Colin Dunlap: Riverhounds Plan Is Ambitious
There’s a place at the table in Pittsburgh for soccer.
Just how big of a place? That is the decisive question.
Earlier this week, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds — who play in the third-tier of competition in this country — announced an ownership change and, with it, an ambitious plan to someday in the future zip through and become a Major League Soccer franchise.
Connellsville businessman Tuffy Shallenberger, a man with a passion for the game that matches the bread in his bank account, became the majority owner of Highmark Stadium, to go along with his majority post in the franchise.
With a venue that can hold about 4,000 fans, the Riverhounds had banner turnout in 2013, averaging more than 3,000 in their first season inside Highmark, the soccer-first venue near Station Square.
But, here’s the reality: It’s just a start.
And the people with the Riverhounds know it.
It’s one thing to want to become a squad that plays at the highest level of soccer in this country, yet another to achieve. Unlike in Europe, America doesn’t have a relegation and promotion system whereas teams bounce up and down leagues based on on-field results. Rather, money talks; attendance talks.
Can the Riverhounds grow to the point where they become a member of MLS? Sure.
If you asked me to bet on it, right now today, I’d waver but I would probably say this ownership group — particularly CEO Jason Kutney — can, and will, make it happen.
Certainly the franchise has come a long way since it played games at a high school venue to now playing at the glorious Highmark Stadium, but I have some doubts they can sustain, and continue to grow, a revenue stream and general interest needed to play in MLS.
It is possible, and Lord knows I’d love to see it happen. But it will be tough.
I also doubted that they would ever get Highmark Stadium built — so that’s why, as much as something says I should, I can’t bet against these guys as they try to make an MLS dream happen.
The focal number to those within the organization is 7,000. That is to say, if the Riverhounds can grow to an average attendance of about 7,000, they have a very good chance of becoming a more-than-viable candidate for Major League Soccer.
Such a jump would need to include a stadium renovation and other infrastructure improvements, but now that the cash is in place, it appears to be a case, largely, of the cultivation of fans here in Pittsburgh.
Quite simply, the Riverhounds are ready to build this if you will come.
Soccer in this country has been, and seemingly always will be, a sport bolstered strongly by the support of diehard fans, one with not much of a casual fanbase.
In sum, you either love, breathe and consume the sport with a robust passion or think (wholly incorrectly) that it’s a sport played by sissies with their socks pulled knee-high.
I’m in the former group — can’t explain it as I never played a game of organized soccer, but I enjoy it more than any other sport.
Growing up, I played just about every sport imaginable but soccer, but in adulthood I fell in love with the beauty and majesty of the game, with the vitality with which mainly the English fans have a link with their club.
But, back to the Riverhounds ….
Here is the tricky part with them: The Riverhounds, in order to reach their goal, will most likely need to cultivate a deep casual fanbase to go along with the diehards.
The math — and my logic — just says so.
In competition with the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates (along with numerous other entertainment outlets in our city) for your ever-dwindling expendable income, the people in our city fall into three categories as the Riverhounds should see them.
First, the diehards who will make an effort to get to every game or most games.
Second, the people on the fence who might get to a game if compelled enough.
Third, the people who have no interest. Ever.
That final group is one you can largely, if not altogether, ignore if you are the franchise.
That first group, the diehards, is one that you can count on for being your season-ticket base and support the club as you push toward an ultimate MLS goal.
But here is the big rub: Is that first group, the diehards, one that steadily measures -– or could measure — that magical number of 7,000?
The answer, it would seem, is no.
That is where that middle group, in a city like this, becomes positively vital.
The Riverhounds, in other words, can count on the people who always come to come and the people who never are going to come to never come, but they must funnel much marketing interest toward the fence-sitters if their franchise reality is going to match their franchise ambition.
If those casual fans come out and support the club — and possibly even turn into diehards — the Riverhounds have a chance.
If the casual fans don’t turn up or show an interest, the franchise doesn’t have a chance to hit their ultimate MLS goal.
Make no mistake, I’m rooting for them.
Also make no mistake, and don’t try to sugarcoat anything, the Riverhounds have a plan that is ambitious as heck and some would say overly-ambitious.
Pittsburgh is a city littered with the memory of teams that didn’t compete at the highest level and eventually disappeared. Remember the Xplosion and Piranhas, the Gladiators and Maulers?
All failures for various reasons, most of all they didn’t compete at the highest level of their sport.
With the Riverhounds, there is a marked vitality not realized in their current form that would be distinguishable if they rose to MLS.
Most of all, there is that television deal with NBC Sports Network and ESPN, spiked ticket revenue and an overall ability for Riverhounds’ executives to sell their product as something that’s major league to potential advertisers.
We should all root for that, as an additional major league franchise could serve as the easiest guidepost to the positive direction in which our city is headed.
I’m rooting for the Riverhounds to make the jump.
We should all be rooting for them to do so.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.