Not many leagues have official stadium partners. In fact, none of the American big four (five*) leagues have an official stadium partner. On May 13, the United Soccer League bucked the trend.
USL signed an agreement with stadium architecture firm HoK, to raise the overall stadium quality of their league, and reflect the aggressive growth the league wants to pursue in the next five years.
Once a Metro talked to Jake Edwards, the president of USL, about how the unique partnership fits the long term ambition with the league, and the next steps it generates for USL franchises.
Before announcing the partnership, HoK worked with USL to come up with a common stadium guideline, distributed to all franchises in the league.
It specifies that each franchise must be in a soccer specific stadium by 2020, and must be the primary tenant in said stadium; the teams must be in facilities with a minimum 5,000 seats by 2017. Each candidate city for expansion must present plans with a stadium with a capacity minimum of 5,000 seats.
"Part of the future success we felt strongly about is moving towards appropriate venues," Edwards told Once a Metro.
"That was around 8 to 10 thousand seats, and [getting] the environment and the match day experience and the intimacy and the raucous atmosphere [in the venues].
"We’re seeing more teams coming into the league right now, reaching attendance numbers averaging 5-6 thousands and [some] above up to 10 thousand, and 12 thousand in Sacramento. The trend we are seeing is a stadium upwards of 10 thousands of seat, and the markets that we are in and the ownership that is coming into the league are [preparing] that."
For clubs in USL, and future potential expansion franchises, the biggest tool from this partnership is the use of HoK to provide expertise as clubs prepare new designs for a stadium. The firm will have the "first right to present a pitch for the stadium build," according to Edwards, but the use of HoK for the actual build is not required.
Currently, eight USL franchises play in stadia with capacity under 5,000, and around ten play in facilities where they are not the primary tenants.
"We had to look at the venues we were in, and just by conscious decision, we were moving away from one-sided stadiums, we were moving away from stadiums that have American Football lines on them, we’ll be moving away from stadiums where our teams are not the primary tenant," Edwards said.
"It's not their building or that is not the destination or the long term home for their club. Their club needs to be woven into the fabric of that community. That’s where I go to watch my team, and it's not a rented college stadium somewhere. It needs to be their venue."
MLS reserve sides in USL are not exempt from the new stadium changes, and will need to adopt the practices put forth by HoK.
"From our point of view this is a robust professional soccer league that is growing and is on the ascendancy, and it is unique because we have slightly a different model where the major league teams can have the option of having their own USL club," Edwards said.
"They need to meet the full requirements and minimum standards that everybody else does. As you are well aware some of the teams are playing in venues that are less than 5,000 seats, so you know those are given a period to get there.
"It is a significant capital investment for the MLS clubs to do, but if they are unable to meet that, or if they are unable to do that, they can affiliate and go down that model. The eight teams that have done it have made that commitment."
When asked for comment, the New York Red Bulls told Once a Metro they will continue to keep "those conversations internal" for the time being.
The Harrisburg City Islanders are one of the first teams to present plans for a new stadium under the new guidelines. In the club’s press release, they cite the new USL standards as the impetus for the design unveiling:
Due to the tightening of standards for the USL and the increased collaboration with the MLS, without the construction of a new stadium on City Island, the Harrisburg City Islanders will be forced to move to another location which may be outside of Central Pennsylvania.
A major section in the new stadium guidelines, characterized as "robust", addresses working with local municipalities to finance the necessary stadium upgrades.
"We won’t get involved in those negotiations as a league in terms of ownership groups but we will make sure they are fully aware of all the different avenues and ways you can do that," Edwards said.
"Ultimately we are moving in the right direction, it's a unique partnership. I think we feel here that this is a long term plan, it's ambitious - we’re giving ourselves a few years to get there.
"I think most all the ownership [that] are involved in this see the value, and they see the proliferation of the new stadiums of MLS, and on a smaller scale we think the same will happen."