tucson or had minor league farm team affiliates playing in Tucson for the purposes of scouting and developing young talent. But as the great Bob Dylan said, "The times, they are a changin.'"

In 2008, the White Sox team left for Glendale, and then in 2010 The Diamondbacks played their last game at the park formerly known as TEP. Before the 2011 spring training season could start, the Colorado Rockies left Hi Corbett Field to play in Phoenix. The last of the Major League Baseball teams packed up their bags and left The Old Pueblo in search of a more enticing bottom line. 

Within popular professional American sports, like football, basketball, baseball or even hockey, it is logical for the owner of a franchise or team to choose Phoenix over Tucson. Well, as long as their goal is to be successful, have a lot of fans and make money of course. If they plan to spend millions of dollars building a state-of-the-art sports facility, on advertising and setting up shop, The Old Pueblo is not exactly the ideal place to do it. And Phoenix, the metropolis, is only two hours north. It is a bigger, faster-paced, more modernized city. And with its bourgeois neighbor, Scottsdale, Phoenix has more people with expendable income that is spent on events like professional sporting events. These people are paying $70 to $100 per ticket, $25 for a hat, $50 for an official team jersey and an $8 a beer.

Compared to Phoenix, Tucson is like a cute girl at a party, who any guy would think is cute, if only she wasn't standing next to her taller, curvier, cuter friend, who has on the latest designer jeans and doesn't wear glasses. 

Tucson has no professional sports teams. For a developing city looking for all the economic growth it can get, a professional sports team could be just what the doctor ordered. Having a sports team in a city is more than a medium through which revenue, tourism and economic growth can be generated. Having a sports team gives people in a city something to unite around, stand behind and believe in together. Team sports can raise a cities' spirit during tough times and it can give people something to be proud of.

Tucson is only about 70 miles from the border. Taking a straight shot on the I-19, and making good time, one could be in Nogales from Tucson in about an hour, maybe less. Mexicans have been living and working in Tucson since it was officially founded in August of 1776. A rich Mexican cultural influence and a large population of Americans with first and second generation roots from Mexico gives Tucson the right demographics to produce an intense and dedicated following of a certain, and often overlooked, sports team.

There is one sport that could be a perfect fit for Tucson. There is one game that is, potentially, an untapped resource and an economic gold mine. Soccer has the potential to be more successful and popular than baseball was here. Because of geography and demographics, Tucson has a real chance to take advantage of an opportunity that a few guys running a semi-pro soccer team are jumping at. This city has a chance to eventually establish a professional Major League Soccer franchise, which is precisely what the front office heads at FC Tucson want to do.

Chris Keeney Chief Business Officer for FC TucsonChris Keeney is the Chief Business Officer and a co-managing partner of FC Tucson. He is not worried about soccer catching on here. "I'm not concerned because I think we have an amazing product," he said. "Anytime you have a great product, people will find it and people will want to buy it."

Keeney says they are doing things at a "highly professional level" between hosting MLS teams at the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup and how they will put on their own games in the Premier Developmental League (PDL). This year, the tournament will have four MLS teams competing and an additional two teams, Sporting Kansas City and the San Jose Earthquakes, coming to train, practice and scrimmage in Tucson.

Keeney is not bugged by baseball's lack of success in recent years either. He said: "I think that soccer is very much on the upswing and that baseball, candidly, is turning downward."

Keeney says that the only reason baseball hasn't worked in Tucson recently is because the teams have simply walked away for bigger and better deals elsewhere. "I think that's part of the personal pride that has been wounded in Tucson. It hurt the population in the sense of civic pride...that's something we hope to return," Keeney said.

The three main owners of FC Tucson are all originally from Tucson. Keeney, who is originally from Houston, is moving to Tucson this summer. Keeney ensures the team's connection to Tucson. "The name of our team is FC Tucson, so it's something that people will be able to claim as their's something people can rally around," he said.

Keeney thinks Tucson has fantastic demographics for soccer. Arizona is one of the youngest states in the U.S. and youth soccer here, according to Keeney, is highly successful.

FC Tucson is also interested in the Mexican-American population of Tucson. "We have an incredible Hispanic community here," Keeney said.

That is something that FC Tucson is highly interested in pursuing.  "We know that 'football,' soccer, is their first choice and we just need to continue to impress them so they start to think of us as the place where they want to catch live games," Keeney said. That's why Keeney and others in the front office took a five-hour road trip to Hermosillo, Sonora, where they held a promotional press conference for this year's Desert Diamond Cup Tournament. They are hoping people will make the trip to Tucson and stay for a few days to watch professional soccer games. 

