The end of the MLS regular season brings with it that melancholy time for reflection among club supporters, team front offices, and backroom staffs. However, the end of the 2017 MLS season has been a particularly newsworthy one. A few big stories have shaped the domestic soccer narrative in recent weeks. The USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup and the ensuing fallout is arguably the biggest story on the men’s side of American soccer in decades. The seemingly inevitable relocation of Columbus Crew SC to Austin, Texas has created a new level of angst and backlash toward a league already battling trust issues among its most important constituents. Mix in an antitrust lawsuit between the NASL and the USSF, and you have a fun off-season ahead. Nevertheless, there were other storylines that shaped the 2017 MLS regular season.
Sam Stejskal, writing for MLS, provided his opinion on the ten most important stories of the year for the league in his article titled “Best of MLS: The top 10 stories of 2017.” In general, the article makes sense and covers some great ground. The ten storylines discussed are certainly big ones in the context of soccer in the U.S. and Canada, and all of the stories surely have some degree of impact on MLS. However, one story that did not make this top 10 list is Minnesota United FC. To me, this is a fairly significant oversight given three of the stories had little to do with MLS in 2017. The USMNT failed to qualify, but that isn’t really an MLS story. The “Battle for LA” is most certainly a 2018 story waiting to happen, but LAFC is only a brand right now, not much else. The “heating up” of MLS expansion certainly matters, but again, there isn’t really a 2017 component to any of that. Future league expansion feels like a story for another day. Particularly when you consider many of these potential markets will never play in MLS. Certainly, all three of these stories are interesting and important, but including them at the expense of an actual expansion team that just played its first ever MLS season, seems problematic for the league website.
So, I decided to put together my own top ten list of things MNUFC brought to MLS all by itself. I’ve mostly avoided major on-field moments in an effort to represent what the club has meant to the league overall, and the FiftyFiveOne podcast already nailed all of that. Click here and have a listen. In no particular order, here are 10 big things MNUFC brought to MLS in 2017.
In an era where TV broadcast rights fees are king, the Loons brought the 15th largest media market in the country to the league. In addition to what that means to the league’s television contracts with ESPN, FOX, and Univision, United brought in another local TV partner in My29/Fox 9 and a local radio partner in ESPN 1500. MLS is prioritizing media coverage, and the Loons grew that footprint.
Love it or hate it, the bullseye on the front of the MNUFC shirt is a big deal. Not only did Target agree to sponsor the Loons, the retail giant has entered into a league-wide sponsorship deal that has been highly visible and undoubtedly lucrative. Additionally, MNUFC secured a naming rights deal for its St. Paul stadium by partnering with another global brand that has used soccer as a marketing platform. Allianz Field may not officially open until 2019, but the sponsorship deal was a big agreement that was made in 2017.
Similarly, MNUFC has broken ground on its new stadium. This isn’t a “maybe someday we might get a team and then maybe we could build a stadium” story. This is a “check out how much that pile of dirt looks like a stadium” story. Building a new soccer stadium anywhere in the U.S. is a big deal. Building a soccer stadium for an MLS team in a temporary home is something not all current clubs can say they’ve done.
MLS has latched on to the growth of supporters cultures around its teams. The number of times the league features crowd imagery from Seattle, Portland, Orlando, and yes, Atlanta, in its marketing is off the charts. The league’s attempts to pursue these types of narratives is a key piece of its growth strategy. The unique nature and strength of community among the continually growing number of supporters groups for MNUFC is an incredible story, and a huge addition to the league that should not go unrecognized
MLS put a team in Minnesota. Then, it snowed to perfection in the club’s first home match. Again, the imagery for marketing a new team in the North was outstanding. To borrow a word often used by team owner Dr. Bill McGuire, it was serendipity.
MNUFC proved you don’t have to spend big on foreign talent to bring in talented, new players to the league. Christian Ramirez, Ibson, and Brent Kallman were three of the team’s most important players in 2017. There are good players in lower division American soccer, and the Loons brought at least a few of them to MLS.
MNUFC proved you can spend a ton of money on foreign talent that is signed to form your backbone and be your captain for years to come and epically miss. I’ll stop there to avoid any unnecessary flashbacks.
The Loons added critical executive leadership to their business staff in the hiring of Senior VP of Sales & Strategy, Bryant Pfeiffer and the addition of the club’s first CEO, Chris Wright. Pfeiffer was the key architect in creating a revolutionary ticket sales training program for MLS and has been correspondingly referred to as the “godfather” of MLS ticket sales. Wright is an industry leader with championship level experience and major facility construction project know-how. Beyond that, as a former employee of his Timberwolves, I would argue he’s the type of leader that facilitates an organizational culture in which people can thrive even if team success is lacking.
Let’s be honest. Some MLS teams still need to rethink their brand imagery. The Loons are not one of those teams. The club’s ability to bring its final NASL logo to MLS was important for the club locally and provides a strong visual identity within the league. Just wait until the wing makes an appearance on the kit.
While some might shrug their shoulders at the idea of the Itasca Society, the team’s ability to sell a reported 11,842 season tickets is an important accomplishment. If the team is able to see modest, and reasonable growth, in 2018, I would predict Allianz Field to be sold out for every home match of 2019. Early success in a new stadium will be a catalyst for the long-term growth and sustainability of the club from an attendance standpoint. Is it 70,000 people in a NFL stadium? No. Do you want it to be?
So there it is. My opinion on the 10 biggest things MNUFC brought to MLS in 2017. Perhaps, those storylines are not as flashy as future expansion teams, but I think building the foundation for the sustained success of a current expansion team was a pretty big deal in the 2017 MLS season.
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