In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Rochester Rhinos were the envy of soccer clubs across the country. They attracted big crowds to Frontier Field and were poised to join Major League Soccer.
Rochester was Soccer Town USA.
“We’re not Soccer Town USA anymore,” said Jeff DiVeronica, who’s been covering the Rochester soccer scene for 20 years.
The Rhinos have fallen on hard times – again. The Clark family of Utica is giving up the team, as it’s not making money. The United Soccer League pulled the Clarks’ franchise and the city terminated their lease at the stadium.
“I think the stadium is the biggest detriment and hurdle that the team, if it’s going to get back on its feet, is going to have to overcome,” DiVeronica said.
The stadium plays big in the team’s history. Things got tough from the moment the stadium opened in 2006. Fifteen million dollars in state money was contingent on the soccer-specific facility going into a challenged neighborhood. There were complaints about concessions. There wasn’t enough money in the construction budget for suites or locker rooms.
Salvatore “SoccerSam” Fantauzzo, who used to work for the Rhinos and own an indoor soccer club, says fans were not impressed.
“It didn’t have the ambiance of Frontier Field, so people got disappointed and you lost a big part of your fan base,” Fantauzzo said.
Games that once drew more than 12,000 people struggled to draw half that many. In 2008, the team’s original ownership group, defaulted on stadium payments and the city took ownership of the facility.
Taxpayers have since spent millions to finish construction and maintain the stadium. The city hoped when the Clarks took over the Rhinos, they would not need subsidies. But the stadium wasn’t able to generate enough revenue, despite what observers call the Clarks’ best efforts.
Many think the stadium was a costly mistake.
“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have said that. Now? I will you that absolutely it was,” said DiVeronica.
To make the next owner of the Rhinos successful, Fantauzzo thinks the city will need to embrace subsidizing soccer.
“The Red Wings are in great shape with the county help them. The Blue Cross Arena is in great shape with the city helping them. I think the city needs to find a way that soccer stadium get to the next level,” said Fantauzzo.
Will Rochester ever get back its soccer glory days?
“I think we can draw a major league soccer team here. I think it can happen one day. The stadium just needs a couple little changes and we can attract that type of owner,” said Fantauzzo.
“The question we have to ask ourselves is, is professional soccer still an asset to our community or do people just not care anymore?” said DiVeronica. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”