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Principles of play

Despite losing stadium, Athletics’ demise greatly exaggerated

(Left to right) Athletics co-owner Sonny Dalesandro, coach Joey Ryan and co-owner Dr. Tommy Kern

Adam Murphy

Don’t shed any tears for the Tulsa Athletics. Even though the soccer club is losing its stadium in four months, it doesn’t mean the team is folding or moving out of the city. From the teams point of view, it will simply herald a new chapter in its history.

In fact, the Athletics just kicked off their fourth season at Athletics Stadium (formerly Drillers Stadium) at the corner of 15th St. and Yale Blvd., battling to an entertaining 1-1 draw against the Liverpool Warriors (based in Saginaw, Texas, not England) in front of 3,487 fans on May 7.

“Good crowd, great atmosphere, our fans are fantastic,” said Athletics coach Joey Ryan of the season opener. “They always take care of us, always behind us.”

The night proved that support is still strong for entertaining, competitive soccer that is more geared towards a local Tulsa grassroots appeal. The Athletics, who play in the amateur National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), one level below the United Soccer League (USL), are confident that wherever they end up next season, the support will follow them and they will continue to fill that niche successfully.

The forced move comes on the heels of the April 5 Vision Tulsa vote, which allocated $15 million to tear down the stadium in order to construct the new national headquarters for the American Bicycle Association and USA BMX, including a training center for bicycle motocross athletes and offices.

Athletics co-owner Sonny Dalesandro noted that the soccer club’s lease expires on August 31, enabling them to complete the 2016 season. After that is the great unknown, but they are working to find a solution.

“A year from now is when we’ll kick off the 2017 season, so we’ll have to find a new home by then,” said Dalesandro, a lifelong Tulsan who played at Cascia Hall High School and for the old USISL’s Tulsa Roughnecks in the 1990s. 

He revealed that one of the options might be a partnership with the Tulsa Rugby Club, which currently plays on a field at Riverside Dr. and E. 37th St. Of course, that whole Riverside area is currently undergoing construction, so it’s unclear yet exactly what might emerge.

“As far as plans, we’ve partnered with a couple of groups, one being the Rugby club,” Dalensandro said. “I don’t want to say too much, but that’s something that we’re very interested in, especially with all the development in the area. Being a part of that, I think, a sports venue, if the parking situation could get sorted out, could be beneficial for everything that goes on there.”

The Athletics actually view the recent events as a positive step.

“I think initially, like anything else, when you get news like that, there’s a little bit of concern, but honestly, we’re excited,” Dalesandro said. He pointed out that maintaining Athletics Stadium has its challenges, especially for a club that operates in an amateur league. 

“This is a very big, old facility. It requires a lot of maintenance over the course of 12 months. Maybe one percent of amateur teams office and work at a facility of this magnitude, and a lot of our money, time and resources go to keeping this thing duct-taped and Gorilla-glued together, for the lack of a better term … I think wherever we end up next will probably be a better fit for us. In 2013, we saw that no one was using this place. Our goal at that time was to see how far we could progress the sport of soccer in the city of Tulsa.”

That brings us to the pink elephant in the room—that the newer, higher-level Tulsa Roughnecks FC now command much more attention from area soccer fans. But the die-hard supporters of the Athletics will tell you that they were here first.

“The Roughnecks wouldn’t be here if the Athletics hadn’t been so successful,” declared Will Gibson, 16, a sophomore at Booker T. Washington High School and a huge Athletics fan. “They had great attendance, they brought in a lot of friendlies, and the Roughnecks and Drillers organization and Prodigal LLC, the organization from Oklahoma City who’s responsible for bringing in the Roughnecks, I feel like they’re just trying to piggyback on the success of the Athletics.”

The Athletics were an instant hit both on and off the field when they began play in 2013, going 10-0-2 and claiming the NPSL’s South-Central Division title before losing in the South Region Semifinal. They also drew just under 3,300 fans per game.

In 2014, it was more of the same, as they won the division title again, advancing to the South Region final and averaging 3,439 fans per game. It was after that season when the higher-level, professional United Soccer League opted to expand to Tulsa, heralding the arrival of the Roughnecks. 

Last year, the Roughnecks enjoyed strong support, attracting an average of 4,714 fans at ONEOK Field, while the Athletics struggled, as their attendance dropped to just 1,350 per contest.

It’s clear, though, that for a large contingent of its fans, the grassroots, old-school appeal of the Athletics and their game presentation is more attractive than the more hyped, corporate feel of Roughnecks games.

They point out that the Athletics are locally-owned, play in a park that has a long history with the city’s sports traditions and have made efforts to include many players that have local ties.

“The Athletics are the grassroots team, that’s why I love it,” Gibson said. “Sonny, the owner, he’s walking through the stands, you can stop and talk to him. He was out there at the tailgate with the supporters group… And for it only being a small, grassroots effort, they really do project an aura of professionalism and they really have a great brand, I think – a good image.” 

The club has integrated itself within the local community, with many home games promoting—and providing proceeds to—local charities, including the local VFW chapter, Project Woman, Youth Services of Tulsa, and Tulsa Bike Club.

“At the end of the day, for what we are, we want to stay connected with the community, and if we can use this club to generate support for local charities, that’s great,” Dalesandro said.

As they look forward, this season is the time to cherish the final run at Athletics Stadium. The game atmosphere is outstanding, because the way the soccer field is squeezed onto the former baseball field (it is actually slightly smaller than the standard field dimensions, but still within “acceptable” range), the fans are right on top of the action.

“The sightlines here are fantastic,” Dalesandro said. “Everywhere you sit is a great seat, right on top of the field. It’s earmuffs for the kids if you’re too close to the field, but that’s part of it. A lot of people like getting right there and being part of the action.”

“As a Drillers fan from back in the day, I have childhood memories growing up here, too,” added Daniel DeVore, president of the Tulsa Armory, the club’s die-hard supporters group. “I kind of feel like I’m living out that last dream—this old stadium, it’s going to be bull-dozed here in a few months, so let’s enjoy this last part of it.”

So yes, the Athletics game experience as it currently exists has about three more months to play out. But the team and what it stands for will continue on—just somewhere else in Tulsa.

For more from John, read his article on the start of the Drillers season.