‘Foothold’ for the Future
Colorado Springs embracing pro soccer with Switchbacks
United Soccer League’s Athletes like Aaron King, right, are one of many who have been with the team all three seasons, building long-lasting relationships within the local community.
Too many times, a professional sports franchise will bring its act into a town, roll out the red carpet and wait for the crowds to arrive.
Then, before you know it, they’re gone once the novelty wears off.
Not so with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks Football Club. They’re here to stay.
Playing in their third season in the United Soccer League in 2017, the Switchbacks are no longer relying on the buzz of being a new franchise. Not only is the product on the field really good, but the team has a loyal following, complete with fans who chant, sing, paint their faces and wave banners to support their team.
“We’re fully invested in the Colorado Springs community,” says Joel Huber, the team’s communications manager. “And we see that they’re invested in us, too.”
The story goes back to 2013, when successful engineer and businessman Martin “Ed” Ragain had the vision for a pro sports franchise in Colorado Springs, one that could “engage the community and industry by selling soccer through excellence in competition and production quality to create sustained excitement around our brand and sport.”
Along with his sons Nick, the team’s general manager, and James, the executive vice president, and daughter Rachael, who handles apparel, the Switchbacks took the essential baby steps, long before there were players to perform on the field.
The community was always front and center, invited to take part in ceremonies from announcing the franchise, naming the team, announcing its first head coach to revealing the first logo.
And once the Switchbacks fielded a team, each player knew his play on the field was only part of his role. Getting out into the community and engaging with the public is perhaps their top objective.
“If we don’t get out, then who’s cheering for us and looking up to us?” says Switchbacks forward Aaron King, a Denver native who graduated from Smoky Hill in Aurora. “It’s huge for us to get out and affect people in a positive manner.”
That public relations effort seems to be paying off when you look around Weidner Field on a Friday or Saturday night. Routinely, crowds averaging between 3,000 and 4,000 cheer on their team and take in the total experience that goes well beyond what happens on the pitch.
And that includes everything that you would see in a European match on TV – singing, chanting and drum-banging, just for starters.
“It’s just a fun experience for the family, something we can all enjoy together,” says Sally Stokes, sitting with her family – husband Todd, daughter Bayley and son Collin – prior to a recent game. “We’re sticking around this summer, and this is part of what we’ll do on our vacation. We look forward to seeing our team play.”
That’s exactly what the front office wants to hear. And it comes from the unique structure of the USL that is different than other sports leagues, such as minor league baseball, where players might not spend much time in that city before moving on.
Many of the Switchbacks players have been here all three seasons, and that’s not a bad thing thanks to the partnership between Major League Soccer and the USL, signed in 2013.
“We don’t get a super-high turnover rate, and the fans can really get used to seeing their favorite players and get to know most everyone,” Huber says.
The team plays its home games at Weidner Field, which just a few years ago was known as Coleman Park, a small venue that hosted a variety of club and high school games. But midway through 2014, the Colorado Springs City Council approved an agreement with the Switchbacks that gave the new franchise a 10-year lease on the site.
The stadium underwent a $3 million renovation that expanded seating capacity to 5,000 and incorporated a press box, enhanced lighting, executive suites, administrative offices, concessions and even awnings for shade.
“We looked at a lot of different places to start a franchise,” Huber says. “Colorado Springs is the best fit for us. Maybe it’s not a traditional soccer community, but it’s been a big success, on and off the field. All we can do now is try to keep building on it.”
SWITCHBACKS UPCOMING HOME SCHEDULE
Rio Grande Valley FC Toros: 7 p.m.
Independence Day celebration with postgame fireworks
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2: 6 p.m.
Seattle Sounders FC 2: 6 p.m.
90s Night POGS giveaway
Portland Timbers, 2: 6 p.m.
Kids’ backpack giveaway
LA Galaxy II: 7 p.m.
Superhero Night with postgame fireworks