Football may be king in Texas, but soccer has its roots and supporters, particularly in the Dallas area.
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That support has never quite translated to strong attendance, even after FC Dallas, then the Dallas Burn, built Pizza Hut Park in 2005.
The Colorado Rapids have endured similar issues. From their days at Mile High Stadium and Invesco Field, to their move to newly-built Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, the Rapids have struggled to fill their new stadium.
When the Rapids and FC Dallas meet at BMO Field on Sunday in the MLS Cup Final, they will both be looking for more than just a first championship. They each will be looking to create a springboard toward increased fan support that has been lacking in recent years.
The problems the 2010 MLS Cup finalists have faced can be blamed, at least in part, to the locations of their stadiums, but it can’t ignored that both clubs have struggled to produce winning teams.
This post-season, both teams have rejuvenated their fan bases with the most unlikely of playoff runs and they each have the chance to boost awareness and support with a win on Sunday.
Will a championship really be enough? Will Dallas residents start ignoring the 40 or more minutes it takes to drive from Dallas to Frisco, home of Pizza Hut Park? Will Colorado fans start leaving the comforts of downtown Denver to make the trip to Commerce City? Both teams are hoping a championship can do that. Realistically, a title won’t suddenly fill either team’s stadium, but it can provide a boost, not just in attendance but in relevance in their respective markets.
For Dallas, the opening of Pizza Hut Park in 2005 was supposed to be a turning point. After years of playing in the cavernous Cotton Bowl, and even a brief stint at a high school stadium, the club formerly known as the Burn built a stadium that was expected to draw fans to a more fan-friendly environment.
Instead of drawing fans, the Frisco location seemed to alienate the club from Dallas-based fans who were turned off by the combination of bad soccer and the long drive north. The result has been some of the most embarrassingly sparse crowds in MLS in of the league’s newer stadiums.
Colorado has had similar issues filling Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. No, Commerce City isn’t as far from Denver as Frisco is from Dallas, but it is clear the location has cost the Rapids some fans. Perhaps not as much as the team’s recent failures to reach the playoffs did.
You wouldn’t have known Colorado had any such problems last week, when a respectable crowd of more than 17,000 braved the cold weather in Commerce City last Saturday to see the Rapids win an Eastern Conference title. The lively crowd that watched the Rapids beat the San Jose Earthquakes was the type of crowd expected when the stadium was opened in 2007.
What we have learned in both Frisco and Commerce City (and even to a lesser degree at Red Bull Arena this year) is that simply opening a new building won’t deliver sell-out crowds. Expansion teams have the luxury of fans being drawn in by that new-team buzz, but for established teams, particularly ones with histories of mediocrity, the ability to draw fans is contingent more on winning then on building a new stadium.
The New York Red Bulls delivered both this year, and while it didn’t sell out its $200 million building, it did fill seats and bring back fans who had long given up on the club by playing good soccer and giving fans a reason to return.
Dallas and Colorado will be hoping to give fans the ultimate reason to start coming to the stadiums they have spent the past four or five years avoiding. A championship could provide legitimacy and buzz that can carry over to 2011, but bringing a trophy back will only go so far. Whether it’s Dallas or the Rapids wins on Sunday, they will need to keep winning once 2011 comes and fans and curious newcomers come see what all the fuss is about.
The work starts on Sunday, with a championship both Dallas and Colorado desperately need. It may not be the glamour final some would have hoped for, but for one of the league’s original markets, Sunday’s final could be a springboard to vital stability.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer at FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.