A Connecticut-based real estate developer and his Buffalo-based partner are announcing they have secured conditional rights to a United Soccer League franchise for Buffalo. But it comes on the condition they can get a soccer-specific stadium built.
John McClutchy, Jr., along with his local business partner Dennis Penman, would also be required to complete economic feasibility studies as part of their conditional agreement. Those studies are expected to be completed and released in December. If the stadium is constructed, the partners hope for the Buffalo-based USL Championship level club to begin play in 2023.
"Buffalo is no stranger to the beautiful game,” said McClutchy in a prepared written statement. "Youth soccer is especially strong, with over 10,000 registered players and a supporter culture that has a great foundation with its American Outlaw chapter. When you combine this with Buffalo’s vibrant downtown community and its growing millennial population, the time is right to get the ball rolling on bringing a USL Championship club to this great city."
When speaking with WBFO, McClutchy said he'd like to build the stadium in or close to downtown Buffalo.
"We are looking at specific sites, but we have confidentiality agreements so I can’t disclose where the sites are. But we are looking at sites that are in the downtown area of Buffalo or very close to it. All of which would have great access,” he said.
Rochester opened a similar size stadium (PAETEC Park) for a similar purpose back in 2006. That stadium hosted USL team Rochester Rhinos from opening until 2017. The Rhinos' rise and fall remains at the forefront of Western New York soccer fans to this day. Now Marina Auto Stadium, the space, which can hold over 13,000, is almost never filled and is home to only a few teams including the NPSL's Rochester Lancers. For comparison, they play in the same league as FC Buffalo which plays at All-High Stadium, who has a capacity closer to 5,000.
McClutchy said he's confident this will be different.
“First of all, that’s not the way I run my business. I don’t want to be pejorative to anyone, but I believe that if you look back to the 1990’s and see the transformation of the Rochester Rhinos from a championship team to a failure, it was management error that caused that failure. We run very successful businesses. We are very focused on how operate our businesses,” he said. “ We have reached out to experts at all levels, including people in the Premiere League, in Europe, sports advisors as far as Great Britain and worked with USL. They had to vet us and our plan in order to be comfortable that we wouldn’t come back with a failure at some point in the future. Our stadium is going to be soccer specific. It is going to be state of the art. We have spent a lot of time visiting other stadiums and identifying what we want and what we should have versus what others may have which doesn’t work quite as well.”
The USL Championship division is the second tier of the United States soccer pyramid, one step below Major League Soccer. Currently, 36 clubs compete in two conferences.
Located at the fourth tier of the US soccer pyramid is the city's existing club, FC Buffalo, which competes with amateur players and completed its tenth season this past summer. FC Buffalo's Nick Mendola calls the prospect of a pro soccer club in Buffalo "an exceptional thing." One of the visions Mendola and his partners had when forming FC Buffalo was to grow the city as a legitimate soccer market.
"It's obviously down the road," Mendola said. "What we've built here over ten, eleven years now, we're not surprised that it's attractive. We're not surprised that it's opened people's eyes about what can be done in Buffalo. Certainly we've had conversations and it's our job to facilitate the right things for Buffalo soccer, moving forward."
FC Buffalo has previously played host to foreign clubs. In 2011, it welcomed lower-level English club Bedlington Terriers to All-High Stadium. Earlier this year, FC Buffalo traveled to Germany to play pre-season matches and then welcomed German second-division club FC St. Pauli to Buffalo.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown welcomed the prospect of a pro soccer club in his city when asked Tuesday afternoon. He noted that it's the world's most popular sport and suggests when a pro club arrives in a community, it shows that community is growing.
"I certainly think there's room for it," he said. "Buffalo, we believe, is a growing city. We're certainly an international city. There are more than 85 languages spoken in the Buffalo Public Schools. We have young people and adults from all over the world living in the City of Buffalo, and their number one sport is soccer."
Mayor Brown says McClutchy's group has reached out to his office and is working with his administration to find a site suitable for a soccer-specific stadium.
Mendola reminds local soccer fans that the "the beautiful game" is already here and will be available as McClutchy, Penman and others work to secure a pro club. FC Buffalo will enter its 11th season in the National Premier Soccer League in 2020.
Among the points of pride for FC Buffalo is its model of community involvement and civic pride, as well as a spirit of inclusion and non-discrimination. He hopes if a USL Championship club eventually arrives in Buffalo, they'll have a similar culture.
"Our city is one of hard-working people who take care of each other," Mendola said. "Community first, easily. I recognize it's a business and you have to get by. Believe me, we do that every day. But if you're not using that platform for good, then what good are you?"