By now, you’ve probably heard the bad news. If you haven’t, allow me to break it to you: Fresno FC, the Central Valley’s only professional soccer team, will probably not be playing in Fresno next season. They might simply take a hiatus, or they might move to another city outside of the Valley. This news broke on Fox Trot Podcast, and I encourage you all to download their latest episode to get the whole story. For all of us die-hard fans, especially those of us who were in the stands for the Zorro’s hard-earned victory against Phoenix last week, this probably comes as quite a shock. Many fans are probably looking for the “why,” so my aim with this post is to start a conversation about how we got here, as well as what our next move will be. Let’s start in the beginning.
In the beginning…
Fresno FC didn’t just appear out of nowhere, like many other USL teams in other cities did. It was the product of more than a decade of hard work and organic growth. The seeds of professional soccer in the Valley were planted nearly 17 years ago, when the idea of the Fresno Fuego was conceived in 2002 by a group of extremely passionate Central Valley soccer fans. The brand new team began play at San Joaquin Memorial in 2003 in front of a handful of fans. Over the following decade, the team’s fan base swelled. Soon, they had their very own supporters group, the Fire Squad, and thanks to the hard work of a number of other (also extremely) passionate fans, the Squad’s numbers began to quickly grow. The Fuego were soon drawing (by far) the largest crowd in the PDL, the (then) fourth league of American soccer, and in 2007, they began playing their matches in Chukchansi Park in Downtown Fresno.
Then, around 2016, an investor group led by the owner of a number of car dealerships (including one in Fresno) named Ray Beshoff took notice of the Fuego’s success and decided it was time for Fresno to have its own professional soccer team. In mid-2017, hundreds of soccer fans came to Chukchansi Park to watch Mr. Beshoff announce the new franchise, to put down deposits on season ticket packages, and to celebrate the evolution of soccer in the Valley. Fresno would join the likes of Phoenix, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and many other major cities as the proud hosts of a USL soccer franchise. Fresno FC was born.
In its first season, Fresno FC averaged a home attendance of just over 4,800 fans per match, good enough for 11th in the USL out of 33 teams. While this number fell short of the top teams in the league, it was still fairly average league-wide, even counting out all of the the “2” teams who (mostly) drew minuscule crowds (a few MLS teams have their own developmental teams, often referred to as “2” teams…these teams don’t really market to fans and often play their matches on practice fields). Everything seemed to be going fine.
The trouble starts…
The first hints of trouble within the Fresno FC organization came at the end of 2018, when the cuts began. After Mr. Beshoff and his investor group started the Fresno FC franchise, The Fresno Fuego were renamed the Fresno FC U-23s, and the Fresno Freeze, the women’s counterpart to the Fuego, were renamed the Fresno FC Ladies. Both of these teams continued to play in 2018 along side Fresno FC, but towards the end of that season, it was announced that both of those amateur teams would begin an indefinite hiatus in 2019. Additionally, there were some major shake-ups in the front office at the end of 2018, with a number of people leaving, some of whom had been with the Fuego organization for years (you can listen to the Fox Trot Podcast for more about this). While some fans were concerned with the cuts and moves, many of us continued to focus on the team.
The 2019 season began with much excitement, and on the field, the team was winning. However, attendance numbers began to decline, at least on paper. As I write this post, despite having one of the best records in the entire USL, the average home attendance crowd for Fresno FC in 2019 stands at just over 3,800 fans, a decline of nearly 1,000 fans per match from 2018. I use the term “attendance numbers” because it certainly doesn’t feel like there are fewer fans at matches. In an interview with the Fresno Bee in July, the team’s general manager, Frank Yallop, confirmed that paid attendance actually remained about the same in 2019 from 2018, with fewer free tickets being given out this year. From that interview, we can infer that the team is making about the same income from ticket sales in 2019 as it did in 2018.
Despite the decline not being quite as bad as it seemed, the fact remained that the number of tickets being sold every match in 2019 remained flat, and short of what the team needed to break even financially. At the same time, the team continued to have trouble finding a site for a new stadium, and continued to pay extremely high costs to use Chukchansi Park. So, they continued to cut where they could, including front office positions. By the time I publish this, Fresno FC will have the smallest front office staff in the USL.
