Fresno FC shuts down. Who is to blame?

Sad news came Tuesday that Fresno’s professional soccer team, Fresno Football Club (FC), would be shutting down or relocating. Late Wednesday, the team owner confirmed he was moving the team to Monterey. The first part didn’t come as an immediate surprise: rumors have been swirling for weeks, which sent the team into a losing streak. The team was just two years old.

Fresno FC played in the “USL Championship,” which is one level down from Major League Soccer. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of AAA baseball, like the Grizzlies. Fresno played in the western conference, along with teams like the Las Vegas Lights, Phoenix Rising, Reno 1868, and Sacramento Republic.

Fresno FC took over from the Fresno Fuego, which played in the Premiere Development League (PDL). That was a semi-pro team, made up of college kids on summer break, and older players with full-time jobs elsewhere.

Who is to blame for the team shutting down?

That’s not an easy question to answer, as the reasons the team failed are all interlinked. Blame can be shared between the ownership group, USL, and the city. Basically everyone except the fans, the 4,000 or so folks who transitioned from supporting the Fuego for free (yes tickets were free), to paying $20+ per game to watch Fresno FC play.

As you can see from their letter, the team’s owner essentially blames their lack of dedicated stadium, which in turn they blame on local government.

Why is a stadium needed?

  • USL requires teams to play in a soccer stadium after 3 seasons, potentially with an extension if a stadium site is secured
  • The team must pay money to convert Chukchansi Park from a baseball to soccer configuration every game ($$$)
  • The team does not get revenue from concessions or parking

The result is that the team is bleeding money now, with no progress towards a stadium or a financially secure future.

The letter says that “time after time, our efforts to secure a soccer specific home within the confines of Fresno have run into a brick wall . . . there is little more that we could have done as an organization.”

I’m going to have to stop them right there.

Now to be clear, this isn’t the city putting up a zoning barrier or red tape. This isn’t even a NIMBY issue, because a stadium site was never publicly proposed. No one at the city is saying “we hate soccer stadiums.” They’re saying, behind closed doors, “we’re not about to hand over a few million to build one.”

Come on. Did the owner really think he’d get a tax-payer supported stadium in 2-3 years? Saying “time after time” implies this has been an odyssey.

Please.

You want time after time? Check out this hilariously long Wikipedia article dedicated to NYCFC trying to get their own stadium.

On April 21, 2014, the club confirmed that they would play their first season home games at Yankee Stadium, and that plans for a future stadium were in progress.

They haven’t even identified a spot yet, never mind started digging. They’ve been playing at the horrendous-for-soccer Yankee Stadium since 2015.

You think that’s bad?

On June 14, 2006, MLS announced that the Revolution were hoping to build a new soccer-specific stadium. Bids have gone out to local towns around New England to see where the Revs could have a stadium built.
On August 2, 2007, The Boston Herald reported that the city of Somerville and Revolution officials have held “preliminary discussions” about building a 50,000 to 55,000 seat stadium on a 100-acre (0.40 km2) site off of Innerbelt Road near Interstate 93. The stadium could cost anywhere between $50 and $200 million based on other similar soccer-specific stadiums built by Major League Soccer teams. After a two-year hiatus, the Revolution renewed their plans to build a stadium in Somerville since the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority finalized its Green Line maintenance facility plans. In a July 2010 interview, Kraft said that over $1 million had been invested in finding a suitable site, preferably in the urban core

Wikipedia

The New England Revolution still do not have a stadium. And of course, both NYCFC and the NE Revs have extraordinary wealthy ownership groups and are in the richest metros in the country.

A new England Revolution game I attended in June 2008. Note the yellow jerseys? Everyone in the stadium was there to watch Brazil play a friendly after the MLS game. Gillette stadium is located in the middle of nowhere, and didn’t have transit service until earlier this month.

And this dude thought he’d get a stadium in FRESNO in two years?

