New England Soccer Today

Could McCoy Stadium Host Pro Soccer?

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On Monday, the Pawtucket Red Sox announced its new ownership group, and with it, the news that the team will be abandoning McCoy Stadium for a new stadium in Providence, R.I. as early as 2017. With the venerable stadium’s days numbered as a host for pro baseball, city officials would be wise to consider using it to court another pro sport: soccer.

Why soccer instead of baseball? Because, for all intents and purposes, minor league baseball isn’t coming back once the last out is recorded at the 73-year-old stadium. The impending departure of the “PawSox” is just the latest in a series of minor league outfits escaping older ballparks for newer homes. The latest example can be found right in New England, where the New Britain Rock Cats are abandoning a ballpark that’s less than 20-years-old for a new home in Hartford, Ct. What’s more, there’s a minor league stadium under construction in Columbia, S.C. that hasn’t even secured a tenant yet. In other words, there’s no shortage of communities willing to pay hand over fist for the opportunity to host minor league baseball.

Given the current climate, the city has three options for the stadium, which underwent extensive renovations in 1999: 1.) demolish it, 2.) let it stand as an oversized venue for youth sports, or 3.) retrofit it for another pro sport. If it chooses the latter, soccer is the best alternative. And here’s why.

Over the last decade, the sport’s popularity in the U.S. has jumped off the screen. TV viewership and attendance figures across the country are at all-time highs. A number of smaller cities similar to Pawtucket have jumped on the soccer bandwagon by welcoming lower-division outfits. And it’s easy to see why. While families are getting gauged by the so-called “Big Four,” pro soccer – whether it’s MLS, USL, or NASL – has proven itself as the budget-friendly alternative to the $500 night out for a family of four.

Yes, McCoy Stadium isn’t suited for soccer at the moment. It’s configuration is for baseball, and baseball only (although it has hosted high school football during the fall). But it does boast a number of features that make it an attractive venue to watch a soccer game.

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Current capacity is listed at approximately 10,000, which is an ideal size for a home park in USL (3rd division) or NASL (2nd division). The stadium’s amenities, which have been regularly updated over the years to comply with affiliated baseball’s strict venue guidelines, unquestionably exceeds any existing standards in lower-division soccer. Parking, bathrooms, concourses and sightlines – none of these items are areas of concern at the stadium.

Of course, positioning it as an attractive destination for an expansion minor league soccer club isn’t a difficult sell on paper. It’s easy to say how everything could work in theory, and imagine how McCoy Stadium could be transformed into a baby Bernabeu with the right amount of financial backing. In reality, it would take a considerable time, effort, and money to give the historic stadium a shot at netting a pro soccer team, and in essence, a new lease on life.

For starters, a similar trend of building new stadiums for pro soccer is not unlike the one that’s pulling the PawSox to Providence. “Modern” and “urban” are becoming magic words for any prospective soccer owner. McCoy Stadium is neither, and perhaps most notably, it hasn’t hosted a soccer match since 1970. Plus, the appeal of having a franchise – soccer or otherwise – play its home games at a venue built during World War II probably isn’t the stuff marketing dreams are made of.

But those factors shouldn’t rule out McCoy Stadium as an alternative. The field – one of the most expansive in minor league baseball – is large enough to accommodate a proper pitch. The clubhouses and weight rooms undoubtedly all exceed existing lower-division soccer standards. Ditto for lighting. Not be overlooked: it has a natural grass surface. And what about turning it into a full-blown soccer stadium? Well, if that were to come to pass, McCoy Stadium wouldn’t be the first.

In 2009, Portland, Ore. approved funding to retrofit PGE Park – which, at the time, served as the home to Minor League Baseball’s Portland Beavers – as a soccer-specific venue for the USL’s Portland Timbers. At the time, the Timbers were playing in the stadium as a part-time tenant, making due within the confines of a baseball configuration. The Beavers left shortly after, allowing the Timbers to take over. The city-approved approved funding, combined with private dollars, provided the necessary upgrades ahead of the 2011 MLS season. Since then, the stadium – now called Providence Park – has welcomed capacity crowds of nearly 20,000 on a regular basis.

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Another thing to consider: lower division soccer is booming. Booming as in BOOMING. For proof, consider that USL will field 24 clubs in 2015 – a 200 percent increase from the eight under the league’s umbrella in 2010. USL’s rapid expansion is so remarkable that the league is petitioning U.S. Soccer for second-division status (Triple-A soccer, if you will) in 2016. Meanwhile, NASL’s membership is also on the rise, with 13 clubs set for 2016, and attendance figures rising 68 percent between 2011 and 2014. And with MLS clubs starting to organize and field their own USL sides, Pawtucket would be a prime location for a New England Revolution-backed USL franchise.

There’s no question it would take considerable steps to keep McCoy Stadium as the jewel of the city once the PawSox leave. It would take a strong financial commitment, as well as a bold vision.  A bold vision that could very well unlock the stadium’s potential for hosting pro soccer – possibly for years to come.

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