New on SocTakes: Project 50/50: Part IV

Project

Welcome once again to Project 50/50, the series in which I initially attempted to find the single best untapped soccer market in each state, which has instead become finding the top two, three or even four markets in some states.

You might have noticed that this series hasn’t been updated in over eight months. Sorry about that. But with some renewed interest in lower-division expansion thanks to the USL’s restructuring, it seems like the right time to fire it up again and actually finish it.

For the most part, I’m hypothetically focusing on teams joining at the Division 3 level, which means — broadly, generally speaking — USL League One. That’s simply because I know they’re using the existing USSF Pro League Standards, which makes my job easier.

Please note that attendance data is taken from the 2017-18 winter seasons and 2018 summer seasons for the referenced leagues and sports in my market analyses.

And with that introductory and explanatory waffling out of the way, let’s dive in.

KANSAS

For Kansas, the only object is to be outside the Kansas City metro area. Primarily because I don’t feel like competing against the existing teams there right now. But that isn’t that much of a restricting factor. There’s three other markets in the state that I feel would be well-suited for professional soccer. Two of them even have teams already.

Wichita
-MSA population: 644,610
-Averaged 5,072 in ECHL
-Averaged 2,263 in AAIPB baseball
-Home to Wichita State Shockers in NCAA D1

Wichita is the largest city in the state, primarily due to the fact that Kansas City spreads across state lines. It’s also a top-100 metro market and has been a reliable home of minor professional sports since the ’90s. They’re also doing well with semi-professional soccer, as FC Wichita has done undeniably well in the NPSL. In the past, however, the city was a stronghold in the world of indoor soccer. The Wichita Wings in the original Major Indoor Soccer League saw seven consecutive seasons with attendance north of 8,000 despite no championship wins, cracked 9,000 fans in one of their worst seasons and kept their attendance above 5,000 fans for 18 seasons straight. While the most recent attempt at indoor soccer in the city only survived two seasons, there is undeniably a very strong soccer fan base in Wichita. I’d be entirely unsurprised if FC Wichita announced a move to the NPSL Founders Cup, NISA or even the USL Championship in the near future.

Their current venue at the Stryker Soccer Complex is technically fully D3 compliant, but with a maximum capacity somewhere in the region of 2,200, there’s not much room for growth. Should they choose to look for a larger venue, there are two that aren’t too bad, with the added benefit of being D2 compliant. Adair-Austin Stadium on the Friends University Campus seats 5,000 and was actually built with soccer in mind. While it isn’t much in terms of amenities, it’s still a bit of an upgrade and would definitely work as a USL-capable temporary venue. However, if they play their cards right, they might be able to secure the use of WSU’s Cessna Stadium. It’s originally designed for football and track, but there is no football team actively using it. It also has a grass field and seats a whopping 24,000. The only problem I see with using this stadium is the width of the field. The grass surface only extends maybe 160 feet at its widest point — according to Google Earth, at least — and would need to be extended in some way. But, who knows?

Oh, and before I forget, Wichita has a really, really good flag and FC Wichita uses it really well in its crest.

For Kansas, we get into a problem rapidly where we’re either concentrating teams in and around Kansas City, or we’re running the risk of getting involved in markets too small for U.S. Soccer. Because I’m considering not just D3 standards but D2 as well, markets like Topeka and Lawrence are far smaller than what the USL Championship is looking for. We also only have one established team outside Kansas City anywhere in the pyramid. That said, Topeka is a prime market for the NPSL or UPSL or something. Put a team in the stadium at Washburn University. It seats 7,200 and it’s right in the middle of the city. As an added benefit, it’s only a mile and a half away from the Westboro Baptist Church, and soccer will surely be a thorn in their side. And that amuses me.


KENTUCKY

Kentucky went from bugger-all soccer to winning back-to-back USL titles to making progress on its own 10,000-seat stadium remarkably quickly. That’s absolutely incredible. Louisville is unusual among most ambitious USL teams in that it isn’t really gunning for MLS. They’re committed to being the best they can be in the USL Championship for the foreseeable future. So, let’s find them a new in-state rival.

