FC Edmonton owner playing for keeps

It wasn't long ago when FC Edmonton owner Tom Fath could say he knew nothing of the beautiful sport — soccer.

Faths committed to making professional soccer succeed in Edmonton

Tom Fath, businessman and FC Edmonton owner, believes Edmonton will support professional soccer. (CBC)

It wasn't long ago when FC Edmonton owner Tom Fath could say he knew nothing of the beautiful sport — soccer.

"I knew that you played soccer with a round ball and that's about all," he says. "I'd played a little bit of soccer at recess in school and once or twice in phys-ed."  

Head coach Colin Miller on Edmonton AM

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What Fath did know was paving. The Fath Group of Companies is built on the business of building parking lots.

"He's a paver by heart he always says," said Fath's son Eric. "He's just a little parking lot paver but he's now a lot more than that." 

Five years ago the 62-year-old businessman went out on limb. Wanting to invest in the cultural life his city, Fath purchased the rights for the Edmonton entry in the North American Soccer League.

"I wanted to do something to give back to the city in a more substantial way than just donating to varrious charities, so I took on the challenge," he said.

There's no denying it's been a challenge. 

Soccer families not filling stands

While tens of thousands of Edmonton kids play the sport, soccer families aren't filling the stands to watch the pros play.

That's the biggest challenge — selling the team to Edmontonians, who so far have been ambivalent, said Eric Fath who's been tasked with the job..

"It's second division soccer, so no it's not Manchester United or even the MLS in North America which is the Vancouver Whitecaps or Toronto FC for the Canadian teams, but it's still a very high level of play and it's a local team,"

FC Edmonton is the only Canadian team in the NASL playing teams with what are hardly household names — Tampa Bay Rowdies, San Antonio Scorpions, Minnesota United.

It also means higher travel costs with the team racking up $700,000 in travel bills last year.

But home field too is a mixed blessing.

Clark Stadium needs work

There's no Commonwealth Stadium to draw fans to home games. Instead FC Edmonton play in the aging Clark Stadium — an open field with fading concrete risers on one side and a seating capacity of fewer than 1,400. 

Even if every game was a sellout, the team would not come close to breaking even. 

So in a show of faith, the Faths are spending $700,000 to bring in new flip-up seats to circle the rest of the field.  

They hope their commitment will show fans the team isn't going anywhere and deserving of support.  

"Now we have a stadium that can support 5,000 people...really showing that we're here to stay. Hopefully people respond and start coming out to games," Tom Fath said.

It's no secret a winning team will go a long ways to filling those new seats and making FC Edmonton a fixture in the city's cultural life.

"The youth need to be able to look up to their heroes and if you have that in your city it gives your city a lot more life," Fath said.

The players recognize they too have a role in selling the team.

'We're not stupid'

"We're not stupid," said Shaun Saiko, a native Edmontonian and the team's leading scorer. "He's investing a lot of his own money coming out of his own pocket and we want to give as much as we can back to him so we can have something to be proud of."

Saiko, 23, grew up in Edmonton playing soccer and left at 14 to try out in the United Kingdom.

Now he's toiling on a team that finished dead last last season and is off to a less than stellar start this year. 

"We're a better team than that and we've got a better owner than that so we're trying to repay him."

Fath, though, is taking it all in stride.  

He's not willing to walk away now.

"I can be a little stubborn. Actually I can be quite stubborn so if we're going to start something we like it to succeed and historically things haven't always succeeded at the beginning, but typically they end up succeeding."

With files from CBC's Adrienne Lamb