As officials from the local pro soccer club are working hard to persuade city leaders to help them with their proposed stadium, coaches, players and back office staff are preparing for a possible deep run into the playoffs.
For the first time in its three seasons, Louisville City will finish the season as Eastern Conference leader, granting the team home field advantage through the conference final. That means Slugger Field could be the venue for at least three post-season matches — and possibly the league final — provided the club keeps winning.
“We’re excited about it,” Chief Operating Officer Steve Livingstone said this week, sitting in the club’s new offices at 110 W. Main St.
Livingstone told Insider that he and Coach James O’Connor generally hesitate to look beyond the next match — superstition and jinxes and all that — but he said the club certainly has to generate additional ticket sales, kick off promotions, set up practices, make preparations at the venue — and possible travel arrangements.
The team’s guaranteed first place finish is reducing the travel uncertainties somewhat, in that the team would play at least three playoff matches at its home venue, Slugger Field, home of the Louisville Bats, if it wins the first two playoff matches.
“The Bats have been really great to work with this year,” Livingstone said.
As the No. 1 seed, LouCity at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 will play the No. 8 seed, presumably the weakest playoff team — although that’s currently the New York Red Bulls II, the team that beat LouCity last year in the Eastern Conference final and ultimately won the league championship.
Livingstone said the United Soccer League sets playoff weekends but gives clubs the ability to arrange on which day they want to play.
For the first playoff weekend, Slugger has an event scheduled for Saturday, so LouCity chose to host Friday night to avoid losing spectators to competing sports, including Sunday football matches. If the team progresses, Livingstone said it would go back to hosting matches Saturday nights.
Where the league final will be played has yet to be determined. Livingstone said the USL reserves the right to choose the venue to ensure a big crowd as it is still in a stage of promoting the league and the brand. However, he said if LouCity reached the league final, the club would insist on hosting and believes it would have a good chance, given the solid local support.
Attendance this year is at about 8,500 per home game, up about 25 percent from last year, he said. LouCity hosted a club record 13,812 fans in August in a match against its River Cities Cup rival FC Cincinnati. That club, too likely will be in the playoffs. Another clash at Slugger during the playoffs would be sure to bring a big crowd.
“That would keep us busy,” Livingstone said with a smile.
Regardless of the opponents, the club plans to focus marketing its playoff matches in and around Louisville. Beyond FC Cincinnati, other clubs are unlikely to arrive with significant numbers of fans, in part because of the potentially great distances from New York City or Charlotte.
“Which is fine,” Livingstone said, “because we want as many of our local fans in the stadium.”
Tickets, player bonuses
Livingstone said that selling tickets for playoff matches posed a challenge, in part because the club did not know how many more matches it would get to play. Ticket sales are especially important for the club, as it does not generate money from concessions.
For the first time this year, LouCity is offering a three-game playoff package, starting at $35 and including a limited edition scarf. Early this week the club had sold more than 1,000 such packages, giving the team a good foundation for the playoffs, Livingstone said. If the team fails to progress, fans can get their money back or apply the credit to future games or merchandise.
Beyond reaching out to season ticket holders, which account for about 35 percent of home game attendance, LouCity’s sales team also is working hard to sell group tickets, which account for about 45 percent of spectators at Slugger. Large local employers typically buy tickets in bulk and at a discount and provide them to employees.
The sales team has to hustle because of the short turnaround between playoff matches, Livingstone said. Selling tickets for the playoffs also is tougher than during the regular season because of greater competition from other leagues, including the National Football League.
“It’s a challenge for us,” he said.
If the team reached the final and had to play in Salt Lake City — the Real Monarchs, who play in the Western Conference, will finish with the league’s best record — the club would work with a local travel agent to arrange airline travel. It would require some quick work, as the team prefers arriving at the final’s location three or four days before the match, Livingstone said. That means the club would have to make arrangements for dozens of people for air travel, lodging and access to proper food and training facilities in as little as three days.
But, Livingstone said, he’s not complaining.
“It’s a fun thing to plan for,” he said. “I’d rather have it that way than sitting at home.”
For the players, the playoffs also bring some challenges, as they’re already playing a longer regular season than in prior years. However, reaching the playoffs also brings financial rewards.
The club does not release salary figures, in line with league customs, but many of the players get paid monthly, and each playoff game would net them a bonus, Livingstone said.
“They have high aspirations this year,” he said.
Before the playoffs begin, LouCity FC will play two more matches at Slugger to round out the regular season, including Saturday’s clash with Charlotte, which is still vying for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. That means Saturday’s match, for which tickets are still available, could be a preview of the conference final.
Livingstone urged local fans to come out for the last two matches to give the club a good send-off into the playoffs. The team may need it: It secured home field advantage through the Eastern Conference championship although it won just one of the last five matches. Many of the top teams are struggling down the stretch: The top five teams in the Eastern Conference have won just seven of their last 25 matches combined.