Fireworks over Slugger Field, where Louisville City FC has played. | Courtesy of LCFC.
Fireworks over Slugger Field, where Louisville City FC has played. | Courtesy of LCFC.

As the local pro soccer club, Louisville City FC, prepares for its second season, club and city leaders hope to build on the inaugural season’s unexpected success. But the club’s long-term prospects in Louisville and in the United Soccer League may hinge on the construction of a local soccer-specific stadium.

Louisville City FC , which has been playing at Slugger Field, home of the Louisville Bats, averaged about 6,700 spectators last year, more than any other club in the league except one, according to the team.

However, the United Soccer League said last year that a “critical part of our strategic growth plan is to have all USL clubs as owners or primary tenants of soccer-specific stadiums by 2020.”

The USL would not tell IL whether a team that does not have a soccer-specific stadium stadium — or at least one under construction — by the end of the decade would lose its USL franchise.

“As far as those potential scenarios, the league doesn’t have a direct comment on that at the moment,’” league spokesman Charlie Corr said via email.

Adam Geigerman, the Louisville club’s director of marketing and communications, said that while he thinks “it’s a fair assumption that they will not kick out or refuse to accept teams without a soccer-specific stadium by 2020 … it is becoming one of their minimum standards.”

Much like the league sees soccer-specific venues as critical to its growth, Louisville City FC leaders said a stadium plays a big role in the club’s long-term viability.

The club gets about two-thirds of its revenues from ticket sales, but because it does not own a stadium, it is losing out on dollars generated through advertising and concessions.

Amanda Duffy
Amanda Duffy

Club President Amanda Duffy said the club also is incurring “conversion costs” in the baseball stadium, for putting down turf and raising/lowering the baseball mound.

A club-owned stadium “just opens up our revenue sources,” she said.

Louisville Metro Government has agreed to pay $75,000 to study the feasibility of constructing a new 8,000- to 10,000-seat stadium in four potential areas, including downtown. The stadium is to be expandable to about 20,000 seats, to keep alive the club owners’ hopes to run a Major League Soccer club in Louisville..

Without its own stadium, the LCFC will not be able to reach its goals in the USL — and certainly not the MLS, Geigerman said.

“It is a key to our success in the long term,” he said.

How much? Who pays?

Both club and city officials are mum on the stadium’s potential locations, cost and who would pay.

A similar project in Salt Lake City in 2014 was estimated to cost between $13 million and $18 million. A proposed 15,000-seat stadium in Hartford, Conn., is expected to cost about $35 million.

Louisville leaders declined to answer questions about whether they are willing to support a soccer stadium financially beyond paying for the feasibility study, and, if so, to what extent.

“The city is committed to conducting and paying for the study which will include input from all relevant parties,” the city told IL in an emailed statement. “When it is completed, the city will analyze the results and decide the next course of action.”

The local public may be reluctant to help foot the bill, especially given the city already shells out $9.8 million annually to help pay for the KFC Yum! Center, which has struggled with lower-than-expected revenues from its tax-increment financing district and debt downgrades because of questions about the long-term viability of the project’s financing mechanism.

The rationale for and projected financial benefits of sports venues are increasingly coming under scrutiny, with some city leaders around the world saying such investments do not produce a good return.

Jose Fernandez
Jose Fernandez

Jose Fernandez, associate professor of economics at the University of Louisville, said that academic research on the economic benefits of sports venues — or rather, a lack thereof — is clear: “Several independent studies have found no statistically significant positive relationship between sports facility construction and economic development,” he told IL via email.

“This result is contrary to most results from promotion consultants, but let’s face it, it is their job to find positive economic impacts,” Fernandez said. “There is even a study in economics that finds per capita income decreases after stadium construction.”

However, Ken Luther, president of the LCFC fan club Louisville Coopers, said a soccer stadium in Louisville could have a positive impact in numerous ways, like serving as a modern venue for events such as rock concerts.

The venue and the pro soccer team would “put Louisville on the map” and indicate that the city is willing to invest in quality of life.

In that case, Fernandez said, it would make sense to finance the project through a public bond, which would be supported “by people who feel having such a team is worth it or a good investment.”

Should city funds be required, city leaders would have to convince a potentially reluctant public that the investment makes sense. On the flip side, if the city bows out, the stadium financing would fall solely on the club. If that were to happen, Duffy said, club leaders would have to meet with the ownership group.

Time is of the essence: Duffy said she hopes to get the feasibility study early this summer. Construction, depending on the location, could take up to three years, she said.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.