Home NASL & USL FC Edmonton How FC Edmonton could turn its cursed luck into the marketing campaign it badly needs

How FC Edmonton could turn its cursed luck into the marketing campaign it badly needs


Chances are, if you saw the soccer headline “Cup semifinal: Officials add six minutes, home team awarded game-winning penalty near end of stoppage time,” you’d roll your eyes and think to yourself about the corruption that plagues matches in Central America or Eastern Europe or Asia. Steaua Edmonton vs. Partizan Montreal.

Now, judging by the reaction on Twitter and message boards — FC Edmonton fans are incensed that, well, the six-minutes-plus-penalty story originated in Canada. And the conspiracy theories abound, as is the nature of any fan of any underdog who feels his or her team of choice was done in by a dubious call.

Last night, referee Drew Fischer ruled that FCE defender Mallan Roberts handled the ball in the penalty area off a 96th-minute free kick, even though the defenders hands were held behind his back. Today, FCE picks up the pieces and wonders how what would have been a franchise-defining Amway Canadian Championship semifinal win over the Montreal Impact turned into a 96th-minute nightmare.

To be fair to Fischer, no one should be talking conspiracy. It’s unfair to call refs cheats unless you have a smoking gun. He made a mistake. He’s human. And, as many Impact fans would argue, he may have missed a penalty call a few minutes before the end of the match, when FCE defender Albert Watson and defender Sanna Nyassi got tangled at the edge of the area and contact continued into the area.

In this case, it’s unfair that a referee can’t speak to the media. Because it’s a lot easier for Fischer to hear or talk about the fact he made a mistake than be accused of being corrupt. They are two entirely different things. And Fischer doesn’t determine how much time added on goes on the board, either.

This is much more a case of what happens when part-time referees are assigned to big games. Referees at this level need to be full-time professionals. Same for any major league or competition in the world. In Europe, we shouldn’t hear about top-tier match officials’ day jobs. Nor should that be the case in North America. But, because we don’t invest in officiating like we should… well, we sorta get what we deserve.

So, without Fischer being able to defend himself, we can only speculate on what led to the bizarre series of events from Wednesday. Did the fact that he previously made two major decisions in favour of the Eddies — a penalty kick that gave FCE its second goal and the decision to award a free kick and not a penalty on the Watson/Nyassi incident — weigh on his mind?

In the end, no explanation will console FCE or its supporters. Toronto FC, which beat the Whitecaps on penalties last night — even though the Reds’ opening goal of the second leg looked to be offside (ah, the officiating, again!) — will play the Impact in the final. For FCE, there is missed glory and a missed chance to have to spend tens of thousands more budget dollars on CONCACAF Champions League away matches.

But, for FCE, maybe there’s something in all of this.

Let’s face it: FCE’s attendance hasn’t been wonderful. Capacity at Clarke Stadium, in terms of tickets that were spoken for (not bums in seats) has only been touched once since the facility was expanded. And that was for this year’s home opener to the New York Cosmos, a team name that’s more recognizable to the average sports fan than many MLS franchises.

Many marketing tactics have been tried. In the first season, multilingual billboards and LRTs wrapped in ad signage told us all to Stand United. Broad advertising was replaced by efforts to target Edmonton’s soccer community. The academy was expanded so more local players could wear FCE colours. A women’s program was added. So much outreach, and the increase in the stands has been steady, but slow. And FCE still doesn’t grab media attention in its own market. As the Impact played in Edmonton last week, the city was fixated on junior hockey, with the Oil Kings playing in the WHL final.

So what will connect? Let’s face it, last night’s match was just another chapter in what has to be the strangest first five years any pro soccer team in Canada has endured (and, yes, I was around TFC in its first five years… sorry, not even close to FCE).

There have been thunderstorm-delayed matches. Last year, a visiting coach was escorted out of Clarke Stadium by police. In last year’s Voyageurs’ Cup semifinal at home to Vancouver, the Eddies felt that two of the Whitecaps’ three goals were illegitimate — an offside marker and a penalty off a Camilo dive (Roberts was also the victim, there. The poor kid must feel cursed. And he can’t get his Canadian passport, either.) This year, in NASL road games, twice has striker Frank Jonke been hauled down when he had clear breaks on goal — by a keeper and by a trailing defender — and in neither case was the offending player sent off. Last year, Watson had his teeth knocked out by Atlanta Silverback Danny Barrera; no discipline was handed down. And, the Eddies, being the lone mountain-time team in an NASL filled with clubs in the American southeast, have more travel nightmare stories to tell than people who regularly fly on Tupolevs.

