One week after opening their USL PRO season with a scoreless draw in Richmond, Va., the Pittsburgh Riverhounds will make their home debut at the new Highmark Stadium on the South Side.
Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff with the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders will be the culmination of years of work by the Riverhounds to fund and construct a soccer-specific facility in the shadow of the Downtown skyline.
Jason Kutney represents the Riverhounds ownership group in the team’s front office, serving as CEO and director of development for the organization’s youth academy. Kutney is also a veteran midfielder for the ‘Hounds, who will try to rebound from a 2012 season that produced just four wins in 24 matches.
The 31-year-old New Jersey native agreed to an exclusive Q & A with City of Champions, describing the team’s preparations for the most important of their 14 seasons:
Matt Gajtka: How different was this offseason compared to years past? What has been the focus of the past several months?
Jason Kutney: The approach this offseason was, in many ways, new to both myself and the organization. We looked to identify
strategies that would ultimately establish the Riverhounds as a sports brand in Pittsburgh, focusing mainly on three elements: a winning team, new media and stadium gameday experience.
MG: What has been the Riverhounds’ marketing approach? How do you plan to bring soccer to the forefront of discussion in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area?
JK: Over the last several years, we have spent 95 percent of our marketing dollars on our youth programming, as this has been our driver in terms of business sustainability. All along, though, we spent time studying other organizations, within and outside of soccer, to better understand effective ways to engage fans.Drawing on inspiration from benchmark organizations – the Penguins being one such influence – we decided that we would focus upon the creation of a “cool factor” for soccer.
From the writing of our own song (“Rise Up,” which plays automatically upon opening our website), to a new uniform deal with Nike for sharper merchandise, to the production of some awesome video promotions that have been launched through social media platforms, to pre-game, in-game, and post-game festivities, our goal is to resonate with males ages 18 to 45 who love the game and have wanted to experience Seattle and Portland in Pittsburgh. Hopefully you’ve seen our promo video for Saturday night.
MG: How receptive have local media entities been with regards to the new era of Riverhounds soccer? How do you keep the “buzz” going throughout the spring and summer?
JK: It’s all very new, so right now we’re capitalizing on the ‘novelty’ side. I suppose, when it comes to media, it’s a constant battle to capitalize on something! Yet, an interesting angle has been created by the business and entrepreneurial side of our venture. This is a story of a group who has created something from nothing, without asking for public dollars. Pittsburghers, media and not, respect that.
So, pushing forward, it is my goal to keep the buzz alive through the experience of soccer, not just the game. I want the Riverhounds to help Pittsburghers appreciate how unique and cool soccer can be – through music, through style, through winning, through beer, through culture, through respect.
MG: What type of team did you try to construct for this important season? Has the approach changed from building previous ‘Hounds teams?
JK: I can show you our payrolls so you’d better understand our change in approach! All jokes aside, we are a passionate and proud organization. Last season was terrible for us. We made a commitment to improve the team. For myself, that meant providing the financial resources to our coaching staff so they could attract the “right” players, not the overpaid veterans looking to enjoy their time in a new city.
[Head coach] Justin Evans did a wonderful job in going after, and successfully signing, our six off-season target players. With the signing of those six came the interest of many others. Pittsburgh is now a top option for top players, and it is our job to keep it that way.
MG: What do you think will attract new fans to Highmark Stadium? What will keep them coming back?
JK: I can talk all day about the different features of the stadium, but I like to simply state proudly that it was designed by someone who loves the game for someone who loves the game. The stadium seating – all seats, mind you, no bleachers – wraps tightly around the field, adding to the intimacy of the environment. We installed a FIFA two-star certified field in order to maximize turf usage while still being able to lure in a European side for a mid-summer friendly, which is to be announced soon. It’s a great one!
Our beer selection includes 22 different beers, 11 vs. 11 style with domestics vs. imports. We have a beautiful scoreboard and camera system to capture all of the action for the fans. There is a designated supporters section with 502 seats right behind the goal. We decided to install box goals with pull-back nets to give a true international feel. As I said, I can go on and on and on. Bottom line, this is a soccer facility with only permanent soccer lines.
MG: How do you balance growing the ‘Hounds’ fan base without alienating or forgetting the core group of supporters that has been behind the team for years?
JK: Simple – out of love and respect. I pride myself in the ability to proactively understand what the marketplace wants. The loyal supporters have wanted this stadium for years, and have stayed with us through some dark times. Those loyal supporters now own personal seat licenses because we went to them to have the first opportunity. That will always be the case.
MG: Finally, what are the long-term goals for the franchise, and what will be key in reaching them?
JK: The goal is to establish Pittsburgh as a viable home for Major League Soccer. Aside from a sound business plan and financial wherewithal, the key is in a real stimulation of the marketplace. We must continue to grow our youth component while filling our stadium, through rounds of capacity expansion. It will not be easy and it will require great persistence. There will be naysayers. Many said the stadium would never be built.
**Thanks to Jason for his time during a busy week for