The Growing Pains of Phoenix FC
The Phoenix FC front office is learning. Sometimes it is a ‘two steps back-three steps forward’ type of learning, but still learning. To say the franchise is in its infancy would be entirely accurate considering it has existed for less than a year. The FO says they believe MLS in 5 years is possible (though I think they’re the only ones), but they definitely have a lot to prove and figure out in the meantime. As a member of La Furia Roja 1881, and having some first hand experience with the situation, I’m amazed at how little it has deterred the Phoenix soccer fans. The excitement for the team is still palpable, and the mistakes and missteps from the FO seem to be getting taken in stride as the club grows. The fans want this team to succeed. They want to see a good product on and off the field, and are willing to wait out these early formative years. The reward for the soccer community out here would be too great.
There is no reason as a business that PFC shouldn’t be able to carve out a niche of the sports market in Phoenix. To call it ‘thin’ and ‘fairweather’ might be doing it some favors. The Cardinals can’t be talked about without delving into how bad the team is. The Suns have become nearly irrelevant since losing some of their title contending players over the last 3-4 years, prompting fans to actually find unhappiness in wins due to the flawed reasoning and incentives of a draft (different conversation for a different time.) The Diamondbacks pop in and out of the conversation depending on how well the San Francisco Giants are doing. Arizona sports radio tends to be more about everyone else than its own teams. There’s no passion, no sense of ownership or personal stake in the teams. And then there’s the Coyotes, who I’m not sure anyone really knows if they’re staying or going. If however, the Coyotes do up and move to Seattle, Quebec City, Kansas City (no but seriously, they should go to Seattle) that leaves the market with a hole. We’ve seen in Seattle the wonders that having a recently departed sports franchise can do for a new(ish) team. Now I’m not naïve enough to think that Phoenix will draw what the Suns and Dbacks draw regularly (maybe the Coyotes) but there is certainly room in the landscape for a USL Pro soccer team whose stadium capacity is under 4000. The city is a good soccer city full of passionate fans. Bars for US games are typically packed, and the mostly unannounced and unadvertised spring training games the MLS teams do out here draw decent enough crowds under those circumstances. The large Hispanic population in Arizona is soccer crazy. Playing at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium should also help them captivate a younger, college level fan. But in this Phoenix market a team is only as good as its win column, and in that regard the team looks like it’s heading in the right direction.
The PFC front office certainly hasn’t been shy in signings. The first move was to bring in the former Aberdeen and Rangers player David Robertson to be the head coach. His coaching prestige as of now isn’t much to write home about, but to have someone of this pedigree and experience at the helm can only mean good things for the younger guys. The first signing in the team’s history was striker Darren Mackie, 31, Scottish, and another former Aberdeen player. They then added former Charlotte Eagles defender Devon Grousis. They’ve snagged goalkeeper Andrew Weber from the Seattle Sounders FC, former Portland Timbers U23s product Travis Bowen, Ghanaian Midfielder Anthony Odobai who has spent time with Ajax and Rotterdam in the Dutch Eredivisie, as well as three Brazilian players. There is a lot to like about this roster. This isn’t the roster of an expansion team willing to go through the motions and play out a few rough seasons. This is the roster of a team that wants to compete. Of all the business setbacks and silly decisions the front office has made in its dealings, the player personnel is not one of them. This is a team that should win games, and be dangerous in anyone’s building once they get the chemistry together.
That is all pretty exciting but I’ve promised setbacks, so I guess I’ve gotta address those. For starters the relationship between the FO and the Supporter’s group has been a little strained. PFC currently has the most expensive general admission tickets and supporters group season tickets in the league, even out costing a few MLS club sides. The supporter’s section was not given a real discount (as promised) in the same vein a lot of teams offer for their most loyal and vocal fans. The running joke for a while was a ‘tune in next week’ mantra as any real news from the PFC camp was slow at best. Announced press conferences would be predictably cancelled the day of. It took a long time to get the stadium deal done and announced, or for any ticket information to come out. When the team did start taking deposits on the season tickets, the full prices of the packages were unknown, and the deposits being non-refundable was something many people didn’t learn of until it was too late. Many of the fans have opted to just buy single tickets, as mathematically they’re isn’t much of a difference save for the benefit of not being out 20 bucks for a game you may not be able to attend. Merchandise just became available last week. Any attempts to point out these shortcomings and lapses in soccer business logic have for the most part fallen on deaf ears at the FO. It’s frustrating. It’s illogical. It’s not the proper way to create a positive and passionate connection with your fans. It’s just poor business.
Yet not one iota of excitement is gone. As the home opener looms over the horizon, the anticipation hasn’t died. In fact it’s only gotten bigger and better. In any other business, such mismanagement would’ve resulted in a loss of the customer. But it hasn’t. The supporter’s group refuses to let these setbacks get in the way of what is really important here; that we have a pro soccer team. We have a pro soccer team, and any negatives or growing pains can’t get in the way of that. And if anything the beef is with the front office, not the players and the team. The support must be unwavering. The team deserves it. There is faith from a fan’s perspective that the team will learn and grow. Perhaps they will see the errors of their ways through their bottom line. Perhaps they’ll see it with a lot of empty seats (hopefully not.) Perhaps it’ll come in a brief moment of insight and inspiration when they realize how to successfully reach the end goal of an MLS team in the city. I can’t be sure when or how the team will wise up. Or even if they will. But I can speak with an incredible level of confidence in saying it won’t come by a lack of supporter involvement. The fans will stick through all the unpleasantries; they already have. When the season opened in Fullerton last Saturday La Furia Roja was there and in full voice.
Maybe it’s blind faith to think that the euphoria of the new team won’t die, and that if the team is pulling the same silly business practices and making promises it has no intent to follow through on that the fans will still show up, chant, and cheer. But I think that’s part of the two-way relationship between club and supporter. They have faith we’ll show up. We have faith they’ll do their best and learn from their mistakes. No one wins if they don’t. They’d lose the business and we’d lose our team. In the meantime though, anything short of showing up in full voice and full support isn’t even an option.