Some people will say stop whining. But there’s enough black-cat-crossed-the-rabbit’s-path incidents in FCE’s history to become sort of a rallying cry.

It’s the team nobody wants. The team that’s the black sheep of its league. The team that’s the black sheep of its home and native land. And that’s how FCE should sell itself to Edmonton. That’s it’s a club that has to overcome its own history of cursed luck and circumstance; it could be a unique selling point.

Look, in the ‘70s both the Philadelphia Flyers and Oakland Raiders were able to sell we’re-dirty-and-you-love-it schtick. Being fans of those teams became badges of honour. In the 1990s, Arsenal was able to take a bunch of other teams’ castoffs and win titles, despite regularly leading the Premier League in red cards. Manchester City and Schalke are teams who have been able to turn their habit of blowing what should have been sure things into the stuff of legend.

Look, for a team to get an audience, it needs to be connect to an audience. And Edmontonians understand what it’s like to be misunderstood and underrated. Honestly, for a city that has as much disposable income as Edmonton, the fact that it can’t pack its stadium is a shame. According to Statistics Canada, Albertans make an average of $1,108.01 per week — only the Northwest Territories is higher. British Columbians average $873.14, and deal with a much higher cost of living. Ontarians are at $920.12 — ditto with the cost of living. The Canadian average is $910.74.

Yet the rest of the country still talks about Alberta as a backwater, even though many new retailers now come to Edmonton and Calgary before they go to Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto; the thinking is if you can’t get people to part with their money in Alberta, your business won’t work anywhere in Canada.

Edmonton is home to the current Giller Prize winner (Lynn Coady) and has one of North America’s hottest literary scenes, from the work of Todd Babiak to Greg Hollingshead to Wayne Arthurson to Michael Hingston to Marty Chan. Eighteen Bridges, one of the nation’s most esteemed magazines (and if you don’t subscribe to it, you’re a bad Canadian. Bad!), is published out of Edmonton. But, Edmontonians are so used to the “you’re from Edmonton. How quaint. When are you moving out?” that we wear it like a badge of honour.

Leslie Nielsen is ours. And, when we see Castle or Firefly, well Nathan Fillion is the guy who often comes home to hang at the Next Act, the restaurant where all the theatre folk hang out.

Boston Pizza? Edmonton. The Earl’s/Joey’s empire? Edmonton.

But we do enjoy watching SportsCentre and wondering “who there isn’t from Edmonton? Anyone?”

It’s not that other cities don’t make cultural contributions on the scale of Edmonton — they most certainly do — but it’s the fact that we understand that nothing we do makes outsiders think that we’re a city with a big mall. And the Oilers. But, mainly, the mall.

And let’s not talk about the big elephant in the room — the oil industry. It’s the reason that Alberta salaries are so high. It’s the big employer in the province, and it helps Alberta make transfer payments to the other provinces. But, outside of Alberta, it’s the great big dirty monster. A nation holds its nose at its biggest industry — and once again Albertans wonder why we’re so unloved when it was this black stuff that helped Canada weather the economic crash better than any other G8 nation.

This all marries with the kind of “nobody likes us, everybody hates us” mentality that FC Edmonton could use to sell itself. Always against the odds. Always isolated. Always disrespected.

And it could work well with the “home” games FC Edmonton will move to Fort McMurray, beginning next season. Hosting NASL games in the heart of the oil sands. Talk about a perfect background for the black sheep.

FCE could turn Fischer’s misstep into a long-term goldmine. FC Edmonton; love your home team, cause no one else does. Wear it like a badge of honour.

Because, if FCE don’t start packing Clarke Stadium soon, there won’t be many more bad calls to lament. There won’t be any calls at all.

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  1. Matthew Yeo

    May 16, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    Minor nit … Alberta doesn’t “make transfer payments to other provinces”. That’s not how that program works at all. Albertan taxpayers pay their federal taxes, that gets pooled with all the other taxpayers across the country who pay federal taxes into general revenue, and out of that the Equalization Program gets funded, along with every other federal program. What the topic has to do with soccer, is beyond me.