Talk about not reading the room. Fresno, the city with a city council that has kept the Tea Party movement alive long after it was buried in the rest of the country. Fresno, where building a trail along the river is a decade-long ordeal. Here’s an article I wrote about THAT project in **2013**. Fresno, where the Manchester Center Transit Station has been under construction for damn near 3-years because, well, no one knows why. Fresno, where the mayor encouraged the people to vote against funding parks.

And even if we disregard all this, and assume that things in Fresno get done quickly and efficiently, why should the city use public funds to support a stadium?

Study after study has shown that stadiums don’t really help cities. You don’t even need case studies from around the world as proof.

Chukchansi is a lovely venue, but it hasn’t been a financial success by any metric, not for the city, and not for the team.

Both Perea and Bredefeld have been forced to defend their votes for a stadium that gave downtown a destination attraction but also put the city on the hook for about $900,000 annually.

Take this tidbit, for instance: Stadium events outside of the Grizzlies initially were projected to generate $425,000 annually. In 2015, the amount was less than $10,000.



When Fresno’s downtown stadium was being planned and a deal struck between the Grizzlies and the city, the promise of plentiful revenues and economic development drove hopes that the $3.4 million-per-year payments on the 30-year bond debt would be easily covered with little impact on the city’s general fund.

The reality of the past decade and a half, however, has not fulfilled that promise.

As it is, Brand said, the team remains in a precarious financial situation, losing on average around $1 million annually, according to the audits – even with the reduced rent. Brand also said that when the Chukchansi naming rights deal expires, it is doubtful that $1 million annual payment will be duplicated in any new deal.

Fresno Bee

By the way, in this article from 2016, note this quote by the now-mayor, who was then just a councilor:

Brand said if he was on the council when the deal was being negotiated, he would have required the team to show its financial statements and would have hired an industry expert to do things like verify attendance and parking projections and do a rent survey.

Does this sound like a dude ready to build a new stadium for a team with middling attendance? (19th of 36 teams).

What about positive externalities then, such as the promised redevelopment? Unfortunately, the stadium has done diddly squat to revitalize downtown. The original south stadium project it was supposed to inspire never happened. The 2017 remix of that plan didn’t happen either. At best, you can credit the park with inspiring a “brewery district.” While certainly cool and fun, the economic impact of the seven or so breweries that have sprung up around the park is minimal. They all have limited hours, and tiny staffs. Half of them are essentially hobbies. I’d wager a single In-and-Out brings in more tax revenue than the bunch of them.

The land use in the background speaks for itself.

If that’s not enough, one can look at Bulldog stadium. The neighborhood around it is blighted, and the only business somewhat associated with the stadium that anyone cares about is Dog House Grill.

One last gasp argument for a stadium is that the having a team inspires civic pride and is a cultural asset.

To that, I say eh.

Let’s be honest, Fresno FC played in the USL, which is a minor league. No one in this country gives a damn about minor league teams.

But I love the Grizzlies! You might say.

Sure, they’re a fun night out, but has anyone in the history of the team ever really followed them outside Fresno? That is, if you’re on a business trip in Phoenix, do you go to a bar and say “hey, can you put the Grizzlies game on”? If you travel to NYC, and someone asks you if you like the Yankees, do you say “nah man, Grizzlies for life.”

Of course not. That’s ridiculous. And at least the Grizzlies have a claim-to-fame where they’ve fed into a series of World Series winning* teams over the last decade. Fresno FC has nothing. *Pending tonight

This is also true in hockey (anyone remember the various failed Fresno hockey teams?) and basketball – anyone ever attended a Bakersfield Jam game? I know you didn’t, because they had the most hilariously small professional sports venue in the country.

Jam Events Center in Bakersfield.

Now take that nationwide lack of caring about lower division sports and apply it to soccer, where the MLS is less popular than the NBA or MLB. That’s a steep mountain to climb. Globally, people care about 2nd divisions because of promotion and relegation. In the US, winning the 2nd division just means you’re about to lose your best players to an MLS team.