Lexington
-MSA population: 506,751
-Averaged 4,462 in A MiLB
-Home to Kentucky Wildcats in NCAA D1

Lexington doesn’t have any non-collegiate soccer — yet. In my mind, though, it makes a lot of sense. Even if it’s only D3, or even D4 for a time. The population is growing steadily, there’s a solid local economy and there’s not much competition sports-wise. Demographically speaking, Lexington has a lot of appealing quantities. The downtown population is growing steadily, although at not quite the same rate as decades past, but still fairly consistently above 10 percent each decade. The percentage of college-educated people ranks 10th in the nation and incomes are reasonably high. This has led to the city ranking high in listings for young professionals and new businesses, two things that generally go hand-in-hand with strong support for soccer. There’s no better direct visualization of this than the support the collegiate teams at the University of Kentucky have. Both men’s and women’s soccer averaged above 1,000 fans in the 2017 season. Given that along with the support the city has for minor league baseball, I’m fairly confident that a Lexington USL League One team could hit 3,500-4,000 pretty comfortably.

There are even two really solid venues that could work fantastically for D3-level play: the 3,368 seat Bell Soccer Complex on the UK campus, and the 6,994 seat Whitaker Bank Ballpark. I could even see some organization partnering with Louisville City to get a second Kentucky team launched, possibly as their own USL League One affiliate. That’s likely the route I would take to launch a team. I’d also play up the blue and white colors used by both UK and the city of Lexington, and use something related to horse racing. Maybe Lexington Thoroughbreds FC? And they should absolutely, positively use the blue horse from the new city flag in their crest. It’s such a great, simple flag.

Oh, and one quick aside: Kentucky is one of two schools in the SEC to field a men’s soccer team in NCAA, along with South Carolina. Both teams play as affiliate members of Conference USA because the SEC doesn’t sponsor men’s soccer.

In researching this section, the other cities I considered were Bowling Green and Frankfort, the second-largest city and the capital city, respectively. Bowling Green looks pretty appealing, and they definitely could fit a soccer field inside Bowling Green Ballpark since the WKU soccer stadium is way too small. That ballpark is also right in the middle of downtown Bowling Green. They could also maybe use WKU’s football stadium, as it looks like a narrow soccer field would fit. The capacity just north of 20,000 isn’t bad either, especially if the team gets support akin to Louisville.

Frankfort, however, is just so small. So very, very small. Its current population is somewhere around 27,885, which is just 2,000 more than the number of people who attended FC Cincinnati’s home opener. There is, however, a fantastic stadium at Kentucky State University with 6,000 seats and a grass field. Were they to get a soccer team of some sort, this would be a great place to play.


LOUISIANA

Soccer in Louisiana has absolutely exploded in the past few years thanks to the creation of the Louisiana Premier League in 2014. That league morphed into the much larger Gulf Coast Premier League in 2016 and currently features fifteen teams across Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. This league, which is currently sanctioned by USASA as an Elite Amateur League, is roughly on par with the likes of the UPSL. Including the two operating teams in the NPSL, there are currently seven soccer teams in the semi-pro ranks in Louisiana. This gives us plenty of material to base this segment on. The state also has four metropolitan areas with populations north of 250,000, which makes my job really rather easy. And without further waffling, let’s look at where pro soccer could find success in Louisiana.

New Orleans
-MSA population: 1,227,096
-Averaging 4,596 in AAA MiLB
-Home to New Orleans Saints in NFL and New Orleans Pelicans in NBA
-Home to Tulane Green Wave in NCAA D1

New Orleans is one of those cities that feels like it should have a pro soccer team by now. Like Baltimore, or Milwaukee. And yet, the only pro team I can find in the city’s history is the short-lived New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers/Storm, who played in various USISL-operated leagues from 1993 through 1999. (Interesting side note: from 1995 through 1997, current Charlotte Independence head coach Mike Jeffries served as player-coach of the team.) That’s it. No teams in the old NASL, no indoor soccer teams, nothing from the pre-1960s leagues. Nothing. This niche has been served ever since 2003 by the semi-pro New Orleans Jesters, currently of the NPSL, and they’ve been doing really quite well. Last year, the team went undefeated through 12 games in the NPSL’s Southeast Conference West Division, complete with eight wins, and made it all the way to the Southeast Conference final. They also drew several crowds above 2,500, which is nothing short of remarkable.

