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MLS wants to make Tucson a ‘hub’ for soccer

Call Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham Mr. Soccer.

Major League Soccer, the nation’s premier professional soccer league, announced today that it will play a four-team, round robin tournament in February at Kino Sports Complex.

The MLS spring tourney is the latest, most significant step toward turning Tucson into a professional soccer “hub” for the western United States and toward replacing the millions of dollars sucked out of the region when Major League Baseball abandoned Tucson for Phoenix.

There are a lot of people responsible for bringing MLS to Tucson, most notably attorney Greg Foster, the owner of FC Tucson, a fledgling minor-league soccer team.

But Cunningham is the guy who tossed the snowball down the hill then ran behind it giving it a push now and then to keep the momentum going as it gathered local and regional support for bringing professional soccer to Tucson.

A year and a half ago when Cunningham was appointed to the City Council to fill the term of Rodney Glassman, who had left to tilt against John McCain’s windmill for U.S. Senate, Tucson had two empty MLB spring training baseball stadiums and no plan to do anything about it.

Cunningham, a soccer fan, thought soccer was the answer. When it comes to American professional sports, soccer rarely gets its due. Though it’s the world’s most popular professional sport, it has struggled here to gain a following.

Or so all the rich men making billions off of professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey want you to believe. Even tennis gets more love than soccer, it seems.

But for more than 20 years, soccer has been the most popular youth sport. More kids play soccer than football and baseball combined (most notably because girls play it, too), about 4 million last year.

Kids who play a sport learn to love it and to follow its pro component. In 2010, 4 million people attended MLS games, an average of about 16,000 a game, which is on par with the NBA and NHL, which both averaged about 17,000 fans a game that year.

Soccer’s fan base is big and growing. In March, two MLS teams played a tournament against FC Tucson and another minor league team and roughly 6,000 people packed Hi Corbett Field to watch each game, including nearly 10,000 for the championship game.

Cunningham, Foster, the county and MLS are betting that many and more will watch the four-team tourney this year.

But MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez said today that MLS is committed to a much bigger presence in Tucson than a spring tourney. He said MLS wants Tucson to be the league’s western “hub” and wants to bring 12 to 18 teams here each year to train, plus host soccer conventions and youth tournaments during the rest of the year.

Cunningham and the city of Tucson filled one of the empty stadiums earlier this year when the University of Arizona agreed to move the school’s baseball team to Hi Corbett and to spend several million dollars renovating it in the process.

Hi Corbett is the city’s stadium. Kino is the county’s. And historically, the county and the city rarely cooperate on anything, including baseball stadiums.

So it was telling today that during a press conference to announce the MLS deal that Cunningham had a seat at the table with Foster, Rodriquez, county supervisors Richard Elias and Ramon Valadez, the Metropolitan Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Mexico liaison and the county’s sports tourism authority chairman.

Filling Kino stadium is more than the county’s problem, it’s the region’s and it will take regional cooperation to turn Tucson into the “hub” MLS is asking for.

Baseball brought an estimated $30 million a year into the local economy. What’s more, it helped the county at least break even on Kino Stadium.

We lost that income when baseball left and the county is now losing about $1 million a year on Kino.

Tucson and Pima County need to go all in on soccer. It will not only help the county pay the bills on Kino, but it will bring back almost all if not more of the money we lost when baseball left.

Professional soccer wants to make Tucson its home. Let’s open the door and let them in.

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