The Reno Aces kick off their ninth season at Greater Nevada Field on April 11. This time around, they won't be the only game in town.
Greater Nevada Field is now home to Reno 1868 FC, a United Soccer League expansion franchise. (The team's name references the year in which the city was founded.) Professional soccer in a Minor League stadium is an emerging trend, and one that shows no signs of slowing down. Other Minor League teams that share their ballparks with professional soccer clubs include -- but are not limited to -- the Tulsa Drillers, Fresno Grizzlies, Louisville Bats, Brooklyn Cyclones and Harrisburg Senators.
Reno 1868 FC has the same ownership group as the Aces, and much of the team's expanded front office staff is juggling baseball and soccer-related duties. The two seasons run in tandem: Reno 1868 plays its home opener on March 25, and its 32-game regular season extends through Oct. 14.
"When this came up, I knew just enough about soccer to be dangerous," said Aces president Eric Edelstein, who doubles as president of Reno 1868 FC.
Edelstein first gained experience in the professional soccer world through his role as general manager of the Texas League's Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The Naturals are owned by the Rich Products Corporation, and in 2010 Rich Products chairman Robert Rich sponsored seventh-tier English club the Bedlington Terriers after discovering that the Rich family had ancestors in the area.
"[Robert Rich] got involved in sponsoring the club, and the idea of a loaned executive came up, to go over there and show them how we run professional sports organizations over here," Edelstein said. "I got the call, and it still counts as the greatest experience of my professional life."
Reno's bid to secure a USL team, initiated by Aces owner Herb Simon, began in earnest in 2015.
"The very first thing we did is called the groundskeeper and asked him to measure the field. Quite simply, this could have died a very quick death," Edelstein said. "Fortunately, we have a very deep right-center field. It could fit, fully regulation, a great-sized field."
Upon landing the franchise after "six months of due diligence," Edelstein was tasked with building the team's identity. He had experience in that sort of endeavor, having relocated with the Wichita Wranglers to Northwest Arkansas following the 2006 season.
"There are a lot of similarities [between baseball and soccer]. You remember how much effort it takes to make mundane decisions," Edelstein said. "You spend hours thinking about what the prices will be, at what seating level. You roll out for a long time -- the team name and colors, and how those colors will work with the colors in the ballpark, the website, locking down the social handles. There are a lot -- a lot -- of details. To come back to it is to remember how much effort it takes to get things started."
While Minor League branding has gone in an increasingly lighthearted and irreverent direction -- think New Orleans Baby Cakes, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and Binghamton Rumble Ponies -- professional soccer generally takes a more sober-minded approach.
"Soccer is more classic and clean, you don't go too nuts in soccer," Edelstein said, adding that the "Reno 1868 FC" moniker was the result of a fan vote. "[Reno 1868 FC] is a nod to European teams; a lot of German clubs typically name their club after their founding year. But the American spin is to make it a historical reference."
The view from the pitch at Greater Nevada Field during an exhibition match. The team's regular season starts March 25.
Reno 1868 FC's logo was designed by Brandiose, the same company behind the Baby Cakes, Jumbo Shrimp and Rumble Ponies.
"It's a unique logo and captures what we want people to know about Reno: the mountains, the outdoors," Edelstein said. "It's a great, natural place, while maybe the rest of the world thinks of divorces and gaming -- those other, more colorful pieces."
The USL is a Division II circuit, below Major League Soccer (MLS), in terms of the level of play. In much the same way that the Aces are an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, 1868 FC is aligned with the MLS's San Jose Earthquakes. In professional soccer, this is known as a "hybrid affiliation."
"We're only the second team in U.S. soccer to establish [a hybrid affiliation]," Edelstein said. "[The Earthquakes] have control over the player side. There's a balance among veteran guys who keep the team competitive alongside more raw young talent that needs time to develop. Soccer purists may have some issues flipping back and forth with players. Whether it's comparable [to Triple-A baseball], where guys are bouncing up and down, I can't comment on that until it happens."
A potential downside to the hybrid affiliation is that in pro soccer, fielding a winning team is paramount. That's not the case in Minor League Baseball, where the game on the field can take a back seat to a seemingly endless cavalcade of distractions.
"If we win, [the fans] have a good time. If we don't, it won't be as fun," Edelstein said. "The need to play winning soccer makes this more nerve-racking. It's going to be critical to our success."
These fans are not likely to significantly overlap with the Aces' core group of supporters.
"[Reno] is 25 percent Hispanic, and there are 25,000 students less than a mile north [of Greater Nevada Field]. So we have a lot of millennials and younger, and a multicultural audience," Edelstein said. "And there's a lot of Mexican heritage in our Hispanic fan base, so those fans are typically soccer-first in sports fandom. So if baseball fans aren't interested [in Reno 1868 FC], that's OK. We're attracting a completely different group of people.
"There won't be music, no 'Everybody Clap Your Hands.' There's the ball, the whistle blows, and let the fans take it from there. It's also edgier. There are supporters clubs with their own chants, and swear words work their way in. It's not immediate grounds for dismissal, although if repeated it would be. This is not Disney on grass."
As the popularity of pro soccer continues to increase in the United States, there's a strong likelihood that other Minor League teams will end up going the route of the Aces and sharing their previously baseball-only facilities.
"Like anything that's out of the box, this has its supporters and detractors," Edelstein said. "We're going to do our best to prove this is a viable use of a Minor League ballpark and can be successful."