Not so long ago, Rochester New York was one of the brilliant success stories of American soccer.
An A League/USL 1 city (and former NASL venue) where the average attendance of almost 11,000 regularly topped many MLS teams, the Rhinos were also big winners on the field: besides regularly contending for the league championship, in 1999 they stunned all of American soccer by knocking off four consecutive MLS teams and winning the US Open Cup.
The result of all this success was going to be PAETEC Park, an 18,000 seat soccer specific stadium complete with all the amenities in an easily accessible suburban location. Many people saw this as a precursor to entry into MLS. Don Garber regularly mentioned them as a prime expansion candidate. Others suggested that since the Rhinos were making money and MLS was bleeding red ink, the owners would be nuts to make that move.
So many people have been stunned recently to learn that the Rochester Raging Rhinos, once the flagship of second division US soccer, may have played their last game. Vendors who have been waiting two years to get paid are suing. A consortium of local banks just filed an $11 million lawsuit claiming loan defaults.. The City is threatening to take over the stadium. Attendance is in the toilet. It's bad.
How this happened is a long story, and for the all of the bloody details I highly recommend JEFF DIVERONICA'S EXCELLENT BLOG at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle website.
As with most complete disasters, there's plenty of blame to go around, but if you have to pick one specific set of villains, it seems clear the whole thing started with the politicians.
The majority of the funding to build PAETEC Park, $19 million, was provided by the State of New York. However, they weren't happy with the comfortable, safe, easily accessible suburban location the owners had selected. They wanted it located in the city, where it could serve as a spark for urban redevelopment.
So they knocked down a dozen or so houses in what amounts to the ghetto and plopped down the stadium. And not surprisingly, no one much wanted to go there. Attendance plummeted.
On top of that, the stadium still isn't finished. Due to cost overruns, the 18,000 seats turned into 11,000. The planned suites, the locker rooms, the team offices, all of them are still unbuilt. The money has been appropriated, but the City of Rochester has refused to allow it to be spent until the team can prove they're not going to abandon the building.
But the owners say that a big reason they aren't solvent is that they don't have the suites revenue. Another reason they're not solvent is that they've been paying $250,000 per year for each of three trailers they had to rent to use as locker rooms, storage facilities and team offices because they haven't been built either. The vendor who provided the trailers recently sued for his $1.5 million. He claims he never got a dime.
Which is OK because the guy who rented the furniture that went into the trailers IS SUING TOO. So is the guy who rented the tent which serves as a sort of stadium club. So is...well, you get the idea.
Is there any hope here? Are the Rhinos finished, and will PAETEC Park, a basically splendid - albeit unfinished - soccer stadium going to become just another vacant building in a really bad part of town?
Well, like most really good stories, this one has a white knight in the form of one Dan Williams.
Williams is a British ex-pat living in New Jersey who has made a fortune through various US business enterprises. An avid soccer fan born in Lancashire, he is currently negotiating to purchase Rovers, the club of his youthful dreams. But Williams is also interested in making a soccer investment in the US, and for some as-yet unexplained reason he has expressed a serious interest in buying into the Rhinos.
If he does, Rochester's current management can pay off their creditors and prove to the city that they're not folding, which will result in them releasing the money to finish building the stadium and allow them to sign some decent players again (and pay them on time, something else which has been a problem).
What's more, one of Williams' businesses is home building, and he could serve as a one-man urban renewal agent in the area around the stadium, providing a clean safe setting and ample parking, ending the mystery of whether you'll ever see your car again after going into the stadium.
I hope this happens. I also hope Santa comes down the chimney bringing the Easter Bunny with him. And unfortunately, the odds are beginning to look pretty similar.