Professional soccer may be coming back to Buffalo. But only if the powers behind the idea can build a home for a team.
A Connecticut developer and his Buffalo real estate partner want to bring a professional outdoor soccer team to the Queen City, as an expansion of the United Soccer League.
The professional soccer organization has conditionally agreed to award a club to Buffalo in time for the 2023 season, citing the city's passion for sports and the region's growing soccer community.
But the league required that the partners leading the effort – John H. McClutchy Jr. and Dennis Penman – must first conduct economic feasibility studies to ensure a team would succeed. And they also must construct a stadium specifically designed for the team's needs.
That includes finding and acquiring a site large enough for a stadium, lining up financing that could include public dollars, designing a facility that could handle other events, and completing construction.
McClutchy and Penman are eyeing at least four potential sites in or near downtown Buffalo for a facility capable of seating at least 10,000 people.
"As long as I’ve known it, Buffalo is a sport-oriented community," said McClutchy, a housing and commercial developer from Stamford, Conn., who has previously worked with Penman. "The Bills always do well. The Sabres do well. The Bisons do well. This is a new activity that Buffalo doesn’t have, but it fits directly into the general culture in Buffalo."
McClutchy and Penman hope to see the first game played in Buffalo in March 2023.
United Soccer League, with 36 clubs, is considered one level below Major League Soccer, which typically draws the most attention and the best players.
The proposal comes as the number of urban sports facilities is expanding in downtown Buffalo beyond KeyBank Center and Sahlen Field, including:
• A group led by OnCore Golf and RiverWorks partner Doug Swift unveiled a proposal for a $30 million golf and hotel complex, planned for a site on Ganson just down the street from RiverWorks.
• The Buffalo RiverWorks facility on Ganson Street hosts activities year-round, including roller derby, wrestling, martial arts, tennis, volleyball, skating, curling and hockey, and it has since added rock climbing and zip lines.
• Ellicott Development's new Cooperage project on Chicago Street includes the Central Rock Gym.
• Jon Williams' South Buffalo Development built the new Medaille Sports Complex, which hosts not only to the college's soccer and lacrosse teams but also other groups. Williams and the school are planning to expand the facility to include baseball, softball and other sports fields.
McClutchy noted there are more than 10,000 registered youth soccer players in the region, plus a support base that makes the city "a strong soccer environment."
Based in Tampa, Fla., the USL Championship calls itself one of the fastest growing professional leagues, with about 500 matches played by 36 clubs in two conferences this year. The season runs from March to November, and the league's games are broadcast live on ESPN under a three-year agreement.
“The City of Good Neighbors speaks for itself. Buffalo is a tightknit community and an exceptionally passionate and prideful sports town,” USL Chief Operating Officer Justin Papadakis said in a written statement. The league plans to make a formal announcement on Tuesday.
Buffalo has hosted men's and women's soccer teams before. The Buffalo Stallions played indoors in the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1979 to 1984. The Buffalo Blizzard played indoors from 1992 to 2001. A women's team, the Buffalo Flash, played in Buffalo for three years before moving to Rochester as the Western New York Flash in 2011. FC Buffalo has been the top men’s team in the area for the last 10 years, competing in the amateur National Premier Soccer League.
“Like our league, Buffalo is growing and the prospect of contributing to that growth with a USL Championship club is exciting," Papadakis added. "We know that there’s a lot of work to be done before a franchise can become reality, but the opportunity to unite Buffalo and energize its soccer community around a professional club has great value for the city’s future.”
McClutchy's JHM Group of Companies operates mostly in real estate development, but has also done business in energy, software, construction and property management. The company's real estate arm has built 55,000 units of multifamily housing and 5.5 million square feet of retail and commercial space nationwide, and also has divisions that deal with brownfield sites and financially distressed properties.
But McClutchy said he also is not new to sports businesses. He's already involved in horse racing, and began looking at professional soccer more recently. He said he was involved with the North American Soccer League "for a while," but switched his attention to USL because it was more organized. His JHM Sports Enterprises is already conducting the economic feasibility studies, with results expected to be released in December.
The developer has worked with Penman since 1976, on an assortment of projects locally such as Ellicott Homes on South Division Street. Penman, a Buffalo housing developer for more than four decades, spent most of his career at M.J. Peterson Corp., before joining Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. and then breaking off on his own last year to form Penman Development Partners.
McClutchy and Penman are collaborating to find and purchase a site for a new soccer stadium. Four sites have been identified and discussions have started with the property owners, but McClutchy and Penman declined to identify locations. They've also begun outreach to city and community leaders, sports organizers and soccer fans. They expect that communication to pick up over the next few months.
A new soccer stadium would include concession areas, a training area, locker rooms and other typical amenities, McClutchy said.
The facility would also be designed so that it could be easily used for other events, such as outdoor concerts, as well as for local high school and college soccer. There's potential to develop retail, commercial and even residential space surrounding the stadium.
"We’re trying to do some placemaking here," Penman said. "We’re trying to use the soccer stadium as the primary focus of the project, but we’re not going to lose sight of the fact that the stadium will create opportunities for other development, and we’d like to be part of that process as well."
The cost has not been determined, as each site has "unique characteristics that have to be dealt with," McClutchy said. Where feasible, the partners said, they would seek out opportunities for brownfield or historic tax credits, or Opportunity Zone incentives.
More direct public financing also is "a possibility," McClutchy added, noting that he's been involved with public-private partnerships for 30 years, so "we're not a stranger to it." But no formal discussions have taken place yet.