How did we get here?
So, why is Fresno FC having so many problems? Ask fans (or just residents of Fresno), and you will get dozens of reasons. I definitely think we should explore some of those reasons. However, I also think we should start that exploration by talking about the people and the factors that we shouldn’t blame.
Don’t blame the team!
First and foremost, we shouldn’t blame the players for the team’s stadium and attendance issues. Of course, our Foxes are some of the most talented athletes in the USL…many of them are playing at an MLS level. If you haven’t seen them in person yet, you owe it to yourself to go before they aren’t here anymore. However, what’s really made the Fresno FC team special has been how much they have embraced their fans and the entire Central Valley. I’ve never seen so much positive interaction with fans, at any level in any pro sport, whether in the stadium, around town, or on social media. Again, I could go on for days about how much love each individual player has shown for the Valley and for the Fresno FC fanbase, but sufficient to say, they have been nothing short of amazing. For the players – and all the hard work and passion they have given us – we need to keep going to matches to support them.
Our supporters are awesome!
Secondly, we shouldn’t blame the fans or the supporters groups. I’ve been to quite a few soccer matches outside of Fresno, including a few other USL matches. While the crowd at most Fresno FC matches might not be quite as large as in some other cities, the passion, noise, and overall atmosphere in the stadium is just as strong as almost anywhere in the USL, and even approaches the levels found in some MLS stadiums. Fresno fans have also bought loads of team merchandise – the team store often sells out of new products almost immediately. And, many fans have gone much further than simple support, creating their own podcasts and blogs, throwing down big money to travel to away matches, and even getting tattoos about the team. Yes, there might not be enough people in the Valley who know that Fresno FC exists, but those that do have turned out to support the team in a big way.
We don’t want to point fingers, but…
So, who should we blame for the team’s lack of financial success, including the potential hiatus and/or move? First and foremost, if the team’s statements and communications are to be believed, we should probably start with the City of Fresno. While there are not a lot of publicly available details about the dealings between Fresno FC and the City of Fresno, there have been numerous reports about the city’s reluctance to provide help with finding a place to build a soccer-specific stadium. After the city, I think we should blame the ownership group themselves, as well as the United Soccer League. Let’s explore all three of these issues…
Why hasn’t the city hasn’t helped more?
As many of you know, the City of Fresno has had a bad taste in its mouth since getting stuck with the bill for numerous sports-related projects, including Chukchansi Park and Granite Park. Of course, no one expects the city to fully fund a soccer stadium the same way they (basically) fully funded “The Chuck” (although the estimated $10 million price tag for a soccer stadium would be a complete bargain compared to the $65 million price tag of Chukchansi Park in today’s dollars [$45 million in 2002]). And, the ownership group has made it very clear that they are willing to pay the entire $10 million construction costs for a stadium. However, most of the communications, statements, and sound bites from the team about possible stadium locations have either outright stated or strongly alluded to the fact that the city provided very little help with finding land to build that stadium. There have, apparently, been numerous possible locations, including the parking lot next to Selland Arena, land at Granite Park, and a few spots off of 99 near the Island Waterpark. None of these have ended up working out. The lack of a soccer specific stadium is hurting the team’s potential for long-term success in Fresno more than any other factor. While better attendance could have prolonged Fresno FC’s run in Chukchansi Park, the lack of a stadium would have still made that run temporary.
The city’s position is not especially surprising. Current city leadership has been very stingy with sports teams recently, making it extremely clear that they would only make deals with teams if they also benefited the city (or, at least, had zero financial liability for the city). Yes, Mayor Brand will appear in Fresno FC promotional videos all day, but he has made no secret of the fact that he doesn’t want to give up even a dollar of city funds to help any Fresno team with stadium or arena issues. The reluctance to help Fresno FC find a stadium site seems very shortsighted: Fresno FC has been a major contributor to the Downtown Fresno economy (and the overall economy of the Valley). Even with only 4,000ish fans per match, the bars, breweries, and restaurants around the stadium are often full before and after matches. The team contributes in other ways too, including hotel rooms from visiting teams and fans, and airline seats as the Foxes or their competitors travel to and from matches.
