Shadow Finds Spot In The Sun, And May Keep It
A soccer question: who knows what level works in the art of attendance?
The Shadow knows.
OK, it was a stretch. Sorry. Just had to try it.
Season No. 1 comes to a close tonight for the Spokane Shadow, our own little experiment in the mad-scientist’s laboratory the United States has become for - altogether now - the globe’s most popular sport. And if the worst you can say is that the team has lost more games than it’s won, then apparently the Shadow has passed the audition.
Success is relative and the Shadow’s is modest - perfect for a club which has resolutely avoided all notions of the grandiose. Even the nickname seems to reflect that.
Elsewhere, soccer in America seems stuck in a jig of one step forward, one step back. The World Cup comes to our shores and the major professional league promised to capitalize on the momentum fails to materialize. Even last night, as our national team played its biggest game in six decades, the bumbling of the U.S. Soccer Federation kept the match off TV - unless you didn’t mind ponying up the pay-per-view tariff of $19.95.
Uh-uh. Not unless some fool thought Copa America was a WWF card.
The sport’s gains tend to be more grassroots. How else to explain the Shadow?
“We’ve been quite surprised at the response,” admitted general manager Jeff Heimbigner. “We’ve had a steady following of 1,500 and up to 2,500 at our home games. We were thinking maybe 400 or 500.”
This for a team of exclusively local talent playing a partial schedule in a vague alphabet league. But the USISL the United States Interregional Soccer League - seems to know what it’s doing; it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Shadow goes against the likes of Everett and Yakima and Portland, not unlike the baseball Indians.
“We have made sure not to tell people this is anything but what it is,” said Heimbigner. “You’ve seen so many leagues come and go in this country. This is where we want to be right now.
“Soccer’s biggest error has been looking for milliondollar players when they haven’t even developed the local talent. And there’s been a tendency to think that, just because soccer is the No. 1 world sport, it should have major sponsorship and major media here right away. That’s not going to happen. The game has to earn its way slowly, just like every other sport did.”
No million-dollar players on the Shadow. Strictly speaking, there are no dollar players on the Shadow. Nobody gets paid.
The Shadow has been competitive - winning four of 11 games, losing several in the closing minutes - which speaks pretty well of the high school and college programs that stocked the roster.
“And as Gonzaga’s Division I program progresses,” said Heimbigner, “we’re going to see another pool we can tap. Kids who come up from across the country will want to stay and play here in the summers.”
Down the road, however, the Shadow will come to a fork. Or two.
“I think we need to look at three or four players from outside the area next year,” Heimbigner said, “to be a really competitive team and win matches on a regular basis.”
And pay them, perhaps?
“It could happen, as things progress,” he said cautiously. “I would like to see soccer at a level in this country where we could do that. When that’s going to happen, I don’t know. I want us to have expectations we can reach - to create the atmosphere instead of demand it.”
One way to create atmosphere is to buy it.
Heimbigner cited the Salem franchise, which has “brought some players up from South America and Central America and I know that has to be an expense. They’re spending a significant amount more and they’re drawing 1,500-1,800 a game - and that can’t keep going on no matter how much money someone has.”
The Shadow, meanwhile, is getting by on a budget of $80,000 to $100,000 - which is why the team’s ability to promote itself is limited to $500 ads in the newspaper.
Making those attendance figures all the more remarkable.
Some of the best promotion, of course, is personal. Like letting kids on the field after the game to meet players, who seem to feel as good about the experience as the youngsters.
“Like in a lot of sports, players don’t peak until they’re through with college,” Heimbigner said. “Guys like Dave Berto and Chris Stiles still have a passion for the game and until now had no outlet.
“A Chris Stiles, a Mead graduate who won a national championship at Santa Clara and graduated and I don’t think he thought he’d ever put the boots on again and have an opportunity to play in front of Spokane people. That part of the reward has been fantastic. I think our guys are sad the season is over already.”
Be happy instead: there will be a second season. In soccer, that’s the bottom line that counts.
You can contact John Blanchette by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5509.