Editor’s Note: This piece comes to us from Kyle Kepner, who has written for a variety of outlets, including Indomitable City Soccer and MLS Soccer.
Fandom is a tricky thing.
People can’t be bought, and they can’t be coerced into buying what you’re selling. Drawing them in takes time, effort, and reckless authenticity.
In the short but dynamic history of the partnership between the United Soccer League and Major League Soccer, every MLS club delving into the murky world of marketable reserve squads has been faced with the task of deciding how and where to spend precious resources. Where earning the patronage of a fanbase at least somewhat separate from that of the first team is important to the organization, a number of approaches have been tried in a near-constantly changing environment.
Observers across the country love to pass judgement on products hawked in public, and a new soccer team is particularly ripe for the picking. The MLS club looking to bolster its roster and train the young guns of tomorrow may have few ambitions beyond that, at least in the short term. But if it plans to be part of the USL at any level, it has to be prepared for every detail to be scrutinized.
From the moment the LA Galaxy launched - wait for it - LA Galaxy II, fans have put these teams and their front offices through something akin to the childhood nightmare of arriving to school and discovering your pants are missing. On the issue of branding alone, launching a new product is a dance with fear that you would reserve only for your worst enemy.
Throw in venue, ticket prices, distance from downtown, distance from the first team, ownership model (because only the higher power of your choice can intervene when people start comparing you to Triple-A Baseball), and the chances for missteps become so numerous and intimidating that it’s no wonder some MLS clubs have never even looked into it.
And we haven’t even dug into the cost.
Let’s tell it like it is. A new USL team is a startup. No matter who’s running it or funding it, the team is going to cost money, and decisions will have to be made about whether it needs to make money to justify its existence. What do you do if you need to make money? Someone, hopefully a lot of someones, needs to buy what you’re selling.
Success stories in this area, at least for wholly-owned MLS affiliates in the USL, have been few and far between. Sure, as the second division league has grown, so has its monetary value. There is at least a hope of some shared television revenue, and the league’s increased reach means that a modicum of national exposure comes baked into membership. Ultimately, though, you want that elusive accounting line item, BIS: butts in seats.
Which brings us back to the fans. You want them. And they’re out there. Waiting. Wanting, even, to be wooed.
What’s the recipe?
Setting aside the hybrid model - the Reno’s and RGV’s of the world - the MLS-owned teams have explored so, so many combinations.
There’s the above-mentioned Galaxy II, who train more or less alongside the first team and actually play their home matches next door to the StubHub Center in, well, a track and field stadium. Unless, of course, it’s expedient to play a doubleheader in the “big stadium” on a particular weekend. These matches stick out like a sore thumb on tv, when the streamers left over from the Galaxy match are more numerous than the Los Dos fans.
Swope Park Rangers have an attractive crest, reminiscent of the first team, but still unique. The name is quirky and harkens to a famous team in England. Even better, it mentions the club’s training home, and the place where home matches were played in the first two seasons. Attendance at Swope Soccer Village was modest, despite being many miles across Greater Kansas City from Children’s Mercy Park (where the Rangers eventually moved to).
Bethlehem Steel has attempted to capture the hearts of a city wholly removed from the home of parent club Philadelphia Union, with uneven results.
Vancouver Whitecaps 2 tried the cross-town model with an underwhelming brand (and no Twitter handle in season one!!!) and these days ceases to exist. Similar issues plagued the now-defunct FC Montreal (and you go straight to the head of the class if you can name their MLS club). Toronto FC II is still around, and perhaps wisely chose to join third-division USL League One for 2019. After a hiatus, Orlando City B is doing likewise.
A Real Turnaround
When the Real Monarchs launched in late 2014, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the team was angling for their own brand of marketing ignominy. The phrase “all press is good press” did not seem to apply when the crest and name were revealed. Again, putting your creation out in the world is not for the faint of heart.
Happily, the Real Salt Lake organization is not weak in the least, and the USL team’s stunning transformation, from nearly invisible cellar dweller to powerhouse in its own house, is one of the great stories of the past few years.
Results on the pitch are nice, and that will keep fans coming back, but after struggling to gain a foothold while playing in Rio Tinto Stadium, the Real Monarchs now play their quality brand of soccer in a beautiful purpose-built facility of their own.
Was it a risk for Dell Loy Hansen and RSL to build their academy, pro training facility, and USL Championship stadium in the far-flung Salt Lake suburb of Herriman? Yes and no. Dance with the one that brought you, as the song goes.
The massive property is a sight to behold. Approaching from the east on the Mountain View Corridor, you’ll think for half a minute that you’re heading away from civilization itself, until finally the scene unfolds before you: the acres of practice fields, the immense indoor facility, like the hangar for some fleet of sci-fi spacecraft, and an intimate-yet-impressive battle arena, with a pristine surface you’d gladly trade your bed for. One look, and it’s clear that this was an excellent decision; a soccer pilgrimage worth making again and again.
Community is a word that’s thrown around too often by some professional sporting organizations, but when you own a facility of this scale, sharing it with your neighbors is a natural inclination, and RSL does so with enthusiasm.
Even setting aside the world-class boarding amenities for the 70,000 square-foot Zions Bank Real Academy, the club now has plenty with which to entice soccer-loving visitors to this charming corner of the Valley. One of the inviting practice pitches is set aside for Herriman City public use - RSL is an Emerald Sponsor among the city’s Community Investors - and the colossal indoor space hosts everything from adult drop-in soccer to World Cup viewing parties.
The indoor space itself is spectacular. The largest free-span structure in North America is 70 feet tall at its peak, 400 feet wide, 525 feet long, and bears 56,800 square feet of solar panels. Much as the players probably love visiting Arizona during preseason, it’s not bad having a place like this in which to get some training away from the Utah winters.
This is all great, but for the fan of the pro game, the jewel of any endeavor is the ground itself. The pitch on which careers will rise and fall, hopes are raised or dashed, and patrons of the beautiful game come to celebrate their unifying goodness cannot be understated in its importance. That responsibility was not lost on the designers of Zions Bank Stadium, nor on the personnel assembled by RSL to place match day at the peak of the community’s unmissable experiences.
With Real Salt Lake as parent club, first team, or whatever you want to call it, designing a unique team, and just as importantly a unique fan experience, is difficult at a distance from the main stadium, and near impossible within it. The first couple seasons of Real Monarchs soccer bear testimony to that. But like the indefatigable pioneers of the Salt Lake Valley, RSL seemed undaunted in its task to ingratiate its second team, so vital to the growth of its player pipeline, with fans of its own.
Even as a long-time observer of Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League, it’s clear very early in the first match day at Zions Bank Stadium that the planned event is not an advertisement for RSL, for Rio Tinto Stadium, or for MLS. This match is for the fan.
The stadium is fan-friendly, perhaps to a fault. Concessions and amenities are easily accessible, and the pitch is so close to the stands that one feels almost uncomfortable walking along the edge of the surface toward the merchandise truck. Is security going to think I’m a pitch invader?
Don’t spend too much time perusing the food selection, though, because you might miss an exciting player introduction, video montage, and fans who know their soccer as well as they know their players. It’s truly a joy to slip behind the curtain of such a familial atmosphere, and happily, you may forget that this is a second-division match featuring an organization’s “second team.”
With so many opportunities for comparison and contrast within the USL, Real Monarchs, a “second team” within an MLS organization, fields a winner in front of engaged fans in a stadium of their own. It’s impressive, to say the least, and a boon to those who would follow their example. I highly recommend the experience.