Fair weather fans? MLS officials think Minnesotans will warm to game

Soccer fans at Target Field
Soccer fans celebrated the announcement that Minnesota is getting a Major League Soccer franchise at a league press conference at Target Field.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Think Major League Soccer doesn't know what a challenge the weather is in Minnesota?

This is what Commissioner Don Garber, talking about adding new teams at a league roundtable in New York last December, said the week before the league's championship.

"We were talking about how the weather would affect some of the markets we were looking at," he said. "And it was minus zero in Minneapolis yesterday. Minus zero, in December."

Fast forward to Wednesday: The league chose former UnitedHealth Group CEO and minor league team owner Bill McGuire for a new top-level Major League Soccer franchise in Minneapolis, in part because of the promise of a 20,000-seat outdoor stadium. Garber was feeling a little more charitable about winter as he made the announcement.

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"The more time I spend here the more I realize that this is a hardy group of people," he said. "Our strong view is that our fans will come out and support this team, regardless of the weather, as they do the college football club and as they do the NFL."

Listen: Don Garber talks MLS expansion

There's a reason the soccer league may have that impression. Among its executives at the announcement in Minneapolis was Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott, who grew up in Oakdale.

Abbott helped found Major League Soccer in 1993, and still remembers the popularity of the Minnesota Kicks.

The team played for six seasons, then folded in 1981. At its peak, the team drew an average of more than 32,000 fans a game.

MLS executive Mark Abbott
MLS executive Mark Abbot grew up in Oakdale, Minn.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"I remembered the great crowds that we had here in Minnesota in the '70s," Abbott said. "And I thought, 'If we were able to do that in the '70s, imagine what we could do now.' ... And that really gave me a lot of confidence that soccer could be a major league sport here."

Garber, the league commissioner, said his league thinks there are factors more important than weather. Those are owners with deep pockets and a commitment to the game, and stadiums built for soccer: outdoors, with real grass, in an urban area and the right size, with room for a crowd of about 20,000.

"I don't think that there's any market that has a history of soccer, that has a strong ownership group, with a great stadium plan, that won't be successful today. So we don't have to do fan research to figure out whether or not people will support this club," he said.

Listen: Bill McGuire on MLS soccer coming to Minneapolis

The MLS plan, as the saying goes: Build it and they will come.

Minnesota fans do show up, by the thousands, already. The state's minor league Minnesota United soccer team draws about 5,900 fans a game to its Blaine stadium.

But the minor league season is much shorter, and the crowds are only about about a quarter of the average MLS game attendance.

Both the league and McGuire also suggested Wednesday they might approach the Vikings about playing cold weather games in their new stadium, but that would be after thwarting the NFL club's own bid for a pro soccer franchise.

MLS soccer team coming to Minneapolis
Investors Bob Pohlad, left, Wendy Carlson Nelson, far right, and Bill McGuire joined MLS Soccer Commissioner Don Garber at an announcement at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

And in the short term, McGuire also said he'd need what he called a public partnership — a potential subsidy for a seventh major sports facility in the Twin Cities, which may get the chilliest reaction of all from taxpayers.

But soccer watchers, like Charlie Callaghan, of Woodbury, say they're convinced that this will work and that Minnesota soccer supporters aren't fair-weather fans.

"A soccer fan is a different fan from other sports ... weather is the last thing that's gonna stop someone from coming out and watching the game," he said.

Team backers will begin publicly trying to build wider support for a new stadium at a fan rally at the Mall of America on Sunday afternoon.