Next month, when 11 players wearing green and white jerseys jog onto a field by the Bow River, professional soccer will return to Calgary for the first time in more than a decade. As part of the third-tier pro-am Premier Development League (PDL), Foothills Soccer FC U23 players will not be paid. However, head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has much grander ambitions for his team – Major League Soccer, to be specific.
"I think the MLS could come here in the next 5 to 10 years," Mr. Wheeldon says. He's been dreaming about it since he played for the Calgary Storm, one of several pro soccer teams that tried, and failed, to establish themselves successfully in this city. "I always thought Calgary could host and handle a professional franchise. It just has to be done in a different way."
Mr. Wheeldon, whose father also played professional soccer, did not leave the sport behind when his playing days ended in 2003. Since then, he's been leading the Foothills Soccer Club, an organization that, until now, has focused on developing youth talent and recreational leagues. With 2,600 members, and their parents, the youth club is a built-in fan base for the PDL team.
In North America, Major League Soccer is growing.
For the most part, 17 teams in the United States enjoy average attendance in the neighbourhood of 16,000 to 22,000, although the Seattle Sounders regularly experience crowds larger than 40,000 a game. Last month, the newest kid on the MLS block – Orlando City – played its inaugural game to a sold-out crowd of 62,000.
"They've done a great job," said Mr. Wheeldon. "They built the hype. They built the brand."
In Canada, the three MLS teams hold their own. On average, the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto Football Club and the Montreal Impact regularly play in front of 20,000 to 25,000 spectators.
The Foothills' strategy is to achieve that type of popularity in phased growth, moving from the PDL to the second-tier USL Pro League, before eventually applying for MLS status, with the hopes that increasing ticket sales will match exponentially larger franchise fees and operating costs, while attracting more sponsorship.
"We want to engage with not only the community, but with corporate Calgary," said Mr. Wheeldon. "Come and try before you buy. There's an opportunity for a great partnership down the line."
This summer, in a season that will run from mid-May to mid-July, spectators will watch Foothills home games at Shouldice Park, where Hellard Field offers seating for 2,000. There will also be many distractions: a beer garden in the end zone, a kids area, halftime entertainment and, in a departure from traditional British football clubs, cheerleaders.
Currently the business model is non-profit. Foothills' operating cost this year, combined with the one-time purchase of a United Soccer Leagues PDL franchise at $50,000 USD, is approximately $200,000 CDN. However, aided by last summer's exhibition season, during which they trounced the Vancouver Whitecaps U23 team, the Foothills have already sold almost $100,000 in corporate sponsorships. Celtic Power has signed on as the official jersey sponsor.
Still, in a city driven by oil and gas, raising money has not been without challenges.
"Companies that always had corporate giving budgets, or even larger advertising budgets, are slashing or completely eliminating those," said Danny Hay. The CFO of Alter NRG is also on the Foothills' board of directors. "It's tough to be laying off people and then being the sponsor of an up and coming new [sports] franchise."
Perhaps the largest challenge, however, has been educating people about the potential of a pro soccer team in a city that's used to cheering for professional hockey and football.
"Soccer is by far the most played sport in Calgary," said Mr. Hay. "At the same time, a lot of people who play soccer are probably at the Flames game."
However, with FIFA Women's World Cup Soccer coming to Edmonton in June, Mr. Wheeldon predicted a pipeline of growing enthusiasm for the new pro team calling Calgary home.
"Calgary is a big sporting city. Put the right product in front of them, and they will come out and support."