March madness is typically reserved for the most intense time of the college basketball season, not the pre-soccer season.
Such is the case for professional soccer in Minnesota.
Formerly known as Minnesota Stars FC, among other names in recent years, the now renamed Minnesota United FC underwent a rebranding, a fourth re-launching of a pro soccer franchise in Minnesota since 2009.
A big reason for the change came after Dr. Bill McGuire stepped forward to take ownership of the franchise from the North American Soccer League (NASL) in January.
The NASL owned the team over the past two years, during which the Stars FC and its predecessor NSC Minnesota Stars reached the first two NASL Soccer Bowls, winning the title in 2011.
The name of United FC was selected after discussions with club supporters, staff and others, including new team president Nick Rogers, McGuire’s son-in-law.
“We absolutely had a vision and the name allows us to tell the stories of what we are trying to do here,” Rogers said. “First thing is it says this is a soccer club.”
Since the new ownership stepped forward, getting the club in front of people has been another goal, not necessarily rebranding the organization again.
One thing Rogers found out very quickly was that not many people knew the Twin Cities was home to a professional soccer team.
“We would meet people at different events and ask them if they knew the Minnesota Stars, and they would say ‘Yes. Of course, they left town 15 years ago.’” he said.
“So the name didn’t even say soccer and there was a lot of confusion around it.”
Rogers was referring to the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars now known as the Dallas Stars.
According to Rogers, only 2 percent of adults asked even knew about the pro soccer team in town.
“It’s probably less than ideal to have another brand identity change,” Rogers said.
“And we tried to stand by them and let them know why we’re doing this, and at least try to respect where we’re coming from.”
Surprising levels of support for the change are coming from the support group named after the Minnesota Thunder, the Dark Clouds, Rogers said.
“They said screw it, we just like soccer,” he said about their reaction to the previous rebrandings.
“That’s what I took away from that and I’m pretty sure they would stick with us through the rebrand. As for everybody else, I don’t think they knew we’re here.”
The new United FC brand refers to bringing area youth soccer clubs together from different geographical locations, giving fans who might be priced out of other professional sports contests a place to show their pride for a local team like United FC.
The rebranding also aims to unite the history of soccer in Minnesota from the 1970s with the Kicks through United FC and everything in between.
“Uniting the history and keeping it alive and getting people to draw the line and understand we’re doing it a little different than what’s gone on,” Rogers said.
When the new ownership took over, they knew the investment in the club would far surpass the level seen over the past four or five seasons.
“And that’s a lot of equity to put into a name if you think it doesn’t work and the question is can you afford to wait with the possibility to put it on the shelf at some point?” Rogers said.
“So we felt the timing was right to make the change now.”
The additional resources available to the team on the field have already yielded results in the form of several high-profile player signings, including the last two NASL MVPs: Pablo Campos and Etinne Barbara. The pair played together in Carolina in 2011 and hope to repeat that success in Minnesota.
Former San Antonio Scorpions goalkeeper Darryl Satter has signed with United FC to give the team depth and competition in goal.
Minnesota reached the past two NASL Soccer Cups on a minimal budget, which impressed McGuire and proved to be one of the larger selling points of the franchise.
“It’s huge,” Rogers said about the recent fortunes on the field. “It’s a big part of what got us excited about being the local team was how [coach Manny] Lagos was given the smallest budget in the league and knocked off Real Salt Lake (MLS), along with the fact that nobody knew that this was going on in a town so starved for sports championships. I was really excited for sure.”
Another positive tool for marketing the team comes in the way of stability knowing the owner is a local person who is well known and well liked.
“The way we are able to talk to people and our potential partners in the business community, non-profit community and soccer community has changed,” Rogers said.
“Now you can say with a straight face that you can invest in this because before they didn’t know if the team would be around next year. It was year-to-year and it’s really hard to ask someone for buy-in if [your future is unclear].
“It hasn’t gotten any easier [because of us]. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do. We’ve got a lot of games and seats to fill.”
Rogers pointed out four goals for success away from the field this season: Awareness about the team; let people know about the league and why they should care; the players are real professional athletes; this league is serious about sustaining soccer at a high level and has players worth watching.
Those goals will help get fans in the seats, according to Rogers.
Jason Olson is at email@example.com