By Michael Lewis
The clock is ticking for the Rochester Rhinos and professional soccer in Rochester, N.Y.
Rhinos co-owners David and Wendy Dworkin Wednesday set a Nov. 30 deadline to raise $1.3 million or the 22-year-old franchise will cease operations.
“We are at a crossroads, and need to find a path that will bring sustained success for the Rhinos,” David Dworkin said at a press conference in the Rhinos’ locker room at Capelli Sport Stadium.
“We want the Rhinos legacy to continue, and doing so means creating a partnership that includes more than just the players, die-hard fans and a few dedicated corporate supporters,” said David, who bought the team along with his wife Wendy in 2016. “New sponsors and the community have to join us – it takes a team to successfully run a team.”
David Dworkin said that he and his wife did not seek out moving the team to another city.
“Has anyone asked me to move the team to another city? Yes,” he said. “We didn’t buy a team to move it somewhere else.”
The Rhinos broke down what was needed:
* $600,000 — Season tickets and suites, which would constitute 46 percent of what was needed
* $540,000 — Hotel tax and sponsorships, which is 42 percent
* $160,000 — Jersey sponsorship, which is 12 percent
The club hoped to generate $600,000 from executive suites and season ticket sales and secure a minimum of 2,500 new season ticket holders by the end of this month. Rhinos averaged 2,100 this past season.
They also are seeking a portion of Monroe County hotel room occupancy Tax revenues — a six percent tax charged to hotel guests — of which it receives nothing.
The tax generated $8.1 million for allocation this year. According to the Rhinos, Monroe County gave the City of Rochester $1.7 million to distribute. That was divided between the Blue Cross Arena and the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. Frontier Field received $500,000 from the county’s portion.
Pat Ercoli, the team’s chief soccer officer, noted that Capelli Sport Stadium hosts a drum and bugle corp. competition. He said that between 9,000-10,000 people come to Rochester, booking 4,000 hotel rooms for a three-day event. He added that made a $6 million impact a year on the local economy, yet, the team did not get a cent.
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle posted a response from County spokesman Jesse L. Sleezer: “Monroe County has an obligation to support the Rochester Red Wings and does so through Hotel-Motel Tax sharing because the County owns and operates Frontier Field. Capelli Stadium is not owned and operated by Monroe County.
“Monroe County is not prepared to divert taxpayer dollars to the Rhinos that would otherwise be invested in regional tourism assets, including local arts, museums, and parks.”
Ercoli, who has been involved in pro soccer in the northwest New York city since he joined the Rochester Lancers in 1978, became emotional when talking about the plight of the team.
“Sports teams generate loyalty, a fan base, a passion that can build through a season and produce a connection …”
Then Ercoli choked up for several seconds before continuing.
“Having a professional team located in this city operated by a family that has showed its commitment to Rochester over and over again is what we want for the future.
“I truly believe that we have added in many ways to the quality of life in Monroe County.”
With Ercoli as coach, the Rhinos won three A-League titles in their early years. They also are last non-Major League Soccer team to secure the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup, in 1999. Under head coach Bob Lilley, Rochester captured the 2015 United Soccer League crown.
Lilley signed with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Tuesday.
“It was very important to Wendy and I to look after Bob’s best interests,” David Dworkin said.
Because Rochester can’t afford high salaries, the team loses players to clubs that that can afford them after a one- or two-year stay, said Ercoli, who used defender Joe Farrell as an example. Farrell recently signed with Phoenix in the USL.
“Of course, Phoenix could afford to pay him three times what we were paying him,” Ercoli said.
“We’ve become a team that basically develops players.”
Trying to get fans out to Capelli Sport Stadium has been a struggle. Some soccer supporters claim it was built in a bad section of the city, others claim there has been insufficient parking.
There also had been some animosity from the local soccer community from a previous regime of the team.
Wendy Dworkin told a story about a local youth soccer club president “who has known me my entire professional life said I hope you fail. I hope the professional team folds because in 1990-something before I ever owned this team, some coach on the junior Rhinos took one of my teams. I apologized greatly.
“We’ve been friends. You have forgotten who I am and what I have done for Rochester and all the money we raised, donated, everything we had done for so many organizations in Rochester besides soccer. But that’s how passionate and vehement that person was. And I have spent two years on a road show saying that I am not interested in competing with your youth soccer club.”
Several people who made an impact in Rochester soccer and the Rhinos attended the press conference, including former Lancers and former Rhinos assistant coaches Frank Odoi and Francisco Escos, former Rhinos star striker Doug Miller, now president and coach of the Rochester Lancers (National Premier Soccer League), and ex-Lancers and Rochester Flash player Nelson Cupello, coach of the Monroe Community College men’s soccer team.