MASL'S NEW BLOOD
The Major Arena Soccer League has a plan in place, a five-year plan that will combine solidifying the league and expanding it as well.
Part of that plan is an influx of new ownership into the league for the 2018-19 season that will make its mark now and point it to the future.
That included an expansion team in Mississauga, Ontario, which has taken measured steps to build up its brand, a new team in Utica, N.Y., Utica City FC, formerly the Syracuse Silver Knights, new owners for the Kansas City Comets, a long-time arena soccer staple, and the Dallas Sidekicks, who took a leave of absence last season but have been revived thanks to new ownership and leadership.
MASL commissioner Joshua Schaub said those four franchises' goals and aspirations are the among first part of the plan for the 17-team league.
"Part of the five-year plan was re-calibrating the league of where we want to go," he said in a recent interview. "What we found was there was so much disparity among ownership groups from a financial perspective, facility perspective and so on and so forth."
So, the league created M2 -- an MASL second division -- for many teams, "just so we can right-size those markets," Schaub said.
"I think one of the values that leagues have, there's parity and we didn't have parity, holistically across the board," commissioner continued. "We struggle with that to a certain extent. Part of that five-year plan was also pushing up the standards for ownership groups and the financial capability of those ownership groups, because to really push this league to where we want to go, we need to start spending money on certain resources, including marketing, including players ... and nicer and better facilities across the board. I think the consistency of the brand as value and we had a lot of inconsistency two years ago. We are moving in the right direction."
The MASL is believed to be the lone professional sports league that encompasses three North American countries -- Mexico, Canada and the United States
"Someone mentioned this to me the other day, we may be the only professional league to have teams in Mexico, the United States and Canada right now in North America," Schaub said. "We couldn't think of another one. We think that's pretty unique in itself. Even politically, when you think what's going on in our country, we are the bastion of sport that still connects those three countries on a peaceful basis. I think that's pretty interesting."
Here's a look at those aforementioned teams who are expected to help Schaub and the league achieve that vision (in alphabetical order):
After a year's hiatus, the Sidekicks are back with new ownership, led by long-time sports executive Michael Hitchcock. Hitchcock, who operates the Fort Worth Vaqueros in the National Premier Soccer League, knows his way around the North Texas and pro soccer market. He has worked with Major League Soccer teams FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy.
"The Dallas Sidekicks are a very valuable, traditional brand for the MASL," Schaub said. "It's critical for us from a geographical standpoint to have them being a hub. That brand has value. It's recognizable. People across the country that are in soccer recognize the Dallas Sidekicks."
And in Texas as well.
"The sport of soccer is booming in the North Texas area," Hitchcock said. "From youth to adult soccer, outdoor to futsal to indoor soccer, it's pretty impressive to see the continued growth here. The Dallas Sidekicks are an iconic soccer brand with an incredible history that needs to return to its former glory. We want to play an integral part in the continued growth of the game in the Dallas-Fort Worth area while providing a quality, affordable entertainment option for our massive soccer community during the winter. And also providing opportunities for local players to play the game they love on a professional level."
The Sidekicks originally competed in the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1984-2004 before returning in 2012.
"We have a rich history, an established brand and a storied tradition," Hitchcock said. "We couple that with accessibility to players and staff, quality soccer, and an affordable ticket price in the beautiful Allen Event Center in one of America's best soccer markets. If we do our job and run the club the right way on and off the field, which we will, we have an incredible market that will make the Sidekicks one of the most successful professional indoor teams in the country, again.
"Our goal this season is to put a product on the field that the Sidekicks’ faithful can be proud of and who contends for the playoffs while re-launching the Sidekicks as a key member of the local professional-sports landscape. We plan to respect the great history and tradition of the club and it's passionate fanbase while providing a great experience for fans, sponsors, and players while also engaging a new fanbase for the Sidekicks."
And the Dallas franchise is vital for the league's future as the MASL has plans to add more teams in the Lone Star State and Southwest Division.
"You'll see this in upcoming years, we have more expansion coming in Texas," Schaub said. "So, from similar pieces of that group that have gone out, we're going to create, build up that division."
Dallas plays first three games on the road before hosting the El Paso Coyotes at the Allen Event Center on Dec. 15
Kansas City Comets
Another team with MISL ties, with hopes for another strong comeback. While the Comets did not go into hiatus, it stumbled from the heights of its past in 2017-18.