Which brings us to the USL in general. If you haven’t followed USL soccer (and who can blame you), you should know that the league has been badly managed for a decade.

To start, here’s some of their sloppy recent history, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The USL Championship (USLC), is a professional men’s soccer league in the United States and Canada that began its inaugural season in 2011.

Formerly known as United Soccer League (USL) and USL Pro, in January 2013, United Soccer Leagues and MLS reached an agreement to integrate the USL league competition with the MLS Reserve League.

The league is owned and operated by United Soccer League (originally “United Soccer Leagues”) and was formed as result of the merger of their USL First (USL-1) and Second Divisions (USL-2), following the controversial 2010 season which saw neither the USL-1 nor the North American Soccer League (NASL) receive Division II sanctioning from the USSF, resulting in the temporary USSF Division 2 Pro League.

Wikipedia

Crystal clear?

Now ignoring their constant and confusing name changes, the sad part is that many times, they resemble a pyramid scheme more than a legitimate sports organization. That’s because there number one priority is selling expansion franchises and collecting the initial revenue. They then sit back and do nothing to help the franchisees. Just check out their list of defunct teams.

Let’s be frank: Forcing lower division teams to have their own exclusive stadium in 3 years is insane.

DC United played in a baseball stadium from 1996 to 2017. I attended a game in 2009.

Why force it then? Their argument is most likely that having a soccer-specific stadium empowers the team to be profitable. This is because it eliminates the cost of re-configuring the field for every game, and provides the fans with a much better experience. Additionally, having their own stadium means the team gets game-day revenue from concessions and parking. However, this is only true if the team controls the stadium. If the team is a tenant at a soccer-specific stadium they don’t own – like at a college – that wouldn’t be the case. Unfortunately for taxpayers, a team sharing a stadium with another organization, like a university, makes a lot of sense.

There are others way to lower costs, which is how the Fresno Fuego survived for 14 years, but those ways involve “not being in the USL.” Lower travel costs (Fresno is a pricey airport to fly out of). Lower player salaries. Less field restrictions – like being able to play in the outfield and not touching the pitching mound.

A less premium sports experience? Yeah, but isn’t that better than nothing? The fans sure thought so – Fresno Fuego had higher attendance that Fresno FC many years (hey, free is a good draw).

Sadly, “nothing” is what Fresno ended up getting. Some guy came in, bought a long-standing local team, dropped stupid money on a USL franchise, and forgot to do the math. Two years later, Fresno fans lose soccer, downtown loses an evening draw, and the city loses stadium and parking revenue.

When I started writing this post, I was thinking that the blame was shared between the owner, the USL, and the city. But now I’m not leaning to this mostly being an ownership issue With the announcement that the team is going to Monterey (population 28,289), I’m thinking that Ray Beshoff shouldn’t be in the sports ownership world, and Fresno politicians not giving him a stadium was the right move.

 

Update: The Fresno Bee has written a good update that goes into detail on some of the problems, including financial numbers. It is worth reading. 

6 Replies to “Fresno FC shuts down. Who is to blame?”

    1. They were! You just had to print a “ticket” from the Univision Facebook page. I can’t find the Univision link, but heres ana rticle in the Bee:

      “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.”
      https://www.fresnobee.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/marek-warszawski/article26921644.html

      IE: Free from 2010 to 2015

    1. That doesn’t mean they aren’t asking for handouts.

      What about the property cost? Were they trying to buy public land for a dollar? Some of the locations mentioned were city owned land, like the Selland Arena parking lot.

      What about all the infrastructure costs like expanded roads and sewers?

      What if the project went over budget, would they ask for a bailout?

      Where would the funds come from, were they asking the city to back their loans (like all the infamous projects that went belly up in Fresno 15 years ago)?

      There’s a lot of empty land in Fresno. The city council is very pro-private development of any type. The only issue is when it comes to the handouts.

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