Louisville City chairman Wayne Estopinal has an interesting problem: with attendance up and Louisville clearly a major market, a decision has to be made about staying at a USL-level operation or attempt to move up to MLS.
Right now there is a fundamental disconnect in the U.S. pro soccer pyramid, as defined by the United States Soccer Federation. At the top we have MLS, followed by NASL, USL (three pro leagues) and amateur leagues, which includes USL PDL. USL is a mish-mash of markets, facilities and commitments: for every Louisville City or FC Cincinnati you have a Charlotte Independence (who drew 421 fans to a June 25 match) or Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 (who didn’t even report attendance at the latest match). Now, USL has done a great job forging relationships with MLS squads, but that has come at a price: MLS’s goal with USL is as a development platform, while teams like Louisville City and owners like Estopinal certainly would like to make money.
And while Louisville City doesn’t make money — Estopinal says the team will lose $1.5 million or so this season — there is certainly the potential to do so. The team’s lease at Louisville Slugger Field give gate receipts to the team, but concessions revenues to the MiLB Louisville Bats. In the team’s second year there is certainly momentum in the local community, as Louisville City drew its largest crowd ever — 10,062 — to Saturday’s 0-0 match against FC Cincinnati. So far this year Louisville City has drawn an average of 7,331 fans per game to a facility that holds 13,131 for soccer.
The goal, says Estopinal, is to continue building attendance and working toward a new stadium. From the Louisville Courier-Journal:
“We need to move toward a model that is more sustainable,” Estopinal said. “We’re doing everything we can with expenses. That isn’t the answer. We’ve got to have more revenue streams.”
Short-term, Estopinal said the city has held discussions with the Bats about stadium upgrades that could be conditioned on a renegotiated sublease for Louisville City FC. Longer-term, he is awaiting the city’s feasibility study on a soccer stadium that might be doable by the end of the decade.
“I think we can be a very successful USL franchise,” he said. “In this sport, success is measured in a number of ways. For me, it’s really important that we’re competitive. It’s important that we’re engaged with the community and it’s really important that it’s not a financial burden on our owners.
“We don’t have to all get wealthy from this. The goal is that it’s sustainable. For us to be a really strong USL franchise is laying the foundation for future discussions about an MLS opportunity.”
The aforementioned feasibility study will be very important to the future of Louisville City: the owners can’t be expected to cover losses of $1.5 million annually. But it may also be unrealistic to expect an MLS franchise in Louisville any time soon, either.
Image courtesy Louisville City.