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Wild Things owners looking to duplicate success

| Saturday, May 7, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

The president and managing partner of the Washington Wild Things and Riverhounds FC stood inside the main gate at Falconi Field last Sunday evening, bundled up against the bone-chilling wind blowing on the first day of May.

"Hi, I'm John Swiatek," he said, introducing himself to incoming fans of the soccer team playing its first regular-season game ever at the Washington ballpark.

"One thing about this park, it's not like it's PNC Park or Heinz Field," Swiatek said. "It's easy to get to know people here."

Personal attention, a good location and affordable ticket prices are just some of the reasons behind the Wild Things' success.

In the first three years of the team's existence, they were named Frontier League Organization of the Year twice, first in 2002 and again in 2004. They consistently pack the park to capacity, and Wild Things merchandise sells four to five times better than that of other minor league baseball teams.

Now, ownership group Sports Facility LLC hopes to make the Riverhounds, which they purchased in December, a success where previous attempts at professional soccer in the Pittsburgh area have failed.

"We're going to grow," Swiatek said. "A year from now we're going to look back and we'll have made this a soccer community."

Frontier League 2004 executive of the year Ross Vecchio said their diagram for success starts with a business plan for ticket sales.

"You want to drive ticket sales," Vecchio said. "That's what we feel gives us an advantage over the previous ownership is that we do run the stadium and the concessions and everything that goes with it, but like anything, it takes ticket sales to make a team successful."

The group reached this year's goal of 500 Riverhounds season tickets sold -- up from roughly 120 sold in 2004 -- and Swiatek said group sales have been strong.

The actual crowd that watched the Riverhounds drop the home opener, 2-1, to Western Mass was smaller than the announced crowd total of 2,115, but Swiatek was pleased nonetheless.

The Riverhounds averaged 1,410 playing at Moon Area High School last season.

"I was hoping for a few more people but it was OK," Swiatek said. "It was twice as much as they had last year for the opener and I think people here enjoyed it. I want to sell out every night, but we're taking something and re-energizing it so we have to keep our expectations in line. This year our goal is to sell 2,250 tickets per game and I truly believe we're going to do that."

Executives have stepped up advertising and recently signed with ClearChannel for radio rights on Fox 970 AM and a two-game television package on FSN Pittsburgh, hoping to reach a wider audience.

They've also traveled to soccer organizations across the area to explain who they are and what they're about.

Once in the park, fans are met with the same T-shirt tosses, games and other extras that have made the Wild Things so entertaining. In the near future, they'll be giving out what Swiatek called a soccer primer, which will explain the rules and introduce the players to fans new to the sport.

"It's just such a competitive, physical game," Swiatek said. "It's exciting, so I do believe when we get people to watch, they're going to enjoy it and come back."

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