And so, that’s where we’re going to begin, because quite frankly this team is already doing so many things well. Their branding is strong, the fan support is superb, and they’ve made their conference’s playoffs in three of the previous four seasons. The one point of concern for me is the long-term viability of their current home stadium, Pan American Stadium. It’s not a bad facility by any means, but it’s primary purpose is high school football, so the FieldTurf has permanent gridiron markings. Not ideal. It’s also pretty bare-bones as far as most facilities of the size we find in the USL Championship already. As an alternative, two stadiums in particular strike me as strong fits for soccer. First up is Tad Gormley Stadium, literally less than a mile away from their current home. The venue is delightfully classic, built back in 1937, but offers some more modern amenities than Pan American. It also seats a total of 26,500 fans, which if this hypothetical D2/D3 Jesters team draws support akin to Louisville/Cincinnati/Sacramento/Indy/etc., could easily get sold out. Due to the inclusion of a running track, though, fans would find themselves sitting more than twice as far from the field. So, second choice. Yulman Stadium, on the campus of Tulane University, is a very, very nice FBS stadium. It’s also almost brand new, opening back in September of 2014. It seats 30,000, with all the bells and whistles like luxury boxes and proper press areas. This would be the nicest possible stadium that a minor professional team has any realistic shot at using in the area. I mean, yeah, they could pull an Indy and borrow the Superdome, but I don’t see that as the best of solutions, because it’s massive and looks ridiculously barren if it’s not above half full. Capacity reduction is also not great for the venue. So, those are two options. But I don’t see either as a permanent home for the team, because the USL Championship won’t. Teams are expected to plan for the construction and operation of a soccer-specific stadium. Fortunately, there’s ample space near downtown and near the AAA ballpark where a permanent soccer stadium with a 5,000-10,000 capacity could be easily built. Here’s hoping they get the chance to move up.

Baton Rouge
-MSA population: 802,484
-Home to LSU Tigers in NCAA D1

Here is a complete list of every single professional sports team in the Baton Rouge metro area:

It’s a rather short list. The city’s sports scene is positively dominated by LSU athletics. And if you’ve learned anything about me from the previous three installments in this series, few things bring me joy like putting professional soccer in SEC territory. So, here we go again. Baton Rouge currently has a growing soccer organization in Baton Rouge Soccer Club, which operates teams in the Gulf Coast Premier League and the Women’s Premier Soccer League. This is another case of a large youth soccer organization adding higher-level teams at the top of the amateur rankings. They’ve done objectively well with their youth teams, winning a handful of state and regional competitions, but they’re still pretty new to the top tiers of the amateur game. For those reasons, I’m not that convinced that BRSC is likely to go professional anytime soon. It just doesn’t seem like the sort of chaos they’re likely to dive into.

But that hasn’t stopped USL League One from evaluating cities purely on the basis of appropriate venues, and it won’t stop me either. BRSC actually has a solid home stadium in BREC Olympia Stadium for an amateur organization. Permanent bleachers, grass field, convenient-ish location. But there’s a few other options that I think would better suit a professional team. First up is the LSU soccer stadium, appropriately named LSU Soccer Stadium. After the most recent renovations completed in 2011, the stadium now features 2,197 seats, a grass field, proper press box and D3-quality amenities. If a Baton Rouge team were to join USL League One, this could be a perfectly cromulent venue for a few years while a long-term home is built. The stadium has also seen some solid turnout for the LSU women’s soccer team, with two crowds above 2,500 in the past few seasons. This, however, would not be my first choice stadium. That would be BREC Memorial Stadium located right in downtown Baton Rouge. This stadium opened in 1952, seats 21,500, has a grass field and is currently underutilized. The city is planning renovations to help modernize the venue, and this is where I think professional soccer comes in. A hypothetical USL Championship/League One team might could convince the city to give them exclusive use of the facility in exchange for some amount of money, along with permission to renovate it further for pro soccer. The capacity is excellent, right up there with lots of MLS venues, and the location is just about perfect. Less than 2.5 miles from the city’s cultural epicenter? Yes, please.

