Owner: Riverhounds are in Pittsburgh to stay
Having just finished their season with a 6-17-7 record, it is fair to say the Riverhounds enter the offseason in rebuilding mode.
But while straightening out the on-field product is a major task, it is only part of the puzzle for the club as it continues to battle for a foothold as the fourth pro team in a crowded Pittsburgh sports market.
The frustration of missing the playoffs for the ninth time in the club's 17 seasons was evident, no more so than at the gate. The Riverhounds drew their lowest average attendance in four years at Highmark Stadium, barely cracking 2,000 fans per game after three straight seasons of more than 2,600.
“Financially, we're fine. We have a lot of good things coming with sponsors, but we definitely took a hit at the gate and we took that hit because we're not winning,” Riverhounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger told the Tribune-Review. “You've got to win in Pittsburgh.”
Shallenberger, who took full ownership of the club in late 2014 when it emerged from bankruptcy, admits he is “not a soccer guy” in terms of assembling the team but has been working to position the team where it is competitive on the field and secure on the business side. The club's youth academy continues to be profitable, and Shallenberger said the deficit created by the pro team has been cut nearly in half — more than $1 million — since the bankruptcy filing.
“It's easy to question because we aren't winning. I've been quiet lately, and (the team) has taken their lumps on Twitter, social media,” Shallenberger said. “But I know what's going on behind closed doors. A lot of changes are being made, and I couldn't be happier with (coach) Dave (Brandt) and Dave will be here a long time.”
Changes to the soccer landscape could bolster the team's profitability.
USL, the Riverhounds' league, is considered the third division by the U.S. Soccer Federation, although the designation largely is arbitrary without the promotion/relegation system that creates a free market and movement between leagues as in other countries. The divisional designation is a marketing tool, however, which is why USL continues to push U.S. Soccer to be a second-division league, a spot held by the financially troubled North American Soccer League.
Shallenberger said the USL's expansion helped the Riverhounds, and a move to the second division — one the owner is confident will occur — would be a huge bargaining chip for the league in many regards, the biggest of which is expanding its TV deal and creating a revenue stream that would trickle down to all its clubs.
“USL is going to end up being a second-division league, and we're going to be there,” Shallenberger said.
While those changes are out of the Riverhounds' control, Shallenberger is reorganizing his own operation.
The club, which has been without a team president or general manager since the departure of Richard Nightingale before the season, will hire someone in that role who can work with Brandt on building the team.
Brandt already started on 2017, and he said there are a handful of players he hopes to keep while others will not return. Only Kevin Kerr and Chevaughn Walsh are under contract for next year, though the team holds club options for many players, including leading scorer Corey Hertzog.
“It really is the recruiting trail. I don't even know that there are differences,” said Brandt, who is in his first pro offseason after more than two decades as a college coach. “We've been working hard on it already. It's not like we're starting (this week). There are some different dynamics, but it is recruiting — being at games, at combines, being on the phone with people.”
Shallenberger said Brandt and the front office will have the resources to compete next year, and the owner and his business staff at the same time will be revamping and growing the club's brand.
“That's not going to be a problem. Player payrolls aren't real extreme. If you go from the top team to the bottom team (in USL), it's not real far off,” Shallenberger said. “I think we need to put some money toward the marketing end, possibly rebranding. There's going to be a lot of things changing here, but this club isn't going anywhere. It's here to stay.”