Reasons for Johnson’s stadium optimism: Waves of success

Reasons for Johnson’s stadium optimism: Waves of success

A rendering of Brett Johnson’s planned USL soccer stadium at Pawtucket’s Tidewater site.

PAWTUCKET – It would be a mistake to look down one’s nose at the future of soccer in this country, say those behind the city’s new soccer-centric $400 million riverfront development proposal.

Fortuitous Partners Founder and Co-Chairman Brett Johnson said the United Soccer League Championship League is attracting significant investment dollars across the country.

“Just this month alone, there were announcements in Pawtucket, a groundbreaking in Colorado, and a ballot measure to finance a stadium that passed in Oklahoma with 70 percent of the vote,” he told The Breeze.

USL has been characterized by some as a minor league sport, said Johnson, but it is bringing major investment to communities, with some $1 billion in new stadium construction planned.

“The benefits to communities around the stadiums will be substantial as well,” he said. “This has been our experience in Phoenix.”

Johnson says he knows better than anyone what a draw USL can be. His Phoenix Rising FC, which he said has communities “tripping over themselves” trying to build it a new stadium, has been averaging more than 7,000 fans in a 6,200-seat stadium in Arizona, with even the 800 standing room tickets routinely sold.

Johnson, who rebranded that team in 2016 after buying into the former Arizona United in 2015, found a new location to build a modular stadium on tribal land near Arizona State University, with the 6,200-seat structure put up in 51 days.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told The Valley Breeze Monday that Phoenix Rising FC “has been a fantastic asset to our community. In 2019, not only did their loyal fan base sell out every game, but they won 20 consecutive soccer matches, setting a North American record for longest winning streak,” she said. “Phoenix Rising has put in a significant amount of work to make Phoenix a soccer destination and our community has benefited from their investment.”

When Johnson eventually writes a book on franchise ownership, he said it will be short. “Location, location, location,” he said, and that’s why his planned Pawtucket riverfront location for another USL franchise, tentatively called the Rhode Island Riptides, has him so excited.

The Pawtucket stadium, at 7,500 seats, has options for expansion, and Johnson is confident the growth will be there in this top-10 soccer viewing market.

The new name, new location, new stadium and the arrival of one of the greatest soccer players, Didier Drogba, has certainly helped in Arizona, said Johnson, and fans there know they’ll get a first-class experience.

Johnson said the four-month due diligence period in Pawtucket is going well as he continues down the path of developing a new stadium, new events center, hotel, and commercial and residential spaces. The owners are in the “box-checking business” right now, he said. The three boxes he expects to make announcements on within the next 30 days are:

• An agreement with the city for the 45 Division St. property;

• An agreement with National Grid on the Tidewater property;

• And firm written commitments from investors. There have been plenty of verbal commitments, he said, but he’s compiling investor documents now for those considering making their involvement official.

Though there may not be many hang-ups on acquiring the city’s parcel in this three-property plan, said Johnson, the sides need to hammer out the specifics of how the agreement will look, including a potential lease by Fortuitous Partners.

Johnson again emphasized that USL is not an entity that can be stacked up in an even comparison with minor league baseball, saying there are 25 USL teams now with no affiliation to MLS. The growing thought, particularly as the league enters new markets, is that this is a strong professional league with talent not that far off from MLS. The payroll at the MLS level is much higher, he said, and MLS teams would more often than not beat USL teams, but every year USL teams pull off upsets at the U.S. Open Cup.

On location, Johnson said this Pawtucket area near I-95 is perfect. To be blunt, he said, redeveloping McCoy Stadium wouldn’t work because it’s not a good location for a stadium.

“You could drive by a million times and never know it’s there,” he said.

The opportunity for corporate sponsorships right off the highway and on the riverfront is astronomical, he said.

When the new club is playing at home, typically once per week, the new owners hope to welcome fans from across Rhode Island and surrounding communities.

“When they are away and during down time, we plan to use the stadium for other sports activities, events and concerts,” said Johnson.

There are several sports that can continue even in the off-season, he said, such as U.S. football and rugby.

“We also plan on hosting various events for the community in the winter,” he said. “The indoor event center will complement the stadium and other development by generating consistent foot traffic all year long.”

Here are some of the other USL stadium 
developments going on right now:

• Under construction for the 2020 USL Championship season Louisville will see a stadium with 11,700 seats, with capacity for nearly 14,000 people. That stadium is a centerpiece of a 40-acre, $200 million mixed-use development on Louisville’s Waterfront Park near downtown. Louisville City FC currently plays in another Louisville stadium. This new stadium is also using Tax Increment Financing mechanism similar to the Pawtucket plan, meaning revenues from new development will go to paying off the public investment. As part of a $30 million allocation from Louisville Metro Council, the city agreed to buy and clean up the land and spend another $5 million on public infrastructure. The Louisville City FC ownership group will finance and build the stadium and lead the development of an adjoining commercial district, according to media outlets. The club has set a new season ticket record in advance of its new stadium opening next year, according to Louisville Business First.

• A stadium in Colorado Springs broke ground Dec. 7, with a new USL Championship team expected to play in 2021. This $35 million, 8,000-seat downtown stadium is expected to be used for concerts, amateur sports, etc. It will place an event center on the Colorado College campus with private funding. The Colorado Economic Development Commission approved $120.5 million in funding over 30 years for the City of Champions projects, about $13 million of which is earmarked for the stadium and developers picking up the rest of the cost, according to The Gazette.

• In Oklahoma, a voter-approved one-cent sales tax designed to invest in city services and infrastructure won 70 percent of the vote from residents, funding 16 projects costing $978 million. A total of $37 million will be used to build a new multi-purpose 10,000-seat stadium, a facility suitable for professional and college soccer, high school football and soccer, concerts and other events, according to The Oklahoman.

• In Indiana, the Indiana Eleven team, founded in 2013, moved to USL in 2018. Eleven Park, a mixed-use development that would be anchored by a new 20,000-seat stadium, includes plans for $400 million in privately financed development, with the club, which has MLS aspirations, seeking a public funding contribution of about $150 million, according to The Indy Star. A bill would allow taxes collected within the development to cover the public’s 80 percent share of the stadium cost.

• Other stadiums are in development in Tennessee and Georgia, and there are also potential new stadiums in Iowa, New York, Maryland and New Mexico.