"That franchise needed a resuscitation," Schaub said. "The previous ownership group had kind of tarnished the brand a little bit. It needed a rejuvenation. It needed a group outside of soccer, which they got. So, they are very forward thinking what I would call non-traditional soccer people. People that think about tech and business. So, they thought outside of what everyone has done year after year in arena soccer. I think we needed that fresh mindset for the sport.”
Enter some of the youngest owners in the history of American professional sports teams.
That includes Victor Gutwein, 26, a venture capitalist, who is the team's primary owner (Game Theory Ventures LCC).
And that includes Colin Weaver, 26, the team's managing director.
Needless to say, Weaver and the Comets have several goals, including reaching the playoffs and try to bring more fans to the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena.
"On the business side of things, get more sellouts and ramping up the experience a little bit," he said. "It was good in the past, but we just want to take it to another level."
At the moment, Weaver wasn't in a position on how the atmosphere at home games will change, though he left some clues.
"I would say a Comets game ... it's going to look different than it has in the past," he said. It's going to sound different. And of course, my hope is its going to feel a little bit different, too."
And that includes the awarding of blue cards by the referees.
For the first blue card that happens at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, that just might look and feel a little bit different than it has in the past," Weaver said. "So, I'm excited to see what we can do there. ... Anything that helps, enriches the experience in terms of rivalries or stories that are taking place. It's all about the fans. It's all about the community, family."
Weaver got hooked on indoor soccer the first time he watched a game on YouTube -- the 2017-18 season opener between the Milwaukee Wave and Tacoma Stars.
"It was a really exciting game," he said. "I was having a good time watching it at home. Tacoma was down one goal at the end of the fourth quarter and scored a bicycle kick as time expired to send the game into overtime. ... It probably was the most exciting thing I have ever seen in sports. I was watching the game with a couple of buddies and we jumped out of our chairs. We were yelling and everything. It wasn't like we knew all the players on the field at that point or anything, but we got really into the game."
Now, Weaver has really gotten into the game.
The Comets will open their home season against the Wave at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena on Dec. 15.
The MetroStars, who call the western suburb of Toronto home, have taken it slowly, building up its brand, presence and visibility in the Ontario community. Team owner and CEO Sergio Giancola and president Peter Kovacs decided to join the league in 2016. But they wanted to make sure they had all their proverbial ducks lined up in a row before kicking the ball in the MASL.
"We made it clear to them, at the time that we were not interested in starting in 2017," said Kovacs, noting that the start of the 2017-18 season "was only 10 months away. We just didn't feel we had a enough time to get it together from a business structure. So we asked for a couple of years start. I'm glad we did. I actually applaud the league in terms of their standards."
By doing so, the MetroStars were able to test-market, well, the market, with international games as a team representing Canada played the likes of Brazil, Mexico and the United States. The team averaged 4,000 spectators a game and even beat Brazil, 10-9, in overtime. The star of the game? Someone who is quite well known in Canadian soccer history -- two-time MLS Cup MVP Dwayne DeRosario, who tallied four times, including the game-winner.
Playing the game at the 5,133-seat Paramount Fine Food Center gave the club an opportunity to preview their product to the fans -- several players from the Canadian side are on the MetroStars roster -- and get its act together in terms of running the show.
"As you can imagine, everything to do between operating an arena club from marketing to sales, promotion, game day operation, it really gave us a good preparation for our launch as opposed to just kicking off with a team," Kovacs said. "What it also did was that it helped us seed the sport here. So, people came out and watched it and got excited about the brand of soccer. Hopefully from that, we built a decent fan base."
Before they open their season at the Baltimore Blast on Dec. 1 and before welcoming the Florida Tropics to their home on Dec. 8, the MetroStars have a solid base that includes a youth league and a second division men's indoor-arena league called the Arena Premier League.
"How they rolled out their team I see as a blue print for teams going forward," Schaub said. "They're building a fan base and educating people about arena soccer before they launched."
Having DeRosario, the greatest Canadian international of his generation and perhaps ever, as a player-assistant coach is expected to help the team fill the net on the field and fill the Centre. The 40-year-old DeRosario, who last played with Toronto FC in 2014, came out of retirement to perform for the MetroStars.
