Switchbacks, Sky Sox eye a new home downtown, but will the stadium happen at all? 

click to enlarge Weidner Field is home to the Colorado Springs Switchbacks. - ISAIAH J DOWNING
  • Isaiah J Downing
  • Weidner Field is home to the Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
The City for Champions project has been turbulent, to say the least. At the center of the storm: a future downtown stadium.

Three-fourths of the C4C venues have seen varying levels of progress. The U.S. Olympic Museum, now under construction, opens next year. The UCCS Sports Medicine and Performance Center, expected to begin construction in July, has a target opening of December 2019. Plans for the Air Force Academy visitor center were revealed in early April, with construction beginning as early as 2019.

But the downtown stadium? There have been a lot more murmurs than definitive statements. And time’s running out to make a deal. The deadline for substantial progress is Dec. 16, with $27.7 million of state tax revenue at stake should the stadium fall through. (At that point the city will have had five years since C4C was approved to make substantial progress on the projects.)

“There is a lot at risk,” Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC president Nick Ragain says.

“A lot of it depends on all the details and the plans and the economics,” says City Council President Richard Skorman. “There’s so many questions to be answered. There’s certainly enough time to make that deadline. Everybody’s working hard on this.”

In a project littered with pessimism, as proposals have failed and little has been said publicly, there may be something on the horizon finally. The mayor’s office, the ultimate decider to approve the future sports stadium, has taken proposals from the Switchbacks and the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

Ragain says his proposal was “bigger than we thought we could put together. ... We felt there wasn’t any way that the proposal we put together could be beat. But we’re still waiting to hear back.”

Ragain declined to go into further detail, but says, “Things are moving, but there’s not really anything that I have the liberty of sharing. There isn’t anybody that wants to move faster.”

The Elmore Sports Group, owners of the Sky Sox, did not return multiple calls from the Indy seeking a comment. And the latest statement we received from a city communications staff spokesperson was: “At this point in time, we do not have any update on the downtown stadium.”

So, let the rumors and speculation continue. Skorman did at least acknowledge a possibility of this downtown stadium being dual-purpose, serving both the soccer and baseball teams. “That’s got to be part of the proposals that come forward,” he says. “There’s been successful models out there of baseball stadiums that have dual purposes.”

An example is Yankee Stadium, where the New York Yankees and New York City FC both play. Many Major League Baseball stadiums have hosted international and club friendlies over the years, too.

One added complication for Colorado Springs though, is that the C4C measure states the downtown sports and event center must “host at least 20 Pre-Olympic and amateur sporting events such as Olympic Time Trials, Qualifiers, Playoffs and World Championship events that will draw participants from outside Colorado or other events and meetings associated with the Olympic Sports National Governing Bodies for each of the first two years of Project operations,” and at least 10 events must be new to the state. (However, that could be modified with approval from the state Economic Development Commission.)

It’s clear, however, that the local teams want their sport to be the primary tenant. At the moment, they’re neighbors: the Switchbacks’ Weidner Field and Sky Sox’s Security Service Field are located adjacent to each other in the northeast part of the city, off Powers Boulevard.

“Colorado Springs is an interesting battle line, so to speak, for U.S. soccer,” Ragain says, making his case. “There’s every reason that this venue should be a rectangular layout where the Switchbacks are the primary tenant. We feel like that justification is there.”
click to enlarge The Colorado Springs Sky Sox play at Security Services Field. - COURTESY SKY SOX
  • Courtesy Sky Sox
  • The Colorado Springs Sky Sox play at Security Services Field.
The average sports fan probably knows what minor league and Triple-A baseball are. But the acronym, “USL” — for the United Soccer League in which the Switchbacks play — is not as much of a household name, something Ragain understands.

“There’s a very well organized and historic baseball element, and I think if U.S. soccer is to continue growing, it has to understand that it is a competition, because baseball knows it,” he says. “Soccer may still want to be the nice guys.”

But the trends are heading toward soccer. A January 2018 Gallup poll found that 7 percent of Americans listed soccer as their favorite sport, a 3 percent increase from 2014. Football, basketball and baseball all decreased on the same prompt. Soccer fared better than baseball in the 18- to 34-year-old and 35- to 54-year-old demographics, leading to the estimate that soccer will soon overtake baseball as the third-most-popular sport in the U.S., behind football and basketball. (Even if the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team did fail to qualify for this year’s World Cup in Russia. Kudos to the U.S. National Women’s Team though — they’re the most awarded in international play between World Cup and Olympic victories.)

