By Greg Foster, FC Tucson co-managing member
Once in a while, an opportunity comes along that cannot and should not be ignored. An opportunity that hems together personal, business and community ambitions. An opportunity that only knocks once. Such was the case in December, 2010 when Sporting Kansas City Team Administrator, Rick Dressel, contacted Tucson soccer legend, Rick Schantz, and enquired about staging a preseason friendly between Sporting Kansas City and The New York Red Bulls in Tucson.
Coincidentally, local city council member, Paul Cunningham, had convened a series of meetings to study Tucson as a site for Major League Soccer (MLS). I had the privilege of attending these meetings along with Rick Schantz. Neither Rick nor I had any experience in producing or promoting a professional sporting event. However, Rick had a long history as a high level soccer player and coach and I was a lawyer and partner at Karp and Weiss (and passionate about soccer).
At the time that Sporting Kansas City came knocking, MLS was a fast growing American professional sports league. It was experiencing growth in the number of franchises, attendance and television revenue. However, it faced a challenge. The MLS season ends in November and goes dark until March. MLS wished to extend the season, but most MLS teams hail from the northern tier of the United States where it is just too cold to draw fans to the stadium in February.
Meanwhile, Tucson and Pima County had just been dumped by the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies in favor of shiny new Spring Training homes 100 miles north and west of Kino Sports Complex and Hi Corbett Field. And with them went very substantial tourism dollars and no small amount of civic pride.
Add to this the fact that MLS teams had a nomadic preseason routine; some traveling to far flung soccer pitches in Turkey, Argentina or Mexico. Still others were training in city parks and competing for space with youth clubs.
The fuse was lit when the Sporting Kansas City – Red Bulls game in Tucson sold out Hi Corbett on a shoestring marketing budget. Tucson was a warm weather community ready for professional soccer. Opportunitiy’s knock was loud and clear.
What would it take to convert this from a one game micro-phenomenon to an annual event that would have a meaningful economic impact and re-inflate Tucson’s Spring time self- confidence? Why, lawyers, of course! Stay with me here.
MLS teams regularly engaged in a grinding preseason ritual involving identification of cities with good Winter weather and acceptable fields, negotiation with hotels and ground transport providers and coordination with other clubs to schedule meaningful scrimmages. This process served neither MLS’ goal of extending the season, nor the league’s desire to create an “event atmosphere” for preseason.
Who could provide a better alternative?
Enter the lawyers. Karp and Weiss attorney, Marian Abram, helped me craft agreements between FC Tucson and individual teams that made Tucson a “turn-key” preseason solution for MLS clubs. Each team would pay one fee for a bundle of services including hotel rooms, food, ground transport, locker rooms and competition against other MLS clubs in what would come to be known as the Desert Diamond Cup. But where would these teams train?
Tucson seemed an unlikely option. There were no soccer pitches that would come close to meeting MLS team standards. After all of this knocking, would Tucson open the door?
I met with County officials and described team needs and MLS’ goals. To their great credit, Pima County Supervisors and administrators quickly understood the opportunity. Kino Sports Complex was under-utilized and could be re-purposed for soccer swiftly and at a reasonable cost. This time, Marian and I collaborated with Pima County in creating a Use Agreement that resulted in the conversion of several fields and the stadium at Kino Sports Complex to soccer.
The 2012 Desert Diamond Cup was born. In February, 2012, six MLS teams trained in Tucson. World class athletes David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez dazzled over 30,000 Tucsonans and tourists at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium. Tucson hotels and restaurants buzzed with players, coaches and fans.
2013 promises to be even bigger. MLS has designated Tucson the Official Western Hub of MLS preseason. Preseason will be expanded to include an additional five MLS games, in Tucson, prior to the Desert Diamond Cup. Eight MLS teams will train in Tucson. NBC Sports will produce a prime time national broadcast of the Desert Diamond Cup final.
And Marian and I will be busy drafting many more agreements.
Click below to listen the latest FC Tucson podcast with Greg Foster and Marian Abram.
(We apologize for the audio. THere were unforeseen technical difficulties. We promise subsequent podcast will sound better).