COVID-19 dealt a blow to sports leagues at all levels, and minor league soccer was no exception.
The Fort Worth Vaqueros FC, a North Texas minor league soccer team, had a growing fanbase that sharply dropped in the summer of 2020 when about 20-30 fans would come watch games in spread out lawn chairs, Vaqueros General Manager Anthony Harris said.
Now that people are more comfortable being back around crowds, minor leagues face another challenge: competing for attention.
The Metroplex has a thriving soccer community with a rich array of teams, which helps with the talent pool but means there is more competition for attention, Michael Hitchcock, founder and majority owner of the Fort Worth Vaqueros FC, said.
“That is challenge No. 1 for a minor league sports team,” Hitchcock said, noting the high concentration of both major and minor league sports in the Metroplex. “So, you have to work very hard and be creative to develop a fan base while building the business in a very competitive marketplace,” he continued. “And the last couple of years have been hard. A lot of minor league teams haven’t made it.”
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Minor league teams don’t have the same opportunity to make money from broadcast rights, so they have to find other revenue streams, Hitchcock said.
He attributes part of the Vaqueros’ success to the club’s relationship with the community.
“We love the city of Fort Worth,” Hitchcock said. “From the very beginning, community outreach and engagement has been a core value and one of our club’s priorities.”
The team accomplished this by giving the community members the opportunity to participate early — from having the public vote on the team name to a contest to design the logo — created buy-in and an engaged fan base, he said.
In fact, Vaqueros General Manager Anthony Harris started out as a season ticket holder himself.
“I knew they played at a high level. And I loved the idea that when you buy a season ticket with them for the Vaqueros, instead of getting an actual ticket, you get a jersey and that serves as your season ticket,” Harris said. “So I just saw it as a cool opportunity to be a part of the community.”
During his time as a season ticket holder, Harris said he got to know the team owner and joined the team in February 2020.
Shortly after, the pandemic forced the team to temporarily shut down. But the Vaqueros quickly got together with five or six other Metroplex teams to figure out protocols that would allow them to continue to play outdoors within guidelines set by the state.
“Every fan had to wear a mask. Players and refs were tested. And before every single game we marked out on the grass how far or how close people could stand and it was bring your own chair, bring your own food,” Harris explained. “But we were able to put procedures in place to allow us to play.”
Those games drew about 20-30 fans, Harris said. More fans came back in 2021, and for this year’s home opener at Texas Christian University, there were 1,200 in attendance, according to Hitchcock.
Attendance at their following home game against Irving FC was much smaller, when about 150 fans ventured out on a Wednesday night to attend the game.
Bryan Beckman and Rachel Humphrey found seats partially sheltered from the sun to cheer on the Vaqueros against Irving FC.
Humphrey and Beckman became season ticket holders this year but previously tried their best to make it out to matches when work schedules allowed.
“Before the Vaqueros, we ended up having to go to Frisco for FC Dallas games,” Humphrey said. “But it’s a drive up there and back. And this is here, and it’s a lot of fun.”
They still will attend the occasional FC Dallas match, but Beckman agrees it’s nice to have a club in Fort Worth. When Beckman was growing up, soccer garnered very little local attention.
“Seeing it develop and getting more support of the level like MLS, and everything else, to see that breaking down into a local level was pretty exciting,” Beckman said, also noting the club’s youth soccer academy. “It’s just nice to see it taking a foothold and getting the recognition it should deserve.”
Head Coach Tony Merola is originally from Wales but has lived in Texas for about eight years. He also hopes that enthusiasm for the sport will continue to build stateside.
“A lot of coaches, probably 10 years ago, soccer was the second sport of theirs, or their ancestors played in the ’50s and ’60s. What I’m seeing now is there’s a lot of good coaches out there who have actually played pro, semi-pro or played (in) high school,” Merola said. “It’s sort of like there’s a culture getting ingrained in it.”
Irving FC’s head coach, Ben Clarvis, is also from across the pond, hailing from England.
Clarvis noted that minor and semi-professional leagues create important scaffolding for competition at the global level because U.S. collegiate players have such short seasons.
Both clubs compete in the National Premier Soccer League’s Lonestar Conference.
“There need to be more pathways like the NPSL. College leagues have short seasons and there needs to be a pyramid,” Clarvis explained. “The more semi-pro leagues we can get in, the better the pro league will be.”
Some of the minor league players are fresh out of school while others juggle day jobs with their team schedule.
“We have a blend of youth, and we have a blend of experience. So from a skill perspective, what I always try and create on the teams I coach is that we don’t want to rely on one superstar or two superstars,” Merola said.
The team won their first game of the season, but lost the subsequent five.
“I don’t like losing games of football, so we’ll fix it,” coach Merola said.
Winning is important for him and the team, Merola said, but it’s also significant for their fans who attend the games.
“I know it means a lot to them to have a successful soccer team in this city also because I love the city. And, I want to represent the city of Fort Worth with a really good football team,” Merola quickly corrected himself “— Or a good soccer team, should I say.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.