USL to Baltimore: An Interview with Fred Matthes

There have long been rumors that USL has been seriously considering bringing a professional USL soccer team to Baltimore, with the help of a DC-area potential owner. This individual (whose name I am leaving out of this article, everything I’ve heard is from inside sources but not completely verified) is part of a successful DC-area tech company with ties to the youth game, and has reportedly been scouting possible locations for a USL stadium in Baltimore City.

For those who aren’t familiar with our petition to help bring a USL team to Baltimore City, you can view more details and sign the petition here.

There have been many questions regarding a potential professional soccer team in the Baltimore area, after previously failed attempts to bring professional soccer to Maryland by Crystal Palace FC, Real Maryland, and Baltimore Bohemians of the PDL, who announced they would be going on hiatus.

Would there be a new stadium? Would it be in the city or in Baltimore County?

What would this new team do differently from the past teams? Would Baltimore support a professional soccer team? What does USL look at and take into consideration when reviewing potential USL markets?

I discussed all of these issues with Fred Matthes, a professional soccer consultant. Fred has over 23 years of experience in sales and operations for professional soccer teams in the US. He was with DC United’s ticket sales operation at the beginning of the franchise in 1995, with DC’s ticket sales department winning multiple MLS awards under his watch as Senior Director.

Fred later went on to work with Sacramento Republic FC, a growing USL franchise named in November by MLS as an expansion finalist along with Cincinnati FC, as their Vice President of Ticket Sales . Fred has also worked as a consultant with Fresno FC, a new USL franchise starting in 2018, headed by GM Fred Yallop (former assistant at DC United), who asked Fred personally to come to Fresno and assist with staffing and operations efforts.

I’ve heard Fred’s name mentioned in multiple soccer circles, especially for his work in the early days of DC United. One of the main reasons why I wanted to speak with Fred is because he has 23 years of experience inside MLS and USL franchises, especially as it relates to business, marketing, and operations. I believe his insight to be truly valuable, as we search for answers related to professional USL soccer in Baltimore.

Below are some things we discussed.

Baltimore as a Professional Soccer Market

Me: “Fred, thanks for your time. Baltimore has been rumored to be in contention for a USL team for some time now, but some are saying that past teams have tried and failed. What’s different in 2018 and moving forward versus in the past?”

Fred: “Of course! Thanks for having me. I do believe that the Baltimore market is one with a lot of potential as a USL city. When you look at the rich soccer history in the Baltimore area, the fact that it’s a major metropolitan city, and a number of other factors at play that USL looks at (discussed below), I believe USL should seriously consider Baltimore as a future market.

USL is in the process of expanding. They announced last year that they would be launching a USL Division III in 2019, which means they’ll need to add teams and franchises to the league as they look to continue their growth. It was also announced recently that USL would be sanctioned by US Soccer as a second-division league, so there are a lot of owners out there who see potential as promotion/relegation discussions continue.

So when you look at markets where MLS clubs have launched their “B” teams- Vancouver, New York (Red Bulls), Seattle, and other cities- they aren’t getting many people out to those games. Maybe 600 or so, on a good day. When you compare those attendance numbers with those of say a Sacramento, or Cincinnati, or Phoenix, there is a debate as to whether or not it makes sense to have those MLS II sides actually compete in the top USL Division, or if down the road you eventually bump those MLS II sides down, and in the meantime add franchises in other major cities which can get fans out to their stadiums.

As USL continues to grow, and you see certain markets like Philadelphia who has Philly Union at MLS level and Bethlehem Steel in USL, or other major markets which have 2 professional teams, I believe that USL and others in the past overlooked Baltimore and just assumed they were part of the DC metro market. This thought process has since changed. You can’t get a lot of people to drive an hour plus (in traffic) from Baltimore to see a DC United game, and I believe USL is more aware that. In certain major markets, there in enough room for two pro teams to be successful as the game continues to grow in popularity.”

Me: “Well there would be another DC United professional team launching in Loudoun County, they just announced approval for a USL stadium and plan on bringing a USL team to that area.”

Fred: “Correct, but DC United has always wanted to have a “headquarters” type of setup where they can have all of the front-office staff, players, coaches, youth academy, everyone at one key central location (with RFK and the RFK auxiliary fields not being the most professional club atmosphere).

Their plans to expand to the Loudoun County area, where…again, people in Loudoun County and outskirts of Virginia will pay for tickets and go see games locally, but it’s a big ask for them to pack up the family and travel to DC for MLS matches on the weekends….but that offers even more opportunity for Baltimore as a USL market. DC United’s new stadium is in DC, and their USL stadium will be in Virginia, so it’s possible that families and soccer fans in areas in between Baltimore and DC- such as Howard County, Anne Arundel County, and other big parts of Maryland- might identify more with a Baltimore-based franchise than with DC United, if they had to choose.”

