In Reno, Eric Edelstein and Reno 1868 FC are attempting to build soccer from a baseball blueprint.
1868 FC is a brand new soccer franchise, starting play in the USL for the 2017 season, but unlike many clubs, it is developing via the diamond rather than the pitch.
Club President Eric Edelstein also runs successful Arizona Diamondbacks Triple-A affiliate Reno Aces, and the club will play its home matches at the Aces’ ballpark, Greater Nevada Field.
The club will also break new ground in its affiliation with MLS club San Jose Earthquakes, in a developmental relationship more common in baseball than soccer.
It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the club’s DNA is baseball – – Edelstein comes to soccer via a career in minor league baseball, which includes a 2015 Executive of the Year award from our sister site Ballpark Digest. Prior to the Aces job, he worked as General Manager for a Double-A Kansas Royals affiliate in Arkansas.
But even before that, he was turned on to soccer. One of his pre-baseball jobs took him to Newcastle, England, where he became a fan of local club Newcastle United. Once back in the states, he was inspired by seeing MLS games at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City to learn more about the game, a process he says in ongoing. With Reno FC 1868, his interest has turned professional.
Noting a number of elements that are key to any sports franchise – venue and quality of front office business operations chief among them, he also noted key differences in the baseball and soccer businesses. “Some of the priorities are different and strategies to build our businesses are different,” Edelstein said. “Baseball is so mature that many rules and norms are rarely debated. USL is growing so fast that there is a lot to be sorted out for the future. It’s very entrepreneurial.”
Edelstein feels Reno was fortunate to have been awarded a USL franchise – according to him, timing was key – “had we waited even a year, it would have been much more difficult to be awarded a franchise. Since our announcement, the USL has announced Nashville and San Antonio and the rumored future USL cities are all much larger than Reno.”
Reno was awarded a USL franchise in 2015, and chose the team name through a contest – with eventual winner Reno 1868 FC referring to the year the city of Reno was founded.
Key to the franchise being awarded to Reno was the existence of a quality venue, Greater Nevada Field. The established downtown ballpark, opened in 2009, boasts a unique layout that accommodates a soccer pitch without disturbing the sacred pitcher’s mound.
According to Edelstein, “thanks to a 424 foot right/center field gap, we have the space to fit a full sized 70 by 110 yard pitch into our footprint. No corners cut and it meets FIFA regulations.”
An additional proverbial challenge of baseball to soccer transitions is, of course, the playing surface.
Edelstein noted that Reno 1868 has a system in place for “laying down approximately 10,000 square feet of sod for the transition. Our crew builds a gradual decline in the baseball dirt so that the permanent and temporary grass meets up.
“We engaged a local sod farm to grow our exact strand of bluegrass on their farm and it was planted well over a year ago. We are still dialing in the process, but for the two transitions we’ve embarked on, it’s taken approximately 8 hours to put the sod down and about 6 to pick it up. We’ve invested in a few pieces of equipment to speed up that process as it becomes a more regular part of what we do.”
Because the cost of each transition is expensive – he estimates $12,000 per “flip” – they hope to play 2-3 matches for each time the field is turned over. Capacity for soccer will be roughly the same as for baseball, though 100 VIP seats will be added on the field.
Last year, the venue hosted two matches – Liverpool’s U21 team against the Sacramento Republic, as well as a USL neutral site home match for the Republic against Real Monarchs. “We received nice praise from the teams that played here last year with the quality,” Edelstein said.
Beyond the baseball venue, the club will also test a baseball model when it comes to player development and a relationship with a major league club.
Edelstein called the arrangement a “baseball style affiliation. The Earthquakes are taking a progressive approach to player development in the soccer world, though it’s very comfortable for us in the baseball world. We have implicit trust in them to put a competitive team on our field and give our players the best opportunity to move up to the MLS club into the future.”
There are good reasons to be optimistic for soccer’s success in the Reno market. Edelstein describes the city as growing, becoming younger and more diverse, key demographics in the rise of soccer nationwide. “We’ve been able to do something for our community that will further identify Reno in the sports world and better the quality of life for years to come.”
The club has a great baseball pedigree, an established venue, and a strong partner in the Earthquakes – all positive indicators of future success. Minor league baseball franchises nationwide will surely be watching them closely, hoping to learn how to build soccer from an existing baseball franchise and stadium.
Reno 1868 FC opens play in a friendly against MLS parent club San Jose Earthquakes at Greater Nevada Field on February 18th.
Image courtesy Reno 1868 FC.
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