Shreveport-Bossier
-MSA population: 391,516
-Averaged 2,925 in NAHL hockey

The Shreveport-Bossier area has historically been a hotbed for minor professional sports over the years. Sadly, this has recently come to an end, with no active professional sports to be found. However, in the NPSL and GCPL, we find that amateur soccer is alive and well in the city. There are two youth organizations that operate GCPL teams as the top of their men’s systems, Boca F.C. Knights and CABOSA Shreveport United SC, and an NPSL team, Shreveport Rafters FC. We’ll be focusing on the Rafters today.

If you haven’t heard of this team, you’re missing out. They’re the team that ran these ridiculous and amazing jerseys for a game against the New Orleans Jesters back in 2016:

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They’ve averaged north of 2,000 fans in three NPSL seasons, have an excellent crest inspired by the city flag of Shreveport and they’re already one of the most professionally run teams in the NPSL. They are a prime candidate to move up into USL League One or the NPSL Founders Cup, and they seem like they might be planning for that eventuality. For 2018, they’ve moved from the roughly 3,500-seat Messmer Stadium to Independence Stadium which seats a hair under 50,000. That’s the stadium that hosts the annual Independence Bowl. While I’m all for soccer teams using the nicest available facilities, I don’t think they’re likely to fill that stadium any time soon. Therefore, an alternative. As mentioned earlier, there are no minor professional sports teams in the city currently. The Shreveport-Bossier Captains of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball were sold and moved to Laredo in 2011. That means that the city’s nearby ballpark is empty. The ballpark, Fair Grounds Field, has been open since 1986 and was last renovated in 2011. It currently seats 4,200. My proposal is to tear up the ballpark, give it the Al Lang treatment and make it into a permanent, unique, soccer stadium. By tearing out the outfield wall, a 110 by 75-yard field can fit in there, with the ability to extend the seating down what is currently the first base line. This could be a perfect fit for the Rafters long term, and without any active use of the stadium, the city isn’t likely going to have many better options. I really think this is a good idea.


MAINE

I’d hazard a guess that a lot of people overlook or even forget about Maine when it comes to soccer. The state actually does have two teams within the national amateur ranks, in both the NPSL and PDL. There’s also a long history of minor league sports in the state, with affiliate teams of the MLB, NHL and NBA all in Portland, Maine, alone. Given how the state has supported minor league teams in the past — quite well — it seems reasonable to me that professional soccer would work there.

Portland
-MSA population: 514,098
-Averaging 5,678 in AA MiLB

Portland is the easiest, most obvious pick for a soccer market. It’s the largest metro area in the state, home to roughly a third of the total population, and is the economic center of the state. It’s also home to minor league baseball, G-League basketball, ECHL hockey and minor league arena football. It’s a solid minor-league town, which is perfect for lower-league soccer.

Looking at the current options for soccer in Portland, we find GPS Portland Phoenix, a USL League Two team based at Memorial Stadium. They’ve made the Open Cup four times in the past six years, but have only once won their first round game. Attendance wise, the most recent data I can find is from 2015, which lists an average attendance of 512. For a USL League Two team that’s run by a youth club, that’s actually pretty good.

If I were to put a team in Maine, I’d go with USL League One now that the Rochester Rhinos have announced their return to that league, and I would use Fitzpatrick Stadium located right next to the downtown arena and minor league ballpark. Fitzpatrick Stadium has been around in some form for decades, and has an ideal location compared to Memorial Stadium which is out in the suburbs a bit. It seats 6,200, perfect for D3 and even sufficient for D2 with a bit of renovation. It’s also actively in use by the local adult soccer leagues. It’s in a residential neighborhood, but it’s only two miles from downtown. A team could do rather well running a shuttle bus those two miles from the hot spots along the ocean to the stadium. I could easily see a situation where the New England Revolution decide to place a affiliate side in Portland, and there are numerous Boston sports ties already. That could create a nice Portland-Hartford-Boston development pathway.