What Factors Do USL Consider When Reviewing a Potential City?

Me: “Interesting. So when you say that USL in the past might have overlooked Baltimore, and assumed it was part of the DC or ‘DMV’ market, what are some things that USL actually look at when assessing a potential market? And how would you compare those factors in Baltimore with those of other USL markets?”

Fred: “Well like I said earlier, Baltimore has potential for so many different reasons.

The first is the youth soccer market. In Maryland, you have 175k-200k kids playing soccer. While many of these kids might live in counties closer to DC like Montgomery County, PG, or Southern Maryland, there are still big counties (in terms of population) closer to Baltimore like Baltimore City and County, Harford County, Howard County, Anne Arundel County, and so on which a new USL franchise could market to.

Overall population is something that USL also looks at.

Note: The top 10 counties in Maryland by population, according to census numbers published in March 2017:

  1. Montgomery County (1,043,863)
  2. PG County (908,049)
  3. Baltimore County (908,049)
  4. Baltimore City (621,000)
  5. Anne Arundel (568,346)
  6. Howard County (317,233)
  7. Harford County (251,032)
  8. Frederick County (247,591)
  9. Carroll County (167,656)
  10. Charles County (157,705)

So when you look at the number of kids in Maryland playing soccer, compared to existing USL markets like Cincinnati where around 60,000 kids play soccer, or Louisville (Cincy’s local rival) with around 14,000 kids playing soccer, I’m sure USL sees a lot of potential there.

You also have a neighboring state in Delaware which a new USL team could market to as well. Some of the soccer folks in DE might make the drive to Philly for a Union game, but there are parts of Delaware that could also become fans of a professional Baltimore USL team.

Another factor is Baltimore’s soccer history, obviously. Baltimore is a traditional soccer city, dating back to as far as I can remember.

You have a strong college soccer presence in Baltimore as well. USL really relies on the college market, younger people come out to games and support professional teams in USL based on my experience and with great local colleges in the Baltimore area, coupled with evolving college soccer rivalries like Maryland vs UMBC, Loyola’s recent emergence, and the number of colleges in the area with kids who would come out to games, they’ll take that into consideration.

And of course, the fact that Baltimore is a major city is a big factor. There are a LOT of corporate sponsor opportunities in the Baltimore area. In Sacramento, our kit sponsor was UC Davis, which was huge for us. In Baltimore, you have John Hopkins, Under Armour, McCormick & Company, T. Rowe Price, Legg Mason, all right there in Baltimore City.”

What Makes Sacramento Successful, From A Marketing Standpoint?

Me: “I wanted to bring up the stadium topic, but first I wanted to ask you about your experience with other clubs you’ve worked with, particularly Sacramento. What are some things you experienced in Sacramento, from a marketing and promotional standpoint, that you would want to see replicated in a new potential market like Baltimore?”

Fred: “If a USL team lands in Baltimore, the BIGGEST MISTAKE they can make is marketing it as a ‘semi-pro’ team, or as a team in a division under DC United.

That was probably an issue with past teams’ efforts. If people are under the impression that a USL team in Baltimore is a semi-pro team, or one that doesn’t actually compete with DC United and other MLS teams, it will scare away potential corporate sponsors, potential season ticket holders, and overall public interest. In Sacramento, we marketed the team as a professional soccer team, and that’s how it has to be presented. You’re not going to attract major kit sponsors or supporters if everyone thinks semi-pro soccer is coming to Baltimore, it won’t work. Period.

When you look at a USL market like Louisville, that’s one of their biggest obstacles, the public perception that it’s ‘semi-pro soccer’, especially when compared to local rivals FC Cincinnati who market their team as a professional sports franchise.

Baltimore can’t be like Louisville, it has to be more like Cincinatti, from a marketing standpoint.

You also want to make sure you’re hosting corporate events, and going after younger working professionals. Soccer families are great, but if a stadium ended up in Baltimore City, families from the suburbs will likely only come to games sporadically since they usually have multiple engagements. In Sacramento, we had great success marketing to millennials and younger working professionals, they became supporters of the team and many of them bought season tickets. So you want to do what you can to maintain an active presence in the local business community, but also go after the local craft brewery crowd, which we did in Sacramento, and maintain a presence where people are looking for something else fun to do in the area.