  2. Greg

    May 16, 2014 at 8:35 am

    I like the concept. I’d also play up the angle that our players are Canadians, and Canadians don’t flop and roll around, as well as the fact that 4 years shows we’re here for the long haul, and the new pitch, now with no football lines. These are all important marketing hooks… They key though, is to spend some quality time marketing soccer to SPORTS fans (the beer-drinking 20/30 something crowd) and less worrying about the “soccer community”. A ton of kids play soccer, just like a ton of kids play piano/violin… But you don’t that create huge numbers heading for the ESO either. Soccer is recreation in North America and kids don’t become soccer fans by playing… And their parents even less so. If you can appeal to the sports fan, he/she will (eventually) bring their kids to the park and teach them about reflected glory and team loyalty. THOSE kids grow up to be life-long fans and eventually drink beer and then bring THEIR kids. Trying to appeal to the soccer mom crowd is short-sighted and limited in effect. They already have enough pulls on their time… And you can bet an FC Edmonton match falls under the kid’s Sunday afternoon soccer tournament on the priority list.

    Partnering with minor soccer is important… But are the Rush drawing their fan base from minor lacrosse? They appeal to fans because it’s understandable as a game (I.e. Hockey… No ice) and provides a good atmosphere. FCEd can do that too, the game is simple to grasp, but they need to deliver a game day experience that will appeal to people who already understand what soccer is about (and no football lines is a CRUCIAL first step).

  3. Soccerfan

    May 16, 2014 at 3:00 am

    Interesting article Steve. I like your energy. However, the real problem with getting butts in the seats starts at the top. We have an owner that purchased a professional franchise and he truly doesn’t know what he wants from the organization. One minute he is firing coaches the next minute he is micromanaging the smallest details. Did he really think the city of edmonton was going to pony up 120 million for a new stadium? Get real, be realistic. As well, he doesn’t even know a lick about soccer. There is a reason in professional sports the teams that always seem to perform well is because the owners have a clear vision. The New England Patriots are successful because Robert Kraft owns the team. The Oakland Raiders are usually cellar dwellars because Al Davis owned the team. (RIP) Great organizations start at the top!!!

    The other issue is the GM. Have you ever talked to him? He does not know a single thing about the beautiful game. Which is fine, I get it, he was brought in to sell tickets, but where are the fans? Being a ceremonial spokesperson will do nothing for this club.

    The only way this club will survive is to bring in a young GM that is hungry and will not ask for a huge sum of money. He can handle the player acquistions.

    Have a president that is in charge of marketing and putting butts in the seats. The president must have previous experience in the soccer community.

    Stop spending money on a silly telecast. Remember the Trappers airing their games on ITV back in the day. How much did that truly help them? Zippo!! It is extremely expensive to produce a telecast. The money could be spent on more important things.

    Most importantly, Tom Fath may run a successful paving company but he needs to immerse himself in Sports 101. He needs to reach out to other owners in other leagues, experience the World cup in brazil, do an internship with MLS team, I don’t care what it is but he is so behind the curve when it comes to soccer, just because you can purchase a 1.5 million dollar team it does not mean it will translate to anything if you are not truly committed. Yes, people will say he put “750 000 dollars worth of new stands.” Big whoop. He needs to truly immerse himself in soccer and go down to the Elephant and Castle and drink beers and watch the World Cup. He needs to understand the latest analytical technology out there, which academy systems in the world that are truly flourishing, he needs to eat and bleed soccer. When my friend first heard that he was buying a club, his first sentence, “why do rich old people always think it is a good idea to purchase a professional sports franchise? Does he even like soccer?”

    I just don’t buy his approach. Show me that you really want this. You can tell when people are truly authentic. He is treating FC Edmonton like it is another business that he owns but when it comes to professional sports, that will not work. Fans can smell a fart a mile away.

    • Steven Sandor

      May 16, 2014 at 4:46 am

      First off, understand that the NASL mandates that all teams provide broadcasts, and the standards are higher than ever because the league is now planning to charge money for their NASLLive subscriptions. Broadcasting is not a team choice. And the V-Cup games against Ottawa were broadcast because that was mandated by the CSA. It is part of each NASL team’s responsibilities to broadcast games.

      Kraft is successful with the New England Patriots, but the Revs, which he also owns, play in a cavernous football stadium and continue to be one of the most nameless/faceless franchises in North American sport. The problem with Al Davis is that he didn’t change when he got old. Al Davis of the ’60s and ’70s was a rebel, but he sure as hell knew football back then. His vertical attack vision led a Raiders team that was dominant in the AFL and AFC.

      • Soccerfan

        May 16, 2014 at 5:23 am

        You are sort of right. Some teams spend very little money on producing the games while others have deeper pockets. FC could certainly cut costs. What do you mean by the standards are “higher than ever?” Have you heard of HD? Because I know for a fact those telecasts are not in HD. But I guess that is neither here nor there. I stand corrected.

        The NASL requests a telecast for a paid subscription. Not sure why? Why offer a product for free last year? And than turn around and charge your loyal fan base?

        The Revs play in Gillette stadium. Have you been there? The stadium is breathtaking. You are entitled to your opinion but last time I checked they played in the final several years in a row during the mid 2000’s. I am not sure how you are faceless when you produce that type of success and had one of the greatest American soccer players to play globally come through your team has a young man, Clint Dempsey.

        Al Davis was a nut job. His insanity will over shadow anything he ever did on the field. Dude, was Howard Hughes meets the creeper. People remember him as the old Al Davis and not a young Al Davis.

        You can knit pick at my point but we know that successful and strong visioned owners typically produce a strong professional sports environment.

        Mark Cuban-Dallas Mavericks
        Jerry Buss-LA Lakers
        Paul Allen -Seattle Seahawks

        Strong leadership from the top will always trickle down to the bottom. And Fath ain’t no strong leader.

        • Steven Sandor

          May 16, 2014 at 6:03 am

          The major requirements are multiple cameras, replay ability, graphic packages. And the reality is if the Trappers were still around today, they’d be ensuring all of their games were available for the web. It’s the modern reality. Even USL-PRO offers the stream. The decision to charge — and the decision to delay the charges — was made by the league offices.

          In the end, sports need to be profitable. And the thinking is that charging the fee will help offset those costs. We’ll see if it works or not.

          HD would be the ultimate expense. It would costs tens of thousands more per broadcast. It goes to your point of how much is being spent on broadcasts — going to HD would rewrite the broadcast budget.

          Maybe I am showing my age, but for me I still think it’s weird to think of the AFC as anything but Raiders, Steelers, Dolphins. All the other teams are new-fangled fads. I guess you’re defined by your formative years, and those teams basically dominated the conference during those times for me.

          But I will say this. Cuban has one ring. Paul Allen has one ring. Al Davis had three. And, while (granted) the Raiders fell into the role as the official team of hip-hop in the ’80s, because of the franchise’s move to the L.A. Coliseum from Oakland, for the better part of three decades no team in the NFL marketed itself better. Everyone understood that Raiders were outcasts, players who played on the edge, and the silver and black colours carried that. To discount the Raiders as being unimportant because Al Davis got old and crazy (OK, crazier) before he passed on, that the team’s previous decades were forgotten, would be like saying Liverpool have no history because the Reds only won titles pre-Premiership.

          Sports is about history. It’s why we love our teams, because they create history for us.

  4. cwell

    May 15, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    Worth a try. It’s a tough sell in that market, and therefore needs a special marketing angle. I always liked the City of Champions slogan; and it might help their cause if the Eddies were champions at a time when the Esks and the Oilers aren’t even close. People go to games to have fun, and losing is not fun.

    Colin Miller must be a very frustrated man about now. He’s experienced and he cares. The players seem to play for him. Some lapses notwithstanding, that was a great effort in Montreal.

    That’s the other angle to go with your “nobody likes us” line; we try harder, we never give up, we’re tough like Albertans like to think of themselves.

  5. Flips

    May 15, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    @Raymond sadly, if people stay away because they don’t want to get hurt, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and the team will fold.

  6. Raymond

    May 15, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Great article. I am probably one of soccer’s biggest fans in the city and wish the team well. I’ve been to a lot of matches over the years, going back to the Drillers in Commonwealth Stadium. Maybe the formula will work. But as a lover that has been ditched too often, you feel you don’t want to get too emotionally attached.

  7. Marcus

    May 15, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    Great story, I agree 100% with you!

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