MARYLAND

How in the world is there no pro outdoor soccer in Maryland yet? Honestly. It feels like a massive missed opportunity. And I’m not counting the D.C.-branded teams that play outside the district because they really, truly don’t count. Maryland is Maryland and D.C. is D.C., and Maryland is big enough, populous enough and interesting enough to justify the creation of teams of their own. Hell, they’re home to Major League Baseball and the damn NFL.

With that said, there are a number of cities in Maryland that are grouped as part of the Washington, D.C. MSA, which means they’re, by default, excluded by this rule. And while that limits options, it doesn’t exclude the market I really want to talk about, Baltimore.

Baltimore
-MSA population: 2,808,175
-Home to Baltimore Ravens in NFL
-Home to Baltimore Orioles in MLB
-Averaged 3,491 in MASL

This is super obvious. Put a team in Baltimore already, damn it. There hasn’t been a professional team in the city since Crystal Palace Baltimore went under some time in 2011. Despite some announcements from the Bohemians on their professional ambitions, they went dark in January 2017 and have yet to re-emerge. Meanwhile, the city continues to be a stronghold for indoor soccer with a ludicrous 39th consecutive professional indoor season coming to Baltimore in November. And the new NPSL club, FC Baltimore, had a stellar debut campaign including a 13-0 win over Legacy 76. More than Hartford, more than Tucson, more than Rochester, the USL really needs to be putting effort into Baltimore already. And I’m not just saying that because I find the city delightful.

Let’s consider this: Baltimore has been in the news the past five years for some less-than desirable reasons. Meanwhile, we’ve seen soccer as a force for inclusive good in Atlanta, providing tangible, meaningful benefits to the inner city. I’d like to think that the same sort of effects are possible in Baltimore given the right people running a team, and considering the lack of summer sport competition, soccer has a very solid chance at succeeding. It’s not like people have faith in the Orioles right now, and even at the NPSL level, people were turning out consistently. Not gonna lie, I’d be pretty pleased to see FC Baltimore take a crack at NISA or USL League One for 2020.

With that out of the way, it’s time to look at some stadiums. I’m going to assume that there’s no secret Baltimore2MLS bid working on a downtown stadium, so I’ll be focusing on existing venues which currently meet Division 2 requirements, with the side assumption that none of these would be a long-term permanent solution.

My first pick would be Homewood Field, the lacrosse/football/soccer/field hockey stadium on the Johns Hopkins University campus. Located due north of downtown Baltimore, the stadium seats 8,500 and is relatively easy to access through public transportation. Yeah, it’s turf and it’s pretty basic, but it could definitely work for a D2 or D3 soccer team for a year or two.

Also up there is the Ridley Athletic Complex, located literally walking distance from Homewood Field, at Loyola University Maryland. This, too, is a turf-clad, multi-sport-but-kinda-sorta-lacrosse-specific stadium, seating 6,000. It’s literally 100 years newer than Homewood, and not coincidentally much nicer and more modern. It was also used by the Baltimore Bohemians in the PDL in 2013.

And now, my thoughts on a hypothetical new stadium for Baltimore. Looking at city maps and public transit routes, there are a few fairly convenient vacant or underused spaces where a soccer stadium could easily fit, assuming something in the 8,000-18,000 capacity range. Now, this is very much so excluding the Inner Harbor/Camden Yards area, as there’s no available space and likely won’t be any made available for a soccer stadium.

However, slightly farther south, there are two parks currently featuring rectangular fields with soccer markings: Latrobe Park and Swann Park. And while building stadiums for private use on public parkland is, to put it lightly, controversial, there’s definitely room at both sites and there’s fairly easy access from the city core.

Now, should the city not want to use public land, there’s actually quite a lot of open space not far from Swann Park near the headquarters of the Baltimore Sun and Under Armour. It’s three miles from Camden Yards which is long for a walk, but there’s room for parking and some public transit access. Honestly, not bad. I’m curious to hear from native Baltimore people regarding the viability of these ideas, but it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.


So, that’s the end of Part IV of Project 50/50, at long last. We’re now 20 states in, with six parts remaining. Once again, I’d like to apologize for the eight-month delay between Parts III and IV. I’m planning to resume a roughly monthly schedule for these and actually have Part V already in progress.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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