TORONTO – Strange things are happening back in Dallas, where members beyond the soccer community are hearing about and paying more attention to FC Dallas.
The Dallas Morning News – which covers the team sparingly with a freelancer rather than a staff writer – is suddenly running stories on both the front page and front of the sports section. One of the paper’s three primary sports columnists – none of whom have ever bothered to write a column from Pizza Hut Park – talked to coach Schellas Hyndman this week and wrote about the team.
The dominant sports radio station in the market – which usually exploits soccer only as a punch line – is talking about the team in intelligent terms.
That’s real movement from a team that suffers from grim anonymity in its own market. Then again, that’s part of the handsome value of an appearance in MLS Cup, the biggest annual moment in domestic soccer.
Soccer didn’t always occupy such a humble stance in the Dallas market. In fact, the area was chosen among 10 MLS originals because – difficult as it to believe for some people now – soccer has a rich history in Dallas, mostly thanks to the late Lamar Hunt. His Dallas Tornado were averaging crowds of 14,000 and more in the old North American Soccer League salad days.
[inline_node:323788]The MLS club (originally the Dallas Burn, of course) had things moving slowly in the right direction 10 years ago, having built a core audience that was urban and properly diverse at about 40 percent Hispanic.
But the club’s struggles over the following years have been well documented as it sought out a long-awaited permanent home. The team that was part of MLS’ launch relocated in 2003 from the Cotton Bowl to a high school field in nearby Southlake, back to the Cotton Bowl and then, finally in 2005, into Pizza Hut Park, a dandy facility – albeit one that sits 23 miles from downtown Dallas.
It’s been a long struggle to reconnect the club to its existing core of fans given that distance, and it’s a process that’s ongoing. But things are finally beginning to look up.
FC Dallas brought in veteran MLS executive Doug Quinn in as president in August. And he seems to “get it.” Quinn spends his match days walking around Pizza Hut Park, making lists of all the little things that were neglected over the last few years, important matters of customer service. He has the right high-level connections that will allow FC Dallas to reconnect with sponsors as all those original deals, signed in the fervor over a spanking new facility, are expiring.
Bobby Rhine, a longtime fixture as a player and now a broadcaster for FC Dallas, says a lot of things are coming together, on the field and in the front office, for a club that was “irrelevant in the market for the last several years.”
“The brand of FC Dallas gets the most out of all this,” he said. “The front office has done a great job this year of trying to get ready for this opportunity. And now I believe they will be able to fully maximize on the opportunity that exists, so that the club really takes advantage of it.”
Plus, there’s the on-field product to be considered. Winning can paper over a lot of cracks. The club’s decline in season ticket base since the initial excitement over moving in Pizza Hut Park in 2005 is no surprise considering the lack of recent, competitive success. The team had previously not won a playoff series since 1999, and its last playoff appearance before this year was in 2007.
[inline_node:323697]Under Hyndman, the team plays an attractive, possession-oriented style. He and (a growing number of) Dallas supporters hope for substance with that style on Sunday.
But win or lose, as the team prepares for the biggest game in franchise history, the question becomes this: What will all this do for a club with a brilliant opportunity to finally build a real beachhead into the Dallas market?
The answer is that it’s just a start, a launching pad, if you will. But it’s a great one, a towering opportunity begging to be exploited.
These big runs, these moments in the sun for sports franchises, aren’t magic beans. You don’t just throw them into the ground and watch ‘em grow. They have to be cultivated, watered and nurtured. And it’s not rocket science on how to go about it.
“It would be tremendous for FC Dallas to bring home that MLS Cup,” Hyndman said. “It would be tremendous for the 240,000 youth players in the area. It would bring complete pride to the community, and I think it opens the opportunity for them to say one day, ‘I hope to be part of that FC Dallas team.’ ”