The American Pyramid: Venue TBA
This morning, as I scrolled through soccer twitter, I spotted a story that really depressed me. According to The Post and Courier (a prominent Charleston newspaper) “an affiliate of Atlanta-based Holder Properties Inc. purchased MUSC Health Stadium for $6.475 million on Friday, six weeks after buying the neighboring former Blackbaud Inc. headquarters building for $35.5 million.” I sat back in my chair and sighed.
For those that don’t follow Charleston Battery or the USL, I understand if that news is less interesting to you, but allow me to vent my own thoughts on this news. First, Blackbaud Stadium, as it was originally named (naming rights were sold in 2015), was opened in 1999 as the first modern-era, soccer-specific stadium in the country (Columbus opened their soccer-specific stadium the same year). It was and IS a big deal. Aside from Mapfre, which benefits from the USMNT matches it draws, the Baud was a shining example of a real soccer venue in an era of soccer clubs sharing venues with bigger and better-funded sports clubs.
Read this description of the stadium on the Battery website, “styled after the classic English soccer experience, the stadium seats 5,100 and offers fans an unmatched environment with superb sight-lines, concessions, a children’s interactive soccer theme park, and even a plush English-styled pub.” And it was a non-MLS, privately funded, stadium. Now it will be eaten up by a land development firm, Holder Properties Inc. The CEO, John Holder, described his plans as “we’re going to take a big-picture look at it and create, hopefully, a village kind of concept.” Disgusting.
If that doesn’t break your heart, you aren’t a soccer fan.
Too Much of a Good Thing? Nah.
With the explosion of lower league soccer in this country, we have more soccer than we actually have attention or time for. The NPSL has close to 100 clubs, while the UPSL is at 322 confirmed for the Fall (sure to grow), add to that the regional leagues that stretch across the midwest to the west coast with another 300-400 clubs (at varying levels of talent and funding) - that’s close to 1,000 soccer clubs and that’s just the men’s sides. The soccer explosion is also happening in the women’s side. Aside from the WPSL (which has over 100 clubs), the UPSL has started their own WOSO league which is rapidly growing (50-60 planning on playing in the Fall according to a league source). It’s a good time for soccer fans in this country.
With the advent of streaming, most of these clubs have some online availability for viewing their matches. Mycujoo is here and is the best in the game currently, but many clubs use Facebook Live, Periscope, and Youtube to steam matches. There’s almost too much soccer right now, I say that as a guy running a website with 15 writers trying to cover this massive amateur soccer landscape. We focus on what we can - pick the matches we have time for, keep twitter loaded up, and read boxscores. It’s a lot of soccer. And that’s a good thing!
The level of league organization has risen in the last 10 years to foster this growth. The success of the NPSL in growing and sustaining their clubs is to be commended, it’s done wonders for the lower leagues and the fan bases that need to believe their club will be back next season. The UPSL has grown the game exponentially, putting clubs on a national stage from every corner of this country, including Alaska this year. The national leagues are a credit to the game and we’re lucky to have two solid national amateur leagues raising the bar. The rise to prominence of regional leagues is also bringing us into a golden age of organization and growth.
Well-established regional leagues like Bay State Soccer League, Buffalo & District Soccer League, and Maryland Majors have been joined by up and coming leagues like Northern Ohio Soccer League and Wisconsin Primary Amateur Soccer League. And mentioning 5 regional leagues doesn’t do this level its due. Regional leagues are growing exponentially. The organization is getting better for clubs of all sizes, from coast to coast.
So I said all that to say this: We have a problem.
Houston (and everywhere else), We Have a Problem.
How many soccer specific venues are owned and operated by amateur clubs? The answer is… not many. When I put a call out for this information on Twitter (and yes, that’s a limited market, I know), I received max: 10. And I’m not minimizing that! But as I just mentioned, we have over 1,000 amateur sides in this country and 1% are playing their matches in fields that they own. Consider that the most well-known lower league venue isn’t owned by the club playing in it.
Detroit City FC’s Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, Michigan is known beyond the NPSL for their home field experience. Much of that is because of the environment created by the Northern Guard supporters group, but a great SG is part of any soccer experience. While DCFC helped raise funds to refurbish and upgrade the stadium, Keyworth is owned by Hamtramck School District. Imagine a scenario where something terrible happens at a DCFC match and the school district decides to discontinue their agreement with the club. Suddenly, the cradle of American lower league soccer reverts to just another aging high school stadium.
And that high school stadium scenario is the situation for the vast majority of amateur clubs. In fact, every amateur soccer match I’ve attended so far has been in a high school facility. So let’s consider the negatives of playing in a high school stadium for a moment, as your local club is probably dealing with these already.
High School was Fun, Right? No.
1. You don’t belong.
Before you push back with “but our SG really makes it feel like home,” be honest with yourself. The football lines on the field, the high school logo on the midfield, the scoreboard, all of those things scream you are a visitor in your home field. Even in the best situations, the reality is that you are borrowing someone else’s facility and once you leave it will go back to its original purpose - hosting high school football, soccer, and track.
2. Money, time and effort.
As a guy who paid rent most of my life, I know how it feels to write a check to someone that owns the property I call home. I did it for years. Every year, cubs are forced to wrangle with school districts across this country to hold onto “home fields” because they don’t own the property. The rent is built into into their operating costs every year, money flying out the window into someone else’s pockets. And in many places, for less than optimal situations - subpar facilities, working around school events, having to get someone to come in and open the gates. In the end, it’s not your field.
3. A feeling of permanence.
This is similar to point 2, but I’d like to emphasize a different aspect. In the lower leagues, we’ve watched clubs come and go. Every week another one folds. Fans need to feel like they can invest their time, energy and MONEY into a club that will be there next season and the season after. The oldest clubs are less than 10 years in most cases, though there are some legacy clubs with more history. Having a home field with history gives a permanent structure that memories are built on.
4. It eliminates beer sales.
There may be some arrangement out there where this is not the case, but I haven’t seen or heard of it. School districts don’t want alcohol on premises for all the reasons that you’d expect. It’s a liability, obviously, but it’s also not a good fit for the venue. Typically high school stadiums are joined to a school facility, which wouldn’t allow beer on the premises. At this level, you need every revenue stream you can get. Removing a big one at the onset kills the bottom line.
A Shameless Plug to Come Back
I don’t think I have every answer to this problem, and I look forward to hearing from the people in the trenches who are dealing with this reality every season. But I think the conversation needs to happen and we need to be real about facing these issues. Let’s talk.
As this article was being completed, Shawn Laird, one of our writers, pointed out he had sent an overlapping article in two weeks ago (he worked on it independent of my own work). So before I offer my solutions, I’d ask you to read Shawn’s article as well. His focus and insight are vital to this discussion as well.
Tomorrow, I’ll pitch my potential solution.
- Dan Vaughn