Again, no one is expecting the city to completely fund a stadium, just to help the team secure land and maybe kick in a little help for infrastructure. Seeing how they bent over backwards to meet Amazon’s demands, giving up millions in tax dollars, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars they give every year to help the new Grizzlies ownership group, it seems like they could have helped the Fresno FC organization just a bit more. The reluctance on the city’s part might have also contributed to the difficulty in finding a buyer for the team. Chris Brown said it best in the Fox Trot Podcast, “we need to vote, we need elect people who are going to keep these things alive.” At the very least, fans of Fresno FC should let their council member and the mayor know about their displeasure with the city’s lack of help finding a stadium site.
Why do we need a stadium, anyway?
As a side note, some might wonder why Fresno FC really needs its own stadium. There are a few reasons. First and foremost, the USL requires all its franchises to have their own soccer stadium, and only allows them to play in other team’s stadiums (like Chukchansi Park) temporarily. Secondly, the Chuck has turned out to be a TERRIBLE place to watch soccer. The sight lines are awful from many seats, and the new netting (which will be expanded next year) makes seeing the action on the pitch even more difficult. Thirdly, the Chuck is just too large for the current crowd…even with recent renovations to make it smaller (by adding amenities), its 10,000+ seats are too much for all but the best-attended USL matches. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Chuck is a very expensive place to play soccer: the field must be converted from baseball to soccer at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, and the team’s rent and their contacts for things like concession sales are not the best. The team can’t sell naming rights or control advertising. In short, the Chuck is not an ideal place for soccer fans to watch a match, and it is an extremely expensive place for the team to play.
Did they know what they were getting themselves into?
After the City of Fresno, I think we should consider blaming the team’s ownership group and their upper-level management for the potential hiatus or move. I say this for two major reasons. The first is that Fresno FC’s current attendance problem is not unique among USL teams. Several other teams, including Reno, RGV, and Tulsa have had similar declines in attendance this year, and all are averaging about the same (or lower) attendance as Fresno FC. Tulsa recently went through a similar predicament to Fresno, but with a new ownership group stepping in and buying the team. Tulsa’s attendance has been abysmal this year compared to Fresno, averaging only around 2,000 fans per match, yet the team keeps playing – in a baseball stadium. Teams from Pittsburgh, Orange County, Austin, Charleston, and Charlotte all have lower attendance than Fresno too (some significantly lower), yet Fresno is apparently the only team that is considering shutting down or moving. UPDATE: Many also blame the ownership group’s misguided assumption that they would make money in the Chuck after just two years, when even the expectation of making money in a soccer specific stadium after two years of play would be optimistic, at best. While the stadium issue is obviously a major factor, the attendance numbers alone do not appear to warrant an extreme measure like a move or shutdown. In short: based on the numbers available from other USL clubs, it appears that Fresno’s attendance problem does not warrant a shutdown by itself, and it feels like the ownership group is giving up way too quickly.
Secondly, it’s become clear that the team hasn’t done enough to market itself in the Valley – and to market itself in the *right way*. Despite playing in Fresno for almost two years, a large portion of the city still has no idea that the team even exists. UPDATE: According to Jordan Wiebe, who was instrumental in forming the Fire Squad and went on to work for Fresno FC, in their first year, the team spent about 50% of what the average USL team spends in marketing…despite the USL recommending spending around 150% of the average to get the team off the ground. That number was presumably cut even further in year two, meaning that the team was barely getting its name out. To confirm that, I went to River Park and polled 28 groups of people, asking each group the same question: “Did you know that Fresno has a professional soccer team?” Of those 28 individuals or groups of people (I only counted each group as one, no matter how many people were in it), only 6 answered “yes” and knew that the team was Fresno FC (one additional person answered “yes, the Fresno Fuego”). Of the remaining groups, most seemed surprised when I told them about Fresno FC, where they played, and how well they were doing. A few people initially thought I was talking about Fresno State, which doesn’t even have a men’s soccer team anymore. Even if you count the person who mentioned the Fuego, just 25% of respondents to my survey actually knew about Fresno FC. While the poll was in no way scientific, and could have been larger (if I had more time), the results still point to the team not effectively marketing themselves to the entire metro area.
