Minnesota United FC: A Home Of Their Own
Less than 24 hours before the opening of Allianz Field on April 13, Bill McGuire was putting together a checklist.
As the final touches were being put on the $250 million, 19,400-seat stadium, the 71-year-old Minnesota United FC owner and managing director circled the concourses, looking for anything that didn’t match up with his vision. No detail was too small for review. Did the 3-foot-tall refrigerator units at the portable food stands ringing the concourse, as opposed to the typical 6-foot-tall ones, provide the clear view of the field he had hoped? Were the walls of the premium areas decorated in a way that allowed them to be “just a simple beautiful wall with a couple things on it and that’s enough,” said McGuire, who had personally selected photos for a three-story collage in the premium lobby of the stadium featuring the faces of fans from across the world at recent World Cups. How about the angle and placement of the item the players would touch on their way to the pitch, a rock mined from the iron range of Minnesota? If he spotted anything, he quickly passed along a note to someone who could make the change. When a decision needed to be made, he was quickly summoned.
“When you look at some of the great clubs that have emerged in America like Portland or Sporting Kansas City, but also in the great clubs across the world and even in the tiniest towns in the U.K., there is a relationship between the team and community that far transcends building just another big stadium,” McGuire said. “That’s what we needed to be a part of; we needed a stadium that reflects the culture of our community and our sport.”
That stadium is Allianz Field. It might not have the massive size of 71,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, or the luxurious glitz and glamour of LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium, but the latest soccer-specific stadium to open in MLS offers something more to a community that has had momentary successes in professional soccer over the last four decades — a true home.
Allianz Field by the numbers
Construction start: June 2017
Construction cost: $250 million, privately financed
Capacity: 19,400 (able to be expanded to 25,000)
Supporters section: 2,920 safe-standing terrace
Closest seat to the pitch: 17 feet
Farthest seat from the pitch: 125 feet
Number of taps in the brew hall: 96
That sense is evident across all of the stadium’s features: a 2,920-person safe-standing supporters section built as steeply as possible, aiming to create a wall of intimidation for opposing teams and an excitement that will spread throughout the venue. A 5,800-square-foot bar sits across the other side of the pitch, featuring 96 taps of local beer. On the bar’s roof deck, a 250-person area that is reserved for group sales, there is the stadium’s retro analog clock and manual scoreboard, which resemble what the team had when it played in the North American Soccer League. The exterior of the building is an ode to Minnesota’s natural resources, with the skin of the stadium aiming to depict the Mississippi River and LED lights able to replicate the views of the Northern Lights.
On that long-awaited game day, fans began to congregate outside in nearby parking lots and at bars hours before kickoff. A spring blizzard had dumped almost a foot of snow on the city the day before, but that did not dampen the enthusiasm for the grand opening. As many stepped into the venue for the first time, Minnesota United CRO Bryant Pfeiffer said there were two things everyone seemed to do: take a picture or a selfie, and then get emotional, some shedding tears.
“There has been 43 years of soccer in this market, it’s amazing to see this come to fruition,” he said.
For Chris Wright there are three defining moments in an MLS club’s history: the moment it is awarded a franchise, its first game and when it opens its own stadium.
Wright had been part of the first two moments for Minnesota United even before he joined the club as CEO in 2017. As the longtime president of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx and a close adviser to owner Glen Taylor, Wright had represented Taylor’s stake in the soccer club during the expansion process and in its presentations to MLS, leading to the club being awarded in March 2015. Wright, a passionate soccer fan who played the game growing up in England and got his start as a sports executive with the Pittsburgh Spirit of the now defunct Major Indoor Soccer League, also had been one of the more than 35,000 people who attended Minnesota United’s first MLS match in April 2017 at a snow-covered TCF Bank Stadium.
When he was named CEO in September 2017, he knew the club had to maximize its opportunity for the third moment.
“When you look at when the franchise was awarded and the rest of the timeline, everyone here was sprinting. As the new person on the block I said let’s pause for a minute,” Wright said. “We needed to determine how does Minnesota United take its place in this market and become relevant.”
To accomplish that, Wright brought together all of the team’s major stakeholders for a two-day retreat at the appropriately named Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. The club’s ownership group, its executive team and staff, and its two biggest corporate partners — Allianz and Target — as well as executives from MLS gathered, said Wright, to “declare our purpose as to why we exist.”
That group of 72 people helped the club discover its why: to inspire and unite its community through soccer, with a noted embrace of diversity and inclusivity.
“There are 251 dialects and languages spoken in this community that is full of first-, second- and third-generation immigrants that come from places where the beautiful game is played,” Wright said. “That’s our market, and it’s not the football opportunity, not the basketball opportunity or the hockey opportunity. We have a chance to be completely different in this market, and our goal is to inspire them and unite them inside Allianz Field.”
