The eerie silence that comes from playing sports in front of thousands of empty seats has become the norm for athletes across the country.
Such a reality is the end result of the months-long COVID-19 crisis and is a conundrum for players and executives of FC Tucson as well.
The team, which has gone 2-4 in its second season in the United Soccer League’s League One, has been forced to try to get creative when it comes to building fan support without allowing anyone into their home venue, at Kino North Stadium.
First-year President Amanda Powers has spent much of the past five months thinking of ways to allow the team’s partisans to support the club from afar.
Powers, who came to the Old Pueblo in January after spending much of the past decade with fellow USL squad, New Mexico United, believes the team can serve as a rallying point for the city at-large.
Her belief stems from the activities the team undertook during their COVID-19 downtime, ranging from sponsoring a local gamer in a virtual soccer tournament to partnering with local nonprofits, like Chicanos Por La Causa.
Powers draws on an analogy of World War I, with soldiers from France and Germany putting down their weapons to play a friendly game of soccer, when describing the rallying effect that the sport can have on a community.
“That was kind of our working ethos. We’ll figure out all of the business stuff later, but what do we believe right now?” Powers said. “And what we believe is that if our guys aren’t going to play on the field, then we need to get acclimated in the community.”
Powers and FC Tucson are fortunate to have the ability to stream their games through ESPN+, which is a subscriber-only streaming service provided by the Worldwide Leader’s app.
Such a connection allows FC Tucson to reach their fans in new ways, such as drive-in watch parties at El Toro Flicks downtown.
The parties, which can accommodate up to 120 cars across the 110,00 square foot drive-in movie theater, allows FC Tucson to continue to be a congregation spot for local soccer fans, even when huddling inside Kino North is a distant reality.
Powers and her team at FC Tucson are confident that the watch parties can bolster the team’s standing in the community, as it gives everyone a needed distraction from the current state of affairs, locally and domestically.
“We’re doing engaging content. So, we’re trying to get fans to sort of own this team,” she said. “Even though we’ve been around for 10 years, we’ve got a little of an uphill battle in terms of the brand and what we’re going to win fans back.
“And so, we’re just trying to be authentic, and as Tucson as possible. So, with each event that we’re doing, it’s authentic and intentional.”
FC Tucson will continue to host watch parties for each of their nine matches in the regular season, according to Powers.
Players, like Tucson-born left back, Tommy Silva, appreciate the effort that Powers and the team’s front office staff have put in to bolster support in the community.
Silva grew up in the Kino North stands, cheering on the club as it evolved from an amateur summer league to a full-fledged professional club.
He believes the watch parties are a great way to continue growing the game in Southern Arizona, ensuring the next generation of local players have the same connection to the game that he did.
“It is odd to be a professional team playing in front of no fans in empty stadiums. But obviously it’s the best thing, in terms of health and safety right now,” Silva said. “And I would say FC Tucson as a club is doing an amazing job of keeping fans engaged virtually and showing us the support that fans are giving.
“Whether it’s the virtual watch parties, they’re compiling videos on social media, we can definitely feel the fans’ support, even if it’s not in-person.”
Silva said that playing his debut season with his hometown club in a season without fans is bittersweet, but that his friends and family have made their way to the watch parties and shown support however they can.
“They’ve really been enjoying it. So, it’s a really cool way for them to support me, given the conditions,” Silva said.
A promising future
Powers is far from surprised by the community’s embrace of the club during the 2020 season, given how quickly Albuquerque adopted New Mexico United after its inception in 2018.
She remembers how the team’s owners brought her on-board initially to help drum up interest in the Duke City, with an eye toward getting 6,000 fans per game to attend.
The team soon blew past such modest expectations, however, drawing 12,000 fans per game to their home games, which were played in the city’s minor league baseball stadium, Isotopes Park.
She was brought in by leaders from FC Tucson and its parent club, Phoenix Rising, to do the same thing in Tucson, with an eye toward attracting 10,000 people per game once fans are allowed in the stands again.
Powers sees a bright future for FC Tucson, with a future promotion to the top level of the USL a distinct possibility.
Silva says the club’s evolution has been striking, going from an amateur club with modest support to an expanding professional club with a bright future.
The level of change surprised Silva, who spent three years in Utah, playing for MLS squad, Real Salt Lake’s development team.
“I haven’t been in Tucson for about three years, because I was up at Real Salt Lake playing there,” Silva said. “And the difference from when I left three years ago to now, the fanbase has completely changed. It’s really, really cool to see the passion of the fans and the way that the club is being seen throughout the city.
Not just as a soccer team, but sort of as something that can unite the city, unite people of different backgrounds, especially during a time like this.”
For now, the focus is on trying to get the local club in the win column, as FC Tucson currently is 8th in the 11-team league.
The off-field success of the franchise will come in time, though Powers is confident that the club is on the right track.
“We do have a big uphill battle, but I feel very good,” Powers said. “In some ways, it sounds weird, but COVID-19 was almost a good thing for FC Tucson in some ways. Yes, our financials are taking a hit, but we’re also kind of the only game in town right now.
“So, it’s allowed us to elevate our profile in ways that maybe we didn’t have chances to do before.”