By Kevin Kernen
For those who aren’t imminently familiar with Louisville’s City beginnings, a brief history lesson:
It was the handiwork of some local and vocal proponents of the sport. The team started play in 2015 and reached the Eastern Conference Finals in both of their first two seasons, something that most people, Coach O’Connor included, count as a successful start to the team’s history. Having followed the team since its announcement, and the USL (the league that Louisville City plays in) for as long, I can testify that any staying power at this level is hard to maintain.
In the USL, players generally aren’t contracted more than two, maybe three years. One year attachments are the prevailing convention. Player attrition is rife in this league, which makes the fact that Louisville City has a cadre of seven players that have been with the club since its debut season a testament to the work that coach has done to cultivate a positive environment. Between relatively short-term contracts, players trying to showcase their skills for a potential move onto a bigger team, trying to maintain competitiveness and keep players with a like mindset, it’s very challenging to manage at this level. And that’s before you get to stretch the comparative shoestring budget that most USL teams work with covering player costs, coaching staff, front office positions, building and managing facilities- it’s no wonder that no fewer than 12 teams have folded or moved to a lower division in the leagues seven-year history.
What’s most vital to a team’s identity and financial livelihood is a place to call home.
Most independent teams in the USL have their own stadiums, something the USL mandated all teams must have by 2020.
Current LouCity ownership has addressed this by unveiling plans to build the team’s bespoke stadium, not to mention team offices, other office space and housing and dining plans as well, with the stadium slated to be finished by 2020.
This is vital not only for the organization itself, but the community and culture that has coalesced around this team. For Louisville City FC, getting into their own place is of utmost importance. At the moment, the team is in an unfavorable arrangement with Louisville Slugger Field where they have to rent the field, convert to a soccer configuration, they built their own auxiliary locker room and also don’t get any concession or parking proceeds, among other things. In short, the team is struggling to get toward profitability.
Building a new stadium, will give the team a brand new identity, and will enhance the teams already tangible home field benefit. It’s no secret that Louisville City has some of the best support around, and a new ground, which hopefully will have a safe standing section for the more adamant supporters, solidifying this as the most intimidating atmosphere in the USL, even better than some MLS teams.
Another thing that comes with this new stadium, is the renewed desire for getting into MLS.
Supporters experienced a bit of this back in 2015 when the team was performing well on the pitch, but the support had a ways to come. Cincinnati is making an unabashed run at MLS, brandishing their attendance numbers much more than their results or table position. Will they get an MLS expansion team? Maybe, it’s doubtful. They don’t have a stadium, an academy, stability in their coaching staff, all things that are important for MLS consideration.
For those that aren’t familiar with the process of gaining MLS membership, it’s not a simple or transparent process.
First, it helps to have a proven market for the sport in the region. Attendance at LouCity games has been on a steady incline since 2015, up to over 8,000 average home attendance, up almost 30 percent from last year. Another facet that is taken into account is TV numbers: Louisville turns in high TV ratings for English Premier League (some weeks cracking the top five markets in the country) although not as much for MLS.
But the biggest hurdle facing any MLS hopeful is the exponentially expanding expansion fees. Once less than $50 million, the nominal fee is rumored to have ballooned to nearly $200 million for the latest round of expansion teams. And that’s for the right to play in a league that has some of the most parity around, but is also what some people would call “contrived.”
MLS, as a consequence of establishing a new top-tier league in an already cramped sports landscape, had to make some creative decisions on how the league would be run. Both player contracts and franchises are held by the league itself, rather than the teams, with team owners considered as “investors,” salary caps are enforced with a few exceptions, something that would be completely foreign to a European soccer fan, among other key differences.
I happen to be of the opinion that the USL is the perfect home for Louisville City FC. Once the stadium is here, we’ll have a great facility and sustainable revenue structure. With teams in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Nashville coming next year, we have as exciting of a rivalry landscape as anywhere in American soccer.
With several expansion teams coming to the USL in the coming years, this league will become even more exciting and diverse. We have a great coaching staff, who’ve recently extended their contracts, headed by James O’Connor.
The MLS? It’s a goal, maybe just a pipe dream. We’d have to prove our city can support, build our own stadium and sell it out consistently. After all that, MLS has their own priorities, and those are certain to change between now and the 2020s. We’re in the USL now, and I’m more than happy with that.
For residents of Jefferson County in Kentucky, you can voice your support of the stadium by contacting your district’s metro councilperson. Louisville City has set up a portal for you to locate and contact your representative at LouisvilleCityFC.com/Stadium.