Soccer Sam Fantauzzo: “Everyone wants to constantly compare it to the heyday at Frontier Field. But it was a different time.” (Photo courtesy of Soccer Sam Fantauzzo)
By Michael Lewis
What was good then isn’t necessarily good now.
That’s essentially what Soccer Sam Fantauzzo says about the plight of the Rochester Rhinos.
Times have changed.
Rhinos owners David and Wendy Dworkin Wednesday announced they were going to drop down to USL D-III for the 2020 season and will give up operating Marina Auto Stadium by the end of the year. They have begun to pursue a potential new stadium development in the region.
After reading and listening to comments about the Dworkins’ decision, Fantauzzo, who owns the Rochester Lancers and Lady Lancers, felt some Rochester soccer fans are living in the past. The Lancers and Lady Lancers perform in a pair of amateur leagues, the National Premier Soccer League and United Women’s Soccer, respectively.
“I went on the Rhinos site and saw the comments,” Fantauzzo said. “A lot of them were negative. Everyone wants to constantly compare it to the heyday at Frontier Field. But it was a different time. MLS hadn’t taken off. There weren’t the 65-inch TVs, Soccer games like [the Hudson River Derby] on your mobile device. Parents didn’t have soccer four nights a week plus tournaments every weekend where there’s the main soccer burnout.”
During the Rhinos’ heydays, the team filled up Frontier Field, the home of the Rochester Red Wings, a minor league baseball team, on a regular basis. The Rhinos won three A-League championships in their early years and are the only non-Major League Soccer team to capture the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup since the league kicked off in 1996.
When they moved to their new 13,768-seat soccer-specific stadium in 2006, whatever magic there was at Frontier did not follow the team there when attracting crowds and attendance suffered.
Fantauzzo, who once worked for the Rhinos, felt the biggest issue is New York State workman’s compensation, which “for sports teams has gone out of control.”
“You add all this stuff up obviously its changes your budget based on the amount of people coming in,” Fantauzzo said. “I just feel like the Rhinos went into this thinking they needed 7,000 fans a game to break even, where in reality, I honestly don’t think you’re going to get more than a couple of thousand fans a game anymore.”
Another factor was the media, or in this case, the lack of it, Fantauzzo said. There were no local soccer reporters such as Jeff DiVeronica or columnists such as Bob Matthews write about the team or have opinions on the club, which helped keep the public informed about the club. DiVeronica, who had covered the Rhinos in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle since their inception in 1996, left the newspaper in July to become director of information for the West Irondequoit Central School District. Matthews, a fixture in Rochester media for decades, left the paper and has been the host of a local daily radio sports program on WHAM-AM 1180.
“There’s no one covering the sport,” he said. Most TV stations sports departments have streamlined to one or two people and its easier for them to take the NFL feed or the Bills feed or Major League Baseball rather than send a reporter to cover the local sports teams.
“So, everybody wants to throw things at the Dworkins and the Rhinos for going down to the third division, but in reality, it makes sense, based on what is going on in our city, our state and our economy.”
The Dworkins’ starting costs at the stadium could be around $1 million dollars. That comes from $600,000 to pay the City of Rochester to operate the facility, around $300,000 for workman’s compensation a year.
“How do you make the numbers work? You can’t,” said Fantauzzo, who was forced to put the indoor Lancers on hiatus after the 2015 Major Arena Soccer League season due to the soaring costs of workman’s compensation.
“So, my point is, people are upset with the Dworkins, how they are going Division 3, it’s a slap in the face. But in reality, most of those people probably haven’t bought a season ticket in years and they haven’t seen the big picture that things have changed since Frontier Field.”
Fantauzzo said that he felt sorry for Rhinos’ owners and officials since the team was created in 1996, including Chris Economides Frank DuRoss, Steve Donner, Rob Clark and the Dworkins because all the work and money they have invested appears about to go down the drain.
“These people invested millions of dollars to keep soccer alive in the city,” he said. “It hasn’t worked. In hindsight, if we would have stayed at Frontier Field and put the turf down every game [on the infield] and stopped worrying about joining MLS, and stopped worrying about a stadium, we’d still be drawing 12,000-13,000 12 or 14 dates a year at Frontier Field. You can’t keep on looking back. It’s over.”