Greg Foster co managing partner of FC Tucson"The reason we went to Hermosillo is because we think that the most important out-of-town fan base for the Desert Diamond Cup and FC Tucson is in Northern Mexico," Greg Foster said.

Foster is a co-managing partner of FC Tucson and directs the team's civic and media relationships. He says the team is extremely interested in people living in cities like Nogales and Hermosillo.

Foster said that they were pleased with the number of fans they had coming from Northern Mexico last March, during the first annual Desert Diamond Cup. "We really want to energize the people living in those communities and get them involved in our soccer culture here," Foster said.

He says that a major concern of the entire county is getting people to come from out of town to spend a few nights in Tucson, eat at the restaurants and stay for some "world class soccer."  One major crowd draw in particular is Rafael Marquez, who plays for both the New York Red Bulls and The Mexican Men's National Soccer Team. "There is no first division or second division professional soccer in Sonora, so this is really a good chance for people living in Tucson and Northern Mexico to get a chance to see top class soccer players," Foster said.

Last year, the tournament was held in Hi Corbett field. It had two less MLS teams competing and four less MLS in Tucson. It had semi-pro teams playing MLS reserve squads instead. Yet, they still had over 10,000 fans in attendance watching the marquee game, which was the New York Red Bulls' first team verses Sporting Kansas City's first team. "We actually had to close the gates to Hi Corbett because we were getting close to the capacity that the bathrooms could hold. There was a line of people wrapped around the stadium waiting to buy tickets," Foster said.

Foster estimates that about a quarter of the fans had come from the target region of Northern Mexico. The tournament was a success. 

So how can this small semi-pro soccer team pull this off? How can they afford the expenses of creating a professional preseason soccer tournament with prestige? Such a tournament would boast of a competitive and professional atmosphere in which players and coaches want to participate, compete and win. We're talking about sponsorship. And sponsorship is nothing new to the world of soccer. Especially internationally, every team in every league has a jersey plastered with the name of one company or another.

Desert Diamond Casinos and FC Tucson have formed a partnership, not officially forever, but for the purposes of this annual soccer tournament. That sponsorship is what is allowing FC Tucson to cover the expenses required. One of which, most likely the most expensive, was the process of the changing multiple baseball fields, at the Kino Sports Complex, including Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium, into pristine soccer fields. This was something that both FC Tucson and Major League Soccer's invited teams were a bit concerned about. Teams need to have quality fields in good condition for the location to be taken seriously. The process, which Keeney estimated at a hefty cost of $110,000, is made possible by their sponsorship and partnership with Desert Diamond Casino.

"We're using the Major League Soccer event to drive attention and revenue to help us build our own team, FC Tucson," Keeney said. Once all expenses of the tournament are covered, any profits will go back into the FC Tucson team. Desert Diamond Casinos are a partner in helping FC Tucson get to their vision, and in turn FC Tucson is another form of advertising, helping the casino reach some of its own marketing goals. However, as of now, they remain two separate entities.

Right now, FC Tucson  plays in the Premier Developmental League.  Known as the PDL, it is comparable to Double-A baseball, according to Keeney. FC Tucson wants a lasting soccer environment and they want to be playing soccer all the time. "Eventually, we'd like to turn FC Tucson into a professional team," Keeney said, "And we'll carry that as far as it will go."

That all depends on how large of a fan base they can generate for FC Tucson in the next three to five years. 

Part of their good planning was the timing of the tournament. The tournament runs from Feb. 22 until March 3. The MLS season kicks off on March 11. This is a pivotal time for every team in Major League Soccer. Teams' front offices, the general manager, and the owners and teams' coaching staffs have had a long off-season to make their moves, hire and fire people, acquire, sign and trade players. They are eager to see how their actions are going to materialize. They want to see what their young new talent can do and what their newly acquired players can do. This tournament is essentially an exhibition and a measure of where the teams involved are at in terms of how competitive they will be in the upcoming season.

This is the time when a team's final product, both on and off the field, and on the sidelines, should be in place. There should be a confident attitude behind it. Teams that are slacking will be behind the curve.  

Written by Jeff Kessler You are reading Soccer: The New Flavor of Tucson Sports articles

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