Commentary / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

Bethlehem on the move

The United Soccer League has forced Bethlehem Steel FC to acquire a soccer-specific stadium in the Lehigh Valley or significantly improve the one it has.

Deliberately, willfully, and in full knowledge of the consequences, the league has badly, badly damaged whatever market for minor-league professional soccer the club has managed to create in the Lehigh Valley since 2015.

The club’s attempt to keep shreds of its Lehigh Valley fanbase alive by playing the 2019 season for free to 2018 Steel season ticket holders willing to drive the hour-and-a-half one-way to Chester next season suggests it assesses the situation as extreme.

It is further trying to keep that fan base alive by seeking permission for two 2019 Bethlehem home games to be played in Bethlehem.  Given what the league allowed Rochester Rhinos last year – no Rochester team playing but four USL games played in Rochester – an honest, transparent USL response should be supportive.

Bethlehem is also looking into options to televise its games in its home base and in Philadelphia above and beyond needing an ESPN+ subscription. Talks are characterized as active.

A Union source has stated, “[T]he Union love having the USL team in the Lehigh Valley.  We would like to return to the Lehigh Valley in the future pending stadium options presenting themselves. We are continuing conversations with stakeholders in the Lehigh Valley about future stadium options.” Stakeholders is plural.

What is and is not required

Officially, the league demands three things from a stadium: Lights, a FIFA-mandated regulation-sized field, and a 5,000-seat capacity.

Goodman satisfied former sporting director Earnie Stewart’s most essential characteristic of a soccer stadium because its playing surface is grass.

USL does not require the playing surface to be grass. A grass requirement would complicate league access to the nation’s biggest market. Televised sports – TV advertising produces the big money – are all about market access. Why else did the Big Ten seek out Maryland and Rutgers when it became the Big Fourteen?

It is highly possible that a hidden reason for league impatience is that actual, turnstile-count Steel attendance is anemic. Other league clubs have not been required to play night games. Ottawa Fury played 10 of 17 in daylight in 2018 but got better reported attendance.

Keys to resolution?

Most of the city of Bethlehem lies north of the Lehigh River. Lehigh University lies on the south bank, and the university’s athletic complex is further divided from its main campus by a mountain, further separating Bethlehem Steel FC soccer from the city’s heart.

Is locating south of the mountain in the University’s athletic campus the best business option, or does relocating further north for better access to fans make better sense? Developing any new location requires meaningful money. Renovating Lehigh’s stadium would need considerably less than a brand new stadium but would make it less likely that Bethlehem Steel FC could operate in the black.

Payment and control are the issues at the heart of improving Goodman Stadium.

These are Board of Trustees issues, and such bodies need time to decide, let alone raise the money.

How much control would the Union want in return for its money, if it paid for the soccer-specific improvements? To detail one example of a triviality, Steel FC are fined every time they play on a field with American football markings. In the new situation, who would pay?

The Union learned the league’s decision in mid-July. Common sense says the University and Keystone know that measured careful deliberation are best in developing a long-term commitment, were that the direction to go. If the two sides renovate Goodman Stadium together, each will want a firm long-term commitment from the other.

For Keystone Sports that would be a proven commitment to red ink.

A longer-term approach

Owners Jay Sugarman, Richard Leibovitch, and Richie Graham need to decide whether to lock themselves into a location south of the mountain for a significant length of time.

They are spending extra money in 2019 to keep their Lehigh Valley options open.

Maintaining them makes sense because the four MLS2 teams with the worst reported average attendance are those who compete directly with their first-teams in the same market: Toronto FC II, New York Red Bulls II, Swope Park Rangers (Kansas City), and Los Angeles Galaxy II. Reported attendance figures uphold Keystone’s 2015 business decision not to compete in the same market with the Union for ticket sales as they will be doing in 2019.

A built-from-scratch stadium is a time-consuming project, and that would be after the real estate has been acquired. It would be slow, in addition to being considerably more expensive.

“Alternative path” – a sentimental guess

A Union representative has said, “[W]e have been looking for a long-term solution for some time before [mid-July 2018]. When we were alerted earlier this year, it accelerated our path, but no stadium solution will be ready in time for [the] 2019 season.”

No grass, few seats, don’t see light towers

A third way was already being explored, one that is neither Lehigh nor a long, slow, costly “built-from-scratch.”

Moravian College is a stakeholder in Bethlehem.

Modern Bethlehem Steel FC playing on the former Bethlehem Steel pitch now used by the college’s football team would need to replace artificial turf with grass, add seating, and upgrade or add lights. It would be north of the river, in the heart of the city near potential fans. And it would be a fitting tribute to the history of professional soccer in the Lehigh Valley.

5 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Nice work Tim.
    .
    Imagine being fined for causing players to play on a field filled with ‘oblong hand football’ markings the day before you travel to watch your first team play in the right field of a baseball stadium with its foul lines and wonderfully laid sod over a dirt infield that keep a ball from bouncing and rolling.
    .
    Oh US Soccer… these things you you you you do that make about as much sense as: Bayern, Barcelona, PSG, Juventus, Liverpool and many more in the future bringing their academy models to the United States….educating our youth players properly— all while pillaging our (handcuffed forced scarcity {and hardly seen anywhere else in the modern world}) ingenuity. So strange.
    .

  2. Having grown up in Bethlehem, I really hope a situation arises to bring the team back. It would be great if the Union could partner better with agencies and existing facilities either at Lehigh or Moravian, but they don’t really have that demonstration of success in Chester (where they’re headquartered) let alone elsewhere. I’ve heard that “just adding lights” to Goodman is a little bit trickier of an effort to work out than just signing a check. Although that stadium SHOULD have lights; some of the other smaller fields on the campus do and it’s just strange that the marquee venue there doesn’t.

    Going to Moravian would be a great move if they could do anything with that field. That facility isn’t all that great, and for soccer? Probably not with it’s limited seating and track (I just hate tracks surrounding any soccer/football field).

    I really don’t know the cost breakdown or the funds needed to sustain a Bethlehem team, but it makes it seem more and more out of reach with pockets as shallow as Sugarman’s.

  3. Any thoughts on playing at the proposed new Cottingham Stadium in Easton?

    _

    As much as I’d (of course) love a soccer-specific stadium, hard to see where the money comes from. As an MLS-2 side, local investors can’t exercise the kind of power they’d like in exchange for their capital. You’d probably only be able to raise money through naming rights and prime advertising locations.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      …this is the argument I make for a full break from MLS.
      .
      USL is a growing league with a great deal of upside.
      .
      Why be Union’s second team when BSFC could be its own club.

  4. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Not a season ticket holder, but have gone to a game or two each year.
    .

    Goodman/Stabler is a nice set up, if a tad bit inconvenient to get to. Not sure how/why lights were never put in there in the first place, and it is funny that the field that Lehigh U soccer program plays on does have lights, but obviously the stands wouldn’t make the 5,000 threshold.
    .

    I do think that the inability to play night games has been a drag on game attendance. A good part of their target market is likely to be youth soccer teams and extended families. What are those folks doing most weekends from April thru November? Playing soccer.
    .

    I hadn’t thought of the Moravian field as an option, but that could work if they threw some money at it.
    .

    In a dream world, I would love to see them work with the Casino, ArtsQuest/Musikfest, maybe even Lehigh U and Bethlehem Area School District and put a stadium next to Steel Stacks along the river.

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