Last month, it was announced that the Pittsburgh Riverhounds would be exiting bankruptcy proceedings by the end of 2014. This re-organization would allow them to move forward with the 2015 campaign unencumbered by the crushing debt that hung over the franchise this year.
Currently, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds play in the USL Pro League, which is the third tier of professional soccer in the United States. Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top tier, then the North American Soccer League is the second tier, followed by the USL Pro League. In short, it’s not that great of a competition level. The cities that play in the league, though, are not podunk third tier towns. There are teams in Charlotte, Portland, and Sacramento. OK, they also play in places like West Carrollton, Ohio, Sandy, Utah, and Tukwila, Washington.
The Riverhounds play in the newly-constructed Highmark Stadium that seats 3,500 and is situated right along the Monongahela River adjacent to Station Square. The stadium opened in 2013 and cost at least $10.2M to build, which is the majority of the reason the Riverhounds went into bankruptcy in the first place. Highmark Stadium is one of the smaller venues in the USL Pro League, as some of the clubs play in stadia that seat upwards of 20,000.
Unlike soccer (or football, as the rest of the world calls it) in Europe, teams in the different tiers do not have a chance to move up (or be relegated down) based on their performance. It would be nice to think that with some hard work, the Riverhounds could be scrappy and grit their way up to MLS one day. No, this is America, son. If you want to get somewhere, you have to buy your way in.
The current line from the MLS Commissioner, Don Garber, is that the league would like to have 24 teams in MLS by the year 2020. Currently, there are 19 teams in MLS. Once Chivas USA shutters their doors at the end of the year, there will be 18. For the 2015 season, two new teams are joining in New York and Orlando, so the league will be at 20 to start the year. Two teams are “confirmed” to join the league in 2017, once their stadiums are completed. Supposedly, Miami is going to get a team once their financing is finalized and a downtown stadium location is finalized. To me, that sounds like a mighty big “if” at this point.
So that leaves one spot open in the theoretical 24-team league. At this time, Pittsburgh is not even being considered. The four cities that most folks are talking about are Minneapolis, Las Vegas, San Antonio, and Sacramento. As I mentioned earlier, Sacramento is in the USL Pro League, so they’re talking about making the big jump. Currently, the Sacramento Republic play at Bonney Field that holds 8,000 people. The owner of the Sacramento Kings in the NBA is interested in buying the Republic Football Club and building a soccer-specific downtown stadium to enter MLS.
According to this article from 2010 in the U-T San Diego, there are four criteria that MLS looks for in an expansion candidate city.
The ownership group has to be able to pony up the expansion fee first, which in the 2010 article was guesstimated at $40M. Considering that the team just is coming out of bankruptcy, you could say this is an obstacle. When the Riverhounds emerge, the new sole owner will be Terrance “Tuffy” Schallenberger, the owner of a local construction company that is heavily involved in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Fields. It seems as if a more well-heeled investor would need to be brought on as the majority partner if a move to the MLS were to ever happen. Mount Lebanon native and multi-billionaire Mark Cuban has always been a pie-in-the-sky dream to become owner of the Pirates. Perhaps he would want to get in, maybe not on the ground floor, but at least early on in the process where MLS is starting to gain a financial and sporting foothold in the United States.
MLS wants a 20,000 seat soccer-specific stadium for their venues. They also want the teams to be in control of the parking, concession, and advertising revenues. As previously mentioned, Highmark Stadium holds 3,500. The Riverhounds have said it has the capability to be expanded to 20,000, but that seems like someone is blowing smoke. The current “bones” of the stadium are very basic; it feels like a high school venue. The main concourse is narrow and the bleachers above the main concourse seem to max out the structural capability — it’s not like they can just stack another deck on top, in my engineering opinion. One side of the stadium is open to the river, but there’s no room to even add a grandstand due to the presence of the railroad lines. One of the end areas is literally a group of metal bleachers. The other end is where the suites are, along with team store and offices.
Again, my opinion only, the whole stadium would have to be torn down and re-configured structurally to create 20,000 seats with multiple decks, especially if you are using only three sides. This would impact the adjacent parking lots and the flow of traffic, most likely.
The Pittsburgh metropolitan area (Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and the adjoining counties) has a size of 2.3M people. As a media market, Pittsburgh ranks 23rd in the nation, one spot behind Portland at 22nd (home of the Portland Timbers), 9 spots ahead of Columbus (home of the Columbus Crew), and 10 spots ahead of Salt Lake City (home of Real Salt Lake). There are no shortage of TV stations in the area that would be interested in televising the games, if ROOT Sports Pittsburgh would presumably have some scheduling conflicts with the Pirates.
Pittsburgh has the market size, but does it have the fan base to support an MLS franchise? The MLS regular season runs from the start of March through the end of October, consisting of 34 games that are played primarily on Saturdays and Sundays, with the occasional Thursday and Friday game. The MLS season overlaps mostly with the Major League Baseball season, but due to the once-a-week game schedule, it’s hard to see there being much of a conflict in terms of fans not being able to financially support attending two different professional sporting seasons.
Youth soccer is extremely well-attended in the region. The current Riverhounds incarnation has created a youth Academy to teach the Pittsburgh youngsters advanced techniques and, theoretically, create a farm system for their team in the future. The question is, would Pittsburgh (both youth and adults) generate enough attendance to support them? This past year, the Riverhounds averaged around 2,800 fans; when I attended a game on June 22nd, the attendance was far less than that by my visual estimate. Pittsburgh, though, doesn’t do minor leagues. Whether it’s basic human nature or this repressed mindset where we never want to feel like we’re second-class in anything, Pittsburgh will support a major league franchise, but not a minor league one (see: every attempt to do basketball, indoor football, and the Pirates from 1993-2011, except for 2001).
Pittsburgh is not even on the radar screen of MLS, nor should they be at this point in time. It seems as if they are behind multiple other cities that are queued up with stronger ownership groups and ready-to-go stadiums. But things change, both positively and negatively, in terms of the financial landscape. Although it seems as if Pittsburgh is at least 7-10 years away from being considered for MLS, all it takes is that one angel investor to swoop in and sprinkle some magic dust on MLS to convince them to move Pittsburgh to the head of the line.