Re-Aligning the American Pyramid: Shawn Laird

After conducting an interview with Scott Taylor of FC Arizona about their stadium announcement, it got me thinking about the current stadium situation throughout the lower league soccer landscape. Of particular interest to me was/is the current teams strewn across the country in NPSL and USL League 2. I decided to take a chance and sought out as much information on the subject as I could. What I found, however, was both surprising and unsurprising all at once.

Across both leagues, there are currently 163 teams, and of those 163 teams, 112 don’t play in any form of a soccer specific stadium. That works out to an astonishing 68.7% of teams that play in a variety of stadiums, ranging from college/high school football fields to baseball stadiums and, in a few cases, public parks.

If we were to break it down by league, it gets more surprising. As of now, there are 91 NPSL teams spread nationwide. Of those 91 teams, 70 of them play in the aforementioned stadiums. That comes out to a crazy 76.9% of all teams. Jumping over to USL League 2, teams in non-soccer specific stadiums come in at a clip of 58.3%. While this is significantly better than NPSL, it is still unacceptable for these numbers to be so high.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge a few things you may be thinking. First, I understand these leagues are used for developmental purposes (for the most part) and have short seasons to accommodate college players. That, in turn, probably brings up the question: Why sink so much money into a short season league? We all know building a stadium is insanely expensive and can effectively hamstring a team, regardless of how much money the owner may have. This issue goes hand in hand with the question. Another question is, what would happen with the stadium the rest of the year? It could and, most likely would, turn in to a money pit for owners due to upkeep and bills related to the operation of the stadium.

Now, I know that modular stadiums have recently become a big thing and could be seen as an adequate go between. I would generally agree with that, had I not read an article by Midfield Press last year. In the article, Midfield Press focused on modular stadiums and, specifically, Vancouver’s first stadium. They stated that a modular stadium is nothing more than a giant LEGO set that can be bolted together and used for a predetermined time frame. Once that time is up, it can be taken apart and shipped elsewhere. As I stated before, they used Vancouver as an example for the article, explaining that the team used a modular stadium during its first year in MLS while renovations were being done on BC Place. While I thoroughly enjoyed the article, one thing stuck out to me, the price tag. According to the article, Vancouver spent an estimated $14 million to have the stadium brought in and set up. Granted that is significantly cheaper than Orlando City’s stadium cost of $155 million (used as reference due to locality to me), it would still be unattainable and unsustainable for any team at the NPSL or USL League 2 level, should they look in that direction.

But, fear not, for I have a potential solution. I only have two words for you, shipping containers. Okay, so they’re more of a prefabricated container, but shipping containers are used as the base of the stands. Recently, I was sent some information about a UK-based company known as Audience Systems. They specialize in prefab/container stands for clubs in the National League and below. By focusing on utilizing containers, Audience Systems helps reduce costs no clubs, while also providing one hell of a matchday experience.

As you can see in the picture below, their models can have seats or they can converted in to safe standing sections. According to the information I have, Audience Systems can build stands for up to 100 people in seated sections and 125 people in safe standing sections. Additionally, as you can see, these stands come with roofs to cover supporters throughout a match. Not only that, containers could be used for concession stands, merchandise, restrooms, etc., but that’s not the focus here.

(Photo courtesy of Audience Systems, Cheadle Town)

(Photo courtesy of Audience Systems, Cheadle Town)

While I’ve reached out to Audience Systems for the costs of each type of stand, I have yet to receive a reply. However, if I had to venture a guess, I would say it could probably between $6000-$8000 per container. I would also venture to say that any additional amenities (cooling fans, overhead lighting, etc.) would most likely cost extra unless you happen to know a few electricians.

As I stated before, these containers could be used as concession stands or locker rooms. A great example of this is Detroit City FC. They recently brought in four containers and repurposed them into a half suite/half concession stand additions to Keyworth. In Crain’s Detroit Business, it was stated that they had already turned them in to 12 suites, with seven of them already leased for the upcoming season. I would like to caution everyone, however, that this isn’t something that can happen for every team. Detroit City is insanely popular and the owners recognize the needs of the supporters and have acted appropriately by bringing these containers in.

Now that that’s out of the way, I want to reiterate my belief that not a lot of clubs will be able to afford something like this. But I may have one or two fixes for that as well.

I recently took a look at the 2018 US Soccer audited financial statements. While I’m no expert in that field, I noticed that the organization has $166 million in assets. However, I’m not entirely sure how much of that is cash on hand and how much is other assets. While I’m sure one of you can help me out, I feel that US Soccer should be providing grants to help teams build stadiums of their own. By doing this, it could go a long way in the hopes of rebuilding the fractured relationship between those at the top and the lower leagues. Another way teams could build stadiums could be entering in to long-term deals with companies and giving them naming rights of the stadium. As evidenced in other sports, almost every stadium is named after a company. By entering in to a long-term deal with a company, a team could effectively offset their expenses (travel, kits, league fees) with that money and give them a better chance of survival in the current soccer landscape.

In the end, I don’t expect teams to fully embrace this idea, but my hope is that they will come around to it eventually. Teams could study the idea and do the math on how much it would cost and build at their own pace, instead of overextending themselves to hit a specific deadline. It would also give teams the opportunity to give their home ground a true grassroots/Do-It-Yourself feel, instead of the sterilized, corporate stadiums we currently have in MLS.

- Shawn Laird