The arrival of Utah's latest professional sports franchise, the Salt Lake Sting soccer club, has been greeted with a mixture of excitement and skepticsm by local sports fans.
Excitement because of the possibility of Salt Lake City being included in another professional league with teams in major cities. Skepticism because of past professional sports flops in the city, or have you forgotten the Bees (baseball), the Gulls (baseball), the Golden Spikers (soccer), the Pioneers (soccer), Stingers (volleyball) and Buckaroos (rodeo).Despite a 4-2 overtime loss to San Francisco, last Saturday's home opener at Derks Field was a smashing success for the Sting with a Western Soccer League record crowd of 9,406. How can the franchise go wrong with a near-sellout crowd for its first game?.
Remember what happened in 1976, when the Salt Lake Golden Spikers had a similar crowd size and result for its home opener?
On May 2, 1976 the Golden Spikers played their first game at Rice Stadium as 8,000 fans watched a 1-0 loss to the Los Angeles Skyhawks. The Golden Spikers were also part of an 11-team league as the Sting is in the WSL (which is part of the newly-merged American Professional Soccer League).
But by Aug. 3 of that year, the Golden Spikers were out of the league because of financial problems. A new team, called the Utah Pioneers, was organized using the same players, but it didn't last more than a month.
That was the last anyone heard of professional soccer until last fall when the same group that owns the Salt Lake Trappers rookie league baseball team, announced the purchase of the soccer franchise. Still some folks wondered if the team would ever even play a game. And many are still doubting it will be around next year at this time.
Jack Donovan, one of the principal owners of the Sting franchise is confident this team will succeed in Salt Lake.
"It's very similar to the Trappers. I believe we've brought in a good, clean product of hustle," said Donovan. "We feel once the fans come out they'll be hooked."
Donovan said there is no comparison between the Trappers and Sting in terms of talent, however. "You're not going to see any better quality of play anywhere in the country than this. These are American players. This is the big leagues for them."
"We're taking advantage of 25 years of youth soccer in the country. If the NASL did anything right, it got the youth involved. We're going to reap the rewards from that."
That was evident by the large number of youth at Saturday's opener, many attired in colorful soccer gear.
"I never played or coached soccer. The only thing I've ever done is carry the buckets for my son's team," said Donovan with a laugh. "I don't even know the rules. I'm learning every day."
Donovan and his partners bought in to the league for a mere $25,000. He claims the price for a new franchise has already skyrocketed to over $100,000. "I thought we came in for a cakewalk," said Donovan.
Peter Bridgewater founded the league in 1985 shortly after the NASL folded. Bridgewater had been part of the NASL in Vancouver and as an owner of the San Jose franchise. After seeing the demise of NASL, he wanted to make sure the new league didn't suffer similar problems.
"We wanted to have slow, gradual growth," said Bridgewater. "When the other league folded, we made a careful and cautious schedule for growth."
It began with four teams in Seattle, Portland, San Jose and Victoria B.C., called the Western Soccer Alliance. The following year as the Western Soccer League, there were seven teams, then six the next two years and in 1989 it expanded to nine teams. This year, Salt Lake, Denver and Albuquerque were awarded franchises and Sacramento dropped from the league.
Portland has always been the strength of the league, averaging more than 4,500 last year. But other franchises have struggled. The L.A. Heat pulled in 2,500 for a Fourth of July game, but otherwise have had crowds of less than 300.
The Heat play their games at West High School and at El Camino College and aren't likely to be playing at the Coliseum in the near future. In fact most of the WSL teams play at high school or small-college fields. Portland has the largest field, 25,000-seat Civic Stadium, although San Francisco plays a few games at 30,000-seat Spartan Stadium in San Jose.
Earlier this year the WSL merged with the ASL in the east to form the APSL. One of the stipulations for the World Cup being awarded to the United States in 1994 was that there had to be a national soccer league in operation. The APSL fulfills that requirement. It plans to expand into the Midwest next year.
"It's exciting that the merger has taken place and to be part of the APSL," said Bridgewater. "A few years down the road the stronger teams will form a national league and the weaker teams will have regional leagues."
"I don't think soccer is ever going to be a major league like football. A lot depends on TV if we could ever get it. But I think we can be a league that regularly gets 10,000 to 15,000 people."
And could Salt Lake be a part of such a national league, which would include major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco?
Bridgewater thinks so, although he said Salt Lake would likely need a slightly larger stadium someday.
"You had 9,000 fans here (Saturday), watching two very good teams and they were entertained," he said. "The question is, do they believe enough to come back again next week?"
We'll find out Saturday when the Sting play F.C. Dallas in an exhibition game. After that there'll be 11 other home games during the spring and summer.
By August we'll have a better idea of the prospects for the Sting staying. The APSL soccer league is likely to be around for awhile, at least through 1994 and could even become a pretty big deal. Whether the Salt Lake Sting will be part of that, remains to be seen.