(As a side note, we should definitely NOT be blaming the person or people who are responsible for the amazing merchandise and phenomenal videos that the team has been putting out – they are some of the best in the league).
I’m not sure whether the team’s ownership didn’t know what they were getting themselves into in Fresno, whether they thought they could just “buy” the Fuego’s past successes and then ride that trajectory to the bank, or whether they simply tired of Fresno and just gave up on making soccer successful in the Valley. However, it’s fairly clear that they bear at least some of the responsibility for the continued flat ticket sales and for the lack of awareness of the team among Valley residents … so they definitely deserve some of the blame for their own financial problems. I think that Ed Stewart illustrated this point best in the Fox Trot Podcast: “There could be an ownership group built with local connections – with local understanding of the market – that wouldn’t just think that by planting a team here, that people would magically show up. That would spend the money to promote it properly, to reach out and make it very much a team that connects with all parts of the valley.”
UPDATE: What is the USL doing to stop this mess…or are they doing anything?
The USL will not be blameless should the team shut down or move. There was much fanfare on the part of the USL when the team was announced, and the league made a huge show of their commitment to the Fresno market. Now, it appears they are just going to let the team ownership start a hiatus and/or move the team elsewhere. According to sources that have reached out to me since this article was first written and spoke on the condition of anonymity, the USL has even favored the plan to move – keeping the team under the current ownership’s control – over other plans that would have kept the team in Fresno under different ownership. More detail about this will surely come out in the following days and weeks, but the central question will be, “will Fresno join the likes of former NFL franchises in Oakland, St Louis, and San Diego in getting screwed by league management that was supposed to protect their interests, or will the City of Fresno and Fresno FC fans be able to pull out a miracle similar to the Colombus Crew of the MLS when their ownership proposed a (super shady) move to Austin?” Again, this is a place where the City of Fresno can pull its weight…but will it?
So, where do we go from here?
There might be a light at the end of the tunnel. First of all, this battle isn’t over. There is still a chance that Fresno FC could survive…a buyer could still step in. Hopefully, Fresno’s leadership will read this and at least contemplate doing something to help save the team – but I wouldn’t hold my breath. If the team does move or fold, it seems likely we will see another soccer team in Fresno within the next few years. That team would probably not be a USL “Championship” league (USL C for short) team like Fresno FC currently is. There are a total of three leagues in the USL, including a professional league right below USL C named “USL 1”. Fresno’s attendance would be the second highest of all the current USL 1 teams this year, and far above the average…but most of the teams are in the Midwest, so travel costs would be high. Then there’s “USL 2”, which is basically the same league that the Fuego were in. This move would feel like a huge step backwards, but would also make the most sense right now. UPDATE: Any replacement team could not be called either Fresno FC or the Fresno Fuego, at least not until someone purchases the rights to those teams back from the current ownership group. Until then, we might see “Fresno FC” playing their home games 2 hours to the west of Fresno. The hope would be that a move back to USL 2 would allow the city to get its act together with finding a stadium site – even the USL 2 team wouldn’t want to play in “The Chuck” forever, they would still need their own stadium.
What can you do?
Well, if you just so happen to have a spare $50 million laying around, please buy the team and keep it in Fresno. Otherwise, and I say this with all seriousness, write your councilperson, and write the mayor. Tell them about your displeasure with their lack of help on the stadium issue. Tell them about what you have lost personally, but also tell them about what Downtown Fresno has lost. And, be sure to tell them that you vote, and will remember this when the next election comes around. Also, please continue to support the team. I know many people might want to boycott Fresno FC out of anger, but that will only hurt us in the long run. And, it will only hurt our players, who have given their hearts to the city and to their fans. If we turn out in big numbers in these final weeks, despite the bad news, maybe it will help convince someone else to take a chance on us. Let’s not forget, we are still going to the playoffs…