Can't Go Home Again

Can't Go Home Again
The wandering Dallas Burn hopes its fans will follow

Out comes the flag again. It's maybe 40 feet long and 40 feet wide with a simple crimson and black blocked design. The guy running it up the steps of the Cotton Bowl, man, he's a fan. He's wearing a huge wig of spiked hair--dyed crimson and black--and a smile that reaches his eyes. The Dallas Burn has scored again, a meaningless goal in the 84th minute by Toni Nhleko to further secure this win against New England, and the flag is now unfurled and everyone in the section, all 25 of them spread across eight rows, grab a hold of the corners and shake the damn thing as hard as they can.

The noise is deafening. Everyone, everywhere, is screaming. Or pounding on big bass drums they huffed through the gate. Or spilling their beer as they jump about.

There are 6,941 in attendance. Though the fans are loud, there aren't nearly enough of them--not nearly enough to fill the Cotton Bowl, not nearly enough to placate the fears of the Burn's front office.

Because next year, Dallas takes its dwindled fan base and moves it to Frisco, home of a soccer-specific stadium the team will own. The hope is that this Frisco stadium will lead the franchise to financial viability.

But moving to Frisco alienates the Burn's most loyal fan base: Hispanics. Hispanics who, by and large, live in Dallas and may not travel to Frisco next year because of what's happened in years past.

For seven seasons, Hispanics were 50 percent of the Burn's audience. The team's average attendance hovered between 12,000 and 15,000 per game at the Cotton Bowl. Then last year the Burn moved to Dragon Stadium in Southlake. While the Cotton Bowl can accommodate a soccer pitch, Dragon Stadium is made for football alone.

"I went to Southlake a few games," Razael Latina, the man with the wig of spiked hair, says a couple of moments after the Burn scored its final goal against New England. He speaks through an interpreter, Ruben Morales, who sits five rows behind Latina. "I don't know," Latina says. "[Southlake] was a long ways away."

Indeed it was. Twenty-three miles from Dallas. And the artificial turf of Dragon Stadium didn't appeal to soccer loyalists. Nor did the Burn's record: 6-19-5, with wins in only four of its 14 home games. Hispanics stopped showing up. Suburbanites never did.

The Burn moved back to the Cotton Bowl this season, got a new general manager, Greg Elliot, and a new outlook: wooing the Hispanic fan base.

Elliot and staff met with members of Dallas' various soccer leagues. They met with the Hispanic media and Hispanic civic leaders.

They wanted to know what they'd done wrong and what they could do better.

Everyone wanted a Hispanic star on the team. Failing that, they wanted their voices heard. "The only thing that [the Burn] wants is Hispanics to go to the stadium, pay a ticket and go home," says Daniel Donati, president of the World Master's Cup of Soccer, an adult league based in Dallas. "Nobody has any voice."

Complaints like this put the Burn front office in a tough spot, because the team moved back to the Cotton Bowl this year only to move next year to Frisco. So how do you tell a group of people upset with you moving that you're listening to them, but, sorry, you're moving again?

"That's challenging," says Jeff Busch, vice president of marketing and communications for the Burn.

Says Elliot, "The main thing is that they need to care about the team again." To that end, the games are available on the radio this year exclusively in Spanish, Elliot says. He's pushed for a lot of individual profiles in Spanish newspapers Al Dia and La Estrella. And, if the situation's right for the player and the price right for the team, Elliot says he'd like nothing more than to bring on a certifiable Hispanic star from a foreign league.

Still, the numbers are down this season. Elliot says perhaps only 20 percent of this year's average audience, which has itself decreased in size, is Hispanic. But he thinks the Frisco Soccer and Entertainment Center, just off the Dallas North Tollway, will change many perceptions. "It's friendly up there," Elliot says. "The ambience is much more intimate. It seats only 20,000, compared to the Cotton Bowl's 65,000, and [Hispanics] should feel comfortable."

Indeed, even Donati says moving to Frisco "is the first smart thing they're doing."

For one, the Burn, no longer a tenant of the Cotton Bowl, will finally have complete control of the revenue. For nine years, proceeds from ticket sales, concessions and parking had been shared with the Cotton Bowl. Now, all of it will be the Burn's. Throw in the naming rights, which could fetch $2 million a season, and suddenly the Hunt Sports Group, which owns the Burn, could see black where before there was only red.