But this local stadium battle was probably the Sky Sox’s to lose at the onset of C4C. The minor league baseball franchise had been in Colorado Springs for three decades as a Triple-A affiliate. Then, last June, the Elmore Sports Group announced that the Triple-A franchise in the Pacific Coast League would relocate to San Antonio, and the Sky Sox would remain in Colorado Springs as a Rookie Advanced team in the Pioneer League.

The baseball hierarchy goes as follows: MLB, Triple-A, Double-A, Class-A Advanced, Class A, Class A Short Season, Rookie Advanced, Rookie.

“The main difference between the Pacific Coast League and the Pioneer League obviously is the experience of the players,” says John Sickels, executive editor of minorleagueball.com and author of the annual Baseball Prospect Book. “The Pacific Coast League guys are players who are obviously just one step below the major leagues. A lot of them are players who have played in the major leagues at one point. When you’re talking about a Triple-A team, you’re talking about guys who are … still among the thousand best baseball players in the world. The quality of play in Triple-A is very high.

“The Pioneer League, you have a much different population of players. Obviously they’re much farther away from the major leagues. ... You’re going to have a lot more younger players. You’re going to have guys who are just a year or two out of high school, or guys fresh out of college. You’ve got young kids from Latin America.”

The average attendance of the Pacific Coast League in 2017 was 6,846, with the Sky Sox netting a league-low 4,208.

The Pioneer League averaged 2,045 last year. But the league’s smallest crowd was the Helena Brewers’ 891. Helena is the team the Sky Sox will be replacing next year in the Pioneer League.
And the cities in the Pioneer League are small. The 169,676 population of Billings, Montana, is the largest in the league — a far cry from Colorado Springs’ nearly half a million.

The talent level gap will be clear for the trained baseball eye. Keon Broxton, on the Sky Sox roster right now, was a starting center fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers last year. Josh Hader, one of the best relief pitchers in baseball this season, pitched for the Sky Sox a year ago.

The Pioneer League will have more errors, less pitcher control and overall less polish and experience from the players, Sickels says. But it won’t be completely devoid of interesting players. Hunter Greene, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 MLB Draft and the top prep prospect, pitched in the league last year.

The untrained baseball eye probably will not notice this drop in minor league classifications, Sickels posits. “Somebody who’s just taking their family there to have a family outing, they’re probably not going to see much of a difference,” he says. “It’s still going to be affordable family entertainment... There will be some difference in the quality of play, but it’s not like it’s going to be bad players.”

Attendance was a part of Ragain’s argument advocating for the Switchbacks being the primary tenant in the downtown stadium.

The average attendance for the USL in 2017 was 4,302 — more than double that of the Pioneer League, albeit in cities with significantly larger metropolitan areas. That attendance figure is also growing exponentially; it was 2,274 in 2011 when the league fielded only 12 teams, as opposed to the 30 it holds now.

The Switchbacks’ attendance has grown each year but was lower than league average, at 3,389 last year. Some examples in the USL have shown a far greater ability for upward mobility than minor league baseball, most notably FC Cincinnati, which brought in nearly 22,000 fans per match in 2017, in a city that has an MLB and an NFL team.

“Their attendance is incredible,” Ragain says. “They’re certainly, in the USL, a model. An urban stadium definitely speaks to the importance of what they’re doing, and what we’re working on, what’s important to us.”

The expectation from the USL is that clubs’ stadium capacity reach 8,000 to 10,000 by 2020. The Switchbacks’ current home holds only 5,000.

So, as Ragain said, Colorado Springs may be a battle line between these two sports that share the same season. Portland and Seattle’s Major League Soccer franchises have capitalized on that urban-city environment, with sellouts galore and America’s closest fan culture to Europe and South America.

“The growth of our sport is hingeing on relevant venues in urban environments,” Ragain says. “And if you continue building your venues on the cheapest land far out of town, you’re never going to have a sustainable, professional league.”

And, if nothing happens by Dec. 16 to anchor a stadium downtown, we may never see $27.7 million of state money. Skorman says to expect an announcement sometime in June.

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