Lastly, the biggest marketing message in Sacramento was that we were community-based. Our message was ‘Live, Work, and Play in Sacramento’. We always made an effort to support the local community, and maintain an active presence locally. I agree with your petition that a new Baltimore USL franchise could do a lot for the local youth, but it won’t happen overnight or right away.

Building more futsal courts in the area, getting the pro players out in the community (which they enjoy anyway, the younger guys love interacting with the locals and building their brand locally), doing whatever you can to give back to the Baltimore community. You have to remember that local politicians need to support the team, so building a political base in the Baltimore area will come as a result of community involvement and the franchise ingraining itself into the local community. You look at how DC Scores has evolved in the DC area, or in Sacramento we had a Street Soccer organization helping to get homeless people involved in soccer….a lot of these community organizations have been able to do such great work because they’ve had the support of their local professional soccer franchises. So if you build a stadium in Baltimore City, and only go after families in Baltimore or Howard County, and ignore the local community, it’ll never work.”

Let’s Talk Stadium

Me: “All of this is great stuff, Fred. The last thing I wanted to ask you about was related to a potential stadium. Talk to me about how things worked in Sacramento, and how you think a new stadium could potentially work here in Baltimore.”

Fred: “So in Sacramento, our first couple of games (in 2014) were played at Charles C. Hughes Stadium, which is a lot bigger than the soccer-specific stadium (now known as Papa Murphy’s Park) that was under construction at the time. But it’s interesting how it worked out, from a business standpoint.

So Charles Hughes Stadium holds around 20,000 people, but the new soccer stadium only held 8,000. But by managing to sell out the first few home games at Charles Hughes Stadium, we were actually able to create a higher demand as we moved into the smaller soccer-specific stadium, because there was a lot less of a supply of tickets. That being said, we were able to sell a lot of season ticket packages, in addition to the VIP Corporate area where we hosted a number of influential local business customers who brought their clients to the matches.

As a result, we expanded the stadium from 8,000 to over 11,000, and we improved the current seating… (laughs) I actually remember the staff out there bolting new backs onto the seats when they came in…and we signed a new corporate sponsor for the stadium naming rights.”

Me: “Interesting. So if a soccer-specific stadium was built here in Baltimore City, a lot of people in the local community are wondering if it would be privately funded, or built by taxpayers. How did it work in Sacramento?”

Fred: “The cost of the initial construction wasn’t very expensive, it was only around $3.5 million to build. It was paid for privately, but the local concessions company split the cost with ownership. People have to remember that a small 5,000-8,000 seat stadium can be used for a lot more than just soccer matches. We had a stage installed, so the stadium hosted smaller concerts, rugby matches, expos, and other events. We even had drone racing, which was actually a big hit.

So initially, the concessions company was happy to split the cost of the stadium construction, based on the fact that it would be selling concessions at all of these events. Eventually, public funding was used to expand the seating of the stadium, but it was a no-brainer based on the value that the stadium was adding to the community.

In Baltimore, with lacrosse being such a popular sport, a smaller soccer-specific stadium could also host college lacrosse, college soccer, concerts, pretty much anything you could think of as long as it didn’t tear up the grass on the pitch.

In Sacramento, when the stadium was being built, there was a local district that was created along with it- new restaurants, bars, and other local attractions. I’ve heard the rumors of Swann Park, which would be interesting. It’s in a fairly-undeveloped area of the city with younger working professionals nearby, it’s easily accessible from I-95, and the new Under Armour headquarters in Port Covington is only a stone’s-throw away. So that would be interesting, assuming the new franchise would be able to build relationships with nearby corporations.

In terms of what USL requires in a stadium- it needs to be at least 5,000 seats, they don’t want any football lines, they don’t want a track around the field, and they don’t want artificial turf (even though some teams still play on turf). We had a great full-time grounds crew in Sacramento which kept the pitch in prestige condition, so that’s also something to consider.

But in terms of Baltimore or Maryland taxpayers paying for the cost of the stadium, I don’t think that’s much of an issue. A new stadium in Baltimore would offer so much to the city in terms of local business opportunities, increased tourism from new events at the stadium, and so forth.”

Thanks!

A special thanks to Fred Mattes (link to his Twitter profile) for his time and insight. Like many of us here in the Baltimore soccer community have said for years, there’s no reason why Baltimore still doesn’t have a professional soccer team based on all of these factors. The history of soccer in the area, along with the value that a professional USL soccer franchise could bring to the community, could be the reason why USL-to-Baltimore rumors continue to circulate. While it’s great that DC United will soon have two professional soccer teams (and stadiums), I think we’d all agree that Baltimore is just as deserving of the opportunity to support our own local professional soccer team.

 

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