McGuire’s proposal to MLS as to why Minnesota United and his bid should be selected over a rival bid brought forth by the Wilf family to play at the new Vikings stadium was quite simple: “Our pitch was about soccer, about the legacy of soccer in this community, what it stands for and what we’re going to do with [Allianz Field],” McGuire said. “Having [Allianz Field] makes it very different than being a tenant in a building of any kind that I don’t care what story you tell, was never built for the same purpose and principles. It can’t be.”
McGuire acquired the team in 2012, then playing in the NASL as the Minnesota Stars, after falling in love with the sport in large part due to the passion and commitment of the fans. Many of those fans had also supported the other four professional soccer teams that had failed in the city, dating to the Minnesota Kicks of the original NASL in the 1970s, who regularly averaged over 23,000 fans per game before folding in 1981.
“Clearly having your own stadium allows you revenue opportunities in a lot of ways and sources that you couldn’t have otherwise. Of course you have expenses that go with that, but you can do things you otherwise couldn’t,” he said. “But it also lets you tell your story in your stadium with your partners that you just couldn’t do in anywhere else.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league was willing to “put all of our eggs in with [McGuire] because of his vision to have this city return to the glory it had once had, but also take it to the next level of excitement and opportunity.
“When I look at Allianz Field and its design elements both inside and outside, I think what it does perhaps more than any other in the league is reflect the brand that Bill and Chris have tried to build for the club,” Garber said. “When I took a tour about a month ago, I was struck by the old school clock — why did they do that? That’s at the core of what this community is about when it comes to the game.”
In addition to answering the club’s question of why, Wright also put together a business plan for the club and its 13 business lines, giving each department monthly goals and tactics. Wright, who said he’s a big believer in the strategy laid out by Gino Wickman in his popular book, “Traction: Get A Grip on Your Business,” said, “We’re on a path to really develop a solid business that makes sense of a $250 million stadium investment and a $100 million expansion fee. Right now, MLS is all local revenues, which makes it a tough business model, but a doable business model — you have to be bullish about your own brand and you have to have a swagger about what you’re doing, where you’re going and where you’re trying to take things in your local market.”
Wright said the goal is to have the team break even annually, a plan echoed by McGuire, especially now that the stadium has opened. Wright said the ownership group has never told him that they expect to make money annually, but that “they don’t necessarily want to lose a lot of money either, so we’re very deliberate.” Last year, the team ranked 17th of 23 teams across MLS in player salaries, according to data released by the MLS Players Association.
Moving in to Allianz Field will certainly help change that. Pfeiffer said the team expects to finish this year in the top five of revenue across the league. Last year, the team hovered in the top 10 in most team business metrics.
Minnesota has more than doubled its corporate partnership revenue, which includes the 12-year deal it signed with Allianz for naming rights to the stadium that industry sources estimated at $4 million annually, one of the more lucrative deals in that category across the league. Pfeiffer said there is room for growth on that front as well, with the team holding back two of its four gate title sponsorships and several naming-rights opportunities inside the stadium, including for its prominent beer hall and its major premium clubs. “We really wanted to hold those assets, because once people get in here and see how vibrant the atmosphere is, their value is going to skyrocket,” he said.
The team sold out of its self-capped 14,500 season tickets well in advance of the start of the season, which includes 1,600 premium seats that sold out in less than two weeks. More than 5,000 people are on a future season-ticket wait list the club is calling “The Preserve.”
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who tell me, ‘The stadium is just under 20,000 seats, why didn’t you build more,’” Pfeiffer said. “In a state where pro soccer has come and died or been reinvented by four or five teams over the years it’s somewhat ironic that the view now is that we need a bigger venue, but that’s the beauty of it — it creates that scarcity factor where if there were empty seats, people would say I could get a ticket at any time. Now when they hear there’s a 5,000-person waiting list or see the secondary market, they say they have to experience this.”
McGuire isn’t one to boast. That was clear enough when, at a youth clinic celebrating the team’s launch the morning of the first match, Garber and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter made glowing remarks about the club, the new stadium and McGuire’s contributions. McGuire passed up taking the microphone and instead offered a wave to the crowd of dozens of children and parents from the side of the room. Garber later described McGuire as someone who, like a submarine, “runs silent and runs deep.”
“There are many things in Allianz Field that I’m happy about, and all have different values for why I might be happy about them,” McGuire said. “Overall, it’s a beautiful piece of architecture, and that’s important not just for the beauty sake, but how it fits into a neighborhood and a community, and how it looks to people. Is it something they’re proud of? Is it something about which we have pride for and produces passion? If we’re proud and it works well, I think it will lead to many great things.”