"It gives us a lot of credibility," Schaub said. "Clearly, it's a star who has played in the outdoor game for a long time. It’s probably the premier name in Canada in terms of soccer, seeing our sport of something very relevant and creditable."
Added Kovacs: "He wants to give back to the sport a bit. He wants to be someone to help our Canadian youth. He loves the project. "He's an ambassador [with Toronto FC]. I don’t care wherever he also is employed. He wants to stay in the game."
And so do the MetroStars.
"It's not just a soccer business for us, it's a passion," Kovacs said.
It's passion that Schaub hopes will catch on in other Canadian cities so perhaps somebody the MASL will have a Canadian division.
"They have a well-capitalized ownership group, a very sophisticated ownership group, a very large staff in a great arena," he said. "Obviously, what it does, it opens up the sport north of the border...as we have talked about in Mexico."
Utica City FC
After seven years competing as the Syracuse Silver Knights, the team owners felt it was time to find a new home. The Silver Knights' momentum had flattened.
"It was a great run in Syracuse," Utica City FC general manager Tommy Tanner said. "We probably were unable to go forward. There were a lot of things going against us, with Syracuse University, Syracuse Crunch [American Hockey League], Syracuse Chiefs [minor-league baseball], the mall. There was a lot of things against you. The media are not able to cover you as much as we would want."
So, they looked east -- some 40 miles east to Utica along the New York State Thruway. It was a smaller market, but less competition as well. So former Rochester Rhinos owner Frank DuRoss, who was involved with the Utica Comets team in the AHL, put Tanner in touch with former NHL goaltender Robert Esche, who is Comets president.
"He wanted almost the same thing I did, bringing a professional sports team back to his hometown," Tanner said. "We hit it off on the first night, asked if he would like to be a partner and probably three weeks later we had a deal done."
"We're very excited. We know we have a great opportunity here in Utica. The whole of Central New York has been behind us, especially the city of Utica."
Instead of trying to book games around other events, Tanner was able to choose a destination day -- Sunday, as 11 of the team's 12 home matches will be played at that day.
"So, we're rolling the dice that Sundays are going to work here in Utica," he said. "I look at it as you never have to worry about what day the game is going to be on. It's Soccer Sunday. In Syracuse, how many times we got complaints it was just too hard to get here or Saturday night, we have other things going on. I think Sunday at 2 o'clock is really going to work."
Not surprisingly, Utica City's goal is to sellout the 3,800-seat Adirondack Bank Center in those 12 games.
"We have an $80 season ticket; 12 games for 80 bucks," Tanner said. "That's six-something a ticket, right? The great thing about it is we've partnered with the Comets and they run the arena. So on game day, people don't have the luxury they're playing in an arena they're partners with. We're partners with the arena, too, the concessionaires, there's a greater take, so a lot of good things trying to get 3,800 in the building every game."
The team has sold more than 1,100 season tickets.
"Our goal is to have 12 consecutive sellouts and then go to the playoffs," Tanner said. "I think we'll be very, very close to that."
And it's all about making the fan experience as memorable as possible. A happy customer can be a returning customer, the dream of every sports franchise. The arena has three bars and a wine bar, which has a 155-seat restaurant attached to it.
"Instead of going to the mall or going out to dinner to a restaurant, you go out to the arena and you get some food, and some beer and you watch a game," Tanner said. "I've been to enough hockey games now that couples just sit at the bar. They have the hockey game in front of them on the TV. They've got the football game on a different TV. It's just a night out. That's what we're looking to do on Sunday afternoons."
Schaub saw it as a perfect marriage between the hockey and soccer teams. He noted the Comets already had a staff in place.
"They already sell out hockey," he said. "I believe they may sell out every game of soccer. Now it’s only 3,800 people, but the atmosphere that it creates is phenomenal. Having that building packed every night and it’s a great ownership group, very sophisticated. AHL budgets are a lot larger than MASL budgets, so I have a feeling they can add on their MASL budget and really have a ton of success in Utica. Even though it's a small city, they're going to drive a lot of ticket revenue because they have shown they can fill up that arena. And from a strategic standpoint, we need them as well to connect Mississauga, Baltimore and Harrisburg."