It’s safe to say Phoenix Rising FC is a pro soccer team on the rise; within 16 months the owners have rebranded, launched a pop-up stadium to great success and laid the groundwork for landing an MLS franchise. Here’s how they plan to reach the next level.
We sat down with Brett Johnson, Phoenix Rising FC Co-Chairman, and Mark Detmer, Phoenix Rising FC Co-Founder / Executive Board Member, to discuss the team’s MLS ambitions as well as the team’s overall philosophy in providing a memorable fan experience. Summers in the Valley of the Sun can be a challenge, to be sure, but Johnson and Detmer say they have a game plan that addresses fan comfort and should assuage any MLS concerns about outdoor play in the desert.
There are three factors in landing an MLS franchise: strength of the ownership group, strength of the market, and strength of the stadium plan. Detmer and Johnson say they have addressed all three, and point to the team’s stadium plan as being the kind of leading-edge solution MLS officials like to see in their stadiums. Earlier this month the team released renderings and a game plan for a new stadium after earlier announcing Populous and Gould Evans as the design team.
“I think Populous and Gould Evans have the chance to set the standard for other MLS stadiums,” Johnson says of the design team tackling the challenge of outdoor play in Phoenix.
“For eight or nine months of the year, the weather in Phoenix is gorgeous,” Detmer says. “The heat is an issue only for a few months, and that’s an issue we’ve tried to address with MLS.
“If you don’t focus on the fan experience, you won’t get the fans,” Detmer added. “With the right environment, people will come back.”
That environment includes several different ways to address any heat, including passive and active cooling systems. The basic design has the pitch below grade to allow the surrounding terrain and native landscaping to absorb heat while using the ground to provide passive cooling. A retractable shade curtain will cut down on the sunshine blasting the stadium seating during the day. In addition, the west stands are designed to be higher than the other stands to provide shade to the field and to fans. Wind and sun studies were performed to maximize breezes inside the stadium, and water walls will add more coolness to the zephyrs entering the stadium.
Technology will also play a role in cooling the stadium. Besides the use of modern misters, which unobtrusively add coolness and humidity to the air, the new stadium could include a below-seat cooling system combines with seats made of a porous material/mesh, allowing for maximum air flow. A large canopy will provide shade to most seats, especially with all games beginning at 7 p.m. A field-level cooling system could also ensure a more comfortable and safer pitch for the players.
“For us, we are soccer purists, so there no question the team will play on grass,” Detmer added, again providing a cooler environment for players—synthetic turf has a tendency to soak up the heat. He added that the team is measuring comfort in wet bulb temperatures: heat plus humidity. As the old saying: it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, and the lack of humidity is a plus as the team plans a new stadium.
“Fans will be comfortable, and players will be safe,” he says of the stadium design, which will also stress green features, like efficient water usage, solar power and the aforementioned wind for cooling.
Mitigating the heat is not just an issue for Phoenix Rising ownership, it’s an issue for all of MLS, Detmer says: with climate change and rising temperatures everywhere, MLS teams are all looking at heat mitigation in stadiums. For instance, people focus on Minnesota and the cold weather there, but there’s plenty of hot weather game action as well. A new stadium needs to be able to address both extremes.
The two were pretty comfortable in laying out what they want from a new Phoenix stadium, either at the current site on tribal land or elsewhere in the East Valley, and that comfort is borne of experience; remember, the team went from playing at a spring-training ballpark in Peoria in 2016 to their own pop-up stadium for the 2017 season—a pop-up stadium built in just 50 days.
“We learned a lot building a pop-up stadium,” Johnson says. “When you have your own facility and present a great game-day experience, you change how people view your product.”
Johnson attributes the pop-up stadium as being a big part of the team’s success on the business side. Phoenix Rising FC averaged 6,127 fans per game in 2017—good for sixth in USL attendance—and drew 6,828 in their home opener this past weekend. The team started the 2017 campaign with four sponsors, now they’re closer to 30. The target audience?
- Millennial parents, the ones whose kids play youth soccer. There are over 100,000 kids in youth soccer in Arizona.
- 100,000 millennials attending Arizona State University
- The local Hispanic markets. There are 4.5 million people in the greater Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale area, and 30 percent are Hispanic.
They seem ready to roll. In terms of MLS, they’ve told their story to league officials, focusing on the strength of market and the stadium design. The ownership group, which already included several celebrities and pro athletes like MLB pitcher Brandon McCarthy and international soccer legend Didier Drogba, now includes heavyweight investor Alex Zheng, whose Advantage Sports Union has experience running the French Premier Ligue 1 professional soccer team OGC Nice. That’s important: a new stadium will require $250 million or so in private financing, while the MLS expansion fee is expected to be $150 million. A deal with Goldman Sachs to serve as structuring agent helps as well.
And MLS expansion is very much a work in progress, as the league looks to complete the next two rounds of expansion. With bids from FC Cincinnati (stadium plan in flux) and Sacramento Republic (investor lineup in flux), the Phoenix Rising FC MLS bid might have all the right ingredients at the right time. As noted, Phoenix Rising is on the rise—and that may just attract the attention of the right MLS people.
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