We end 2017 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Soccer Stadium Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #10: Phoenix Rising FC goes from a sport-scene afterthought to a hot ticket with a credible pitch for MLS status in the future.
A year ago, professional soccer in Phoenix was an afterthought, with matches played before small crowds at a suburban spring-training ballpark. In a market represented by all four major sports, a lively spring-training scene and a popular university athletics program, it was hard for Arizona United to garner much attention.
But after a sale of the United Soccer League (USL) team in September 2016 to a deep-pocketed ownership group led by Berke Bakay, pro soccer generated some headlines in the Valley of the Sun. Add to that a November rebranding and an innovative pop-up stadium design in partnership with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SRPMIC) and the Solanna Group. Former Chelsea and Montreal Impact striker Didier Drogba came in as a player/owner, providing even more credibility to the effort in MLS circles. Throw in a credible MLS expansion pitch, with a new permanent stadium backed by Goldman Sachs financing, and the groundwork was laid for a successful Phoenix Rising run. These all were bold moves, and bold moves are frequently rewarded with success.
Indeed, the market did respond, with the first-ever Phoenix Rising FC game a sellout and the team ending up attracting almost 100,00 fans over the course of the season (6,127 fans per match), good for sixth in USL attendance. Most importantly, the team came close to reaching capacity: the pop-up stadium seats 6,200, along with suite space and other group space that theoretically pushes total capacity to 7,000 or so.
And Phoenix Rising FC owners have worked to expand the team’s presence in the region, televising home matches locally via a partnership with local cable provider Cox and purchasing Premier Development League club FC Tucson.
Whether or not Phoenix Rising FC makes the next round of MLS expansion, to be decided in 2018, remains to be seen: the four finalists under consideration for the two expansion slots later this month are strong, and Phoenix is a very crowded marketplace. But the success experienced by Phoenix Rising FC certainly shows there’s a solid core of pro soccer fans to tap. While MLS may be an achievable goal, staying in USL wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world: given the potential of the market and given the success enjoyed by FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic under the USL economic model, some sort of climate-controlled stadium is in the team’s future. Phoenix Rising is indeed rising.
RELATED STORIES: Phoenix Rising FC Still Zeroing In on MLS; Phoenix Rising FC Announces Acquisition of FC Tucson; Phoenix Rising FC Makes its MLS Expansion Case to Mark Abbott; Phoenix Rising FC Retains Goldman Sachs for MLS Stadium Effort; Drogba Signs With Phoenix Rising FC as Player/Owner; Phoenix Rising FC Stadium Plan: Climate Controlled, Private Financing; Phoenix Rising FC Jumps Into MLS Expansion Mix