In the weird pyramid structure of American professional soccer, ownership groups come together to propose their entry into MLS.
The most intriguing and star-studded of the recent ownership group proposals comes in the form of Phoenix Rising Football Club.
Phoenix Rising came together in 2014 as Arizona United, with initial investments from Diplo and later Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, providing the team with some serious intrigue… and cool jerseys sponsored by Diplo’s Mad Decent label.
In 2016, founder and owner Kyle Eng sold his stake to Berke Bakay, owner of Scottsdale, Arizona-based restaurant chain Kona Grill. Bakay and his investment group rebranded the club as Phoenix Rising and began the club’s new stage of ambition.
There were three major signings that demonstrated Bakay’s ambition. In February 2017, Phoenix Rising signed Mexican soccer legend Omar Bravo from Guadalajara and former Chelsea, Manchester City, and English international Shawn Wright-Phillips.
Then in April, Rising signed Didier Drogba, one of the most famous soccer players of the last generation.
— USL Championship (@USLChampionship) June 11, 2017
On the pitch Phoenix Rising has some intriguing, if not slightly over the hill, players, but the real fascination with the new club is their potential off the pitch.
With part owners like Diplo, Wentz, and Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy, Phoenix Rising has a built-in social following, already garnering massive hype around the club.
Phoenix seems to be an ideal location for a new MLS team and the reasons for this are legion. Arizona State University in Tempe is a stone’s throw away from the potential new stadium site. Sports Illustrated points out that Forbes recently ranked Phoenix 16th in “Best Cities and Neighborhoods for Millennials” and as the 16th fastest-growing city in the country.
Nothing better than matchday with the team. So spend it with us! Come out to @thirstyliongastropub in Tempe Marketplace for our official watch party! We’ll also be giving away THREE Phoenix Rising FC flags at halftime. So don’t just stay home tonight. Watch the match with us! #RisingAsOne #SEAvPHX #phxrisingfc #phxrisingfan
This huge population of young people means that Phoenix should have a built in fanbase as the younger generations are more likely to be interested in soccer. As Bakay told Rory Smith of the New York Times, Phoenix is ideal for MLS,
“I went to Phoenix and they showed me what they had presented to MLS, and the reaction they had got. Everything is in place in the city and in the state. All that is missing now is that MLS status.”
But beyond the damn millennials and their soccerball, Phoenix has one of the largest populations of Hispanics, especially Mexicans, in the United States. Bakay told Sports Illustrated that this demographic is key to the Phoenix proposal,
“My wife is Mexican. My kids are bilingual. I consider myself lucky, because I live in that culture. A lot of my friends are Mexican and I listen to them and what they’re looking for. I think there’s a very positive opportunity to connect the dots in ways other teams weren’t able to before.”
The MLS has been searching for ways to capture the Mexican audience.
Liga MX, Mexico’s domestic league, is still by far the most watched soccer league in America and there is an untapped gold mine of support in Hispanic communities as Bakay told Sports Illustrated,
“MLS certainly is extremely interested in connecting Mexico to this whole thing from a fan base perspective. How are we going to penetrate the Mexican audience? I feel like we have a competitive advantage related to other ownership groups.”
There is unlimited potential for Phoenix Rising from a fan perspective. And their ‘cool’ owners like Diplo and Pete Wentz should allow them to realize this potential. Diplo spoke to Men in Blazers about his investment,
“I have a big team of friends and family that we all came together and purchased a small part of the team. It’s fascinating to be part of that. I saw the opportunity to invest in soccer, and I thought right away this is going to be grand.”
As for the product on the field, which is ultimately the most important thing about sports teams, signing Drogba, Bravo, and Wright-Phillips will establish Phoenix Rising as a legitimate destination for players.
Drogba had offers from France, China, England, and Brazil, but ultimately found Phoenix as the perfect place for him to finish his career and move into the next phase of his career in coaching or the front office.
Drogba told the Times about his decision, “They called me and asked me to be the face of the franchise. That was amazing for me.”
There are 12 cities competing for a spot in the MLS and Phoenix will face stiff competition from proposals in San Diego and Sacramento, but should Phoenix Rising be moved from the United Soccer League (USL) up a step to the MLS, they have a pretty cool stadium plan.
There is a plot of over 500 acres on Salt-River Pima Maricopa Indian Reservation, 13 miles east of Phoenix and 2-3 miles off the ASU campus.
Bakay said of the site, “Literally, the tribe has been holding onto this site for a group to bring an MLS team. They have refused dozens of opportunities. They’ve been holding on for a team.”
Currently Phoenix Rising plays in a 6,000 person stadium but with MLS status, they would go ahead with construction of a soccer-specific, climate-controlled (it is Phoenix, after all), state-of-the-art facility that would be one of the most impressive sports venues in American soccer.
The coolest part about all of this? They won’t ask for public money to build the stadium. Sports Illustrated described the financing of the stadium,
“No public money will be required, Bakay said, although Rising will be able to avoid property taxes because construction will occur on reservation land. The stadium and complex will be funded by the investor group, the Native American community and some third-party financing.”
In an age where billionaire sports team owners rip off cities by taking public money for their own luxurious funhouses, Bakay and his team funding their own stadium is awesome to see.
Phoenix Rising may indeed fail in their attempts to gain approval into the MLS, but the entire production, ownership structure, and players recruited show how much the game is changing in America. It’s lit.