Riverhounds adding 1,000 seats to Highmark Stadium, expanding capacity to 5,000
After missing out on a playoff berth in 2017, the Riverhounds are ready to start a rebuilding job — one that has nothing to do with the team on the field.
The Riverhounds enter their offseason keen to make improvements to this year's team, but the club also is beginning an expansion project at Highmark Stadium that will lift the venue's capacity to more than 5,000.
The expansion to Highmark Stadium, which opened in 2013 with 3,500 seats and a capacity of 4,000, comes as a result of the United Soccer League gaining second-division status this year from the U.S. Soccer Federation. But to hold its sanctioning as the league immediately under first-division MLS, the USL and its individual teams must meet federation requirements.
The Riverhounds already filled most of the requirements — a principal owner with a net worth of at least $20 million and a full-time general manager and other required front-office staff among them — and with ownership of their home field eliminating lease requirements, expanding to meet the minimum capacity of 5,000 will check the last box for the club.
“It's not going to be anything major. We'll be adding a thousand seats down at the east end, and I think we'll do something along the river that won't block the view but still get some seating there,” Riverhounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger said. “We'll get where we need to be, and hopefully in a couple years, we'll be ready to grow more.”
The stadium expansion will provide extra seats for the many events Highmark hosts, including WPIAL championships in multiple sports, Central Catholic football, concerts and more. But for Shallenberger, the most important thing is making sure the stadium is filling when the Riverhounds play.
This season ended a troubling trend for the Riverhounds, who had seen average attendance decline each year until 2017.
Attendance this year rebounded to 2,681 per game, better than the past two seasons and 187 more per game than a year ago. While ticket sales can be affected by factors such as weather and competing events on the same night — two Riverhounds home games this year were played at the same times as Penguins home playoff games — the biggest driver of sales is the obvious one.
“The only thing we're lacking right now is winning. Once we start winning, this place will keep filling up,” Shallenberger said. “I am happy with the direction, but I'm also very disappointed (to miss the playoffs). I'm a very impatient person, but I think the philosophy is here to be successful.”
With that statement, Shallenberger affirmed his support of coach Dave Brandt after the team's record made a modest jump from 6-17-7 in 2016 to 8-12-12 in Brandt's first full season.
Brandt, for his part, was candid in acknowledging mistakes he has made leading the Riverhounds, where he has learned it's a big leap to the pro ranks from winning six NCAA Division III titles at Messiah and having a successful Division I run at Navy.
“I've been really open with our guys about this. Looking back, I feel like I learned almost nothing from my half-season in 2016,” Brandt said. “I do feel like, now, after going through one whole cycle, it's almost like, ‘Oh, now I see.' I feel like I learned about 267 things that I did not know, and I think that will benefit me and benefit us in very real ways.”
Shallenberger said the club has options on “90 percent” of the roster — USL contract details generally are not disclosed — and Brandt will have the freedom shaping next year's team. While that means many regular starters, such as captain and midfield veteran Kevin Kerr, appear likely to be retained, Brandt will be hard at work in the free-agent market as players go unsigned or are released by MLS and USL teams.
“There's a lot happening in the league right now with player movement, even though it's barely over for some (teams) and not over for others,” Brandt said. “We're going to have a smaller squad next year. I think we're going to move a little more slowly. ... Probably going to open (camp) Feb. 1 instead of Jan. 15. But I do think signings and agreements may happen relatively soon.”