CAMPAIGNS: Public Affairs - McKinney eludes Burn-related heat

With Major League Soccer's (MLS) seventh season now underway, the future of American pro soccer looks strong. But there's still some underlying tension considering what happened in McKinney, TX.

Deemed one of the most important aspects of securing soccer's place on the US' pro sports map is the construction of soccer-specific stadiums.

McKinney, about 30 miles north of Dallas, appeared to be the new home of the Dallas Burn. On February 27, the McKinney city council voted 7-0 to continue negotiations with MLS on the construction of a $50 million, 18,000-capacity stadium for the Burn. But by the very next day, city officials realized they didn't have the money to move forward with the project.

What followed upon this realization was a plan that helped McKinney avoid the perception that leaving the Burn in the Cotton Bowl for the time being was not the equivalent of leaving the team - or MLS - out to dry.

Strategy

First and foremost, McKinney wanted to avoid creating a negative backlash among Burn fans, MLS, and McKinney residents. "The key message was that we looked hard and long at this, and realized that it was in the best interest of the taxpayers to not go forward,

explains Rachel Reichert, public information officer for the city of McKinney. "But since we did have some funding available, what we could provide residents that would try to achieve the same economic goals was to build a full softball and soccer athletic complex."

Tactics

Reichert started by writing a press release, and then making sure that members of the city council were prepared to deal with the media - which had reported only 24 hours prior that McKinney would be the Burn's new home. Fortunately, "many of the council members are media savvy, so it wasn't like I had to hold their hands in the matter,

Reichert says.

But before making the announcement public, the city council hand-delivered a letter from McKinney Mayor Don Dozier to the Hunt Sports Group, one of the chief backers of the project, and a major investor in MLS. "Because of the courtesy throughout all the visits and negotiations, we felt like we should let Lamar Hunt know before it was announced to the world,

says city council member Gabe Nesbitt.

An official press conference, led by Dozier, was held the next day.

Results

Most Dallas-area newspapers picked up the story, as did several soccer publications (print and online). But no stories portrayed McKinney in a negative light, and MLS didn't wage a public attack on McKinney.S

"We didn't want to create negative impressions about MLS, nor Hunt Sports Group,

says Dozier. "We're very careful about that, because they negotiated with us in good conscience, and we had a good working relationship with them. We did not want to have hurt feelings after the fact."

Despite McKinney's precautions, however, MLS claims it wouldn't have responded negatively anyway.

When we look to build long-term relationships with communities, we recognize how difficult it is to get these facilities built,

says Mark Noonan, EVP of marketing and fan development for MLS.

"We try to have measured responses with long-term projects, whether it's McKinney or somewhere else."

Crew Stadium, home of MLS' Columbus Crew, "went through similar defeats before everything got worked out on the third try. So we don't go into these things expecting everything to fall into place,

adds senior director of communications Trey FitzGerald.

Future

McKinney is moving forward with its alternate plans: to construct a community athletic complex, which MLS is quick to point out was part of the original plans that included a stadium for the Burn. "If someone's going to make it easier for people to play soccer, we're in favor of it,

says Noonan.

"We always felt we could've done both, and that's why we're disappointed."

MLS is now looking at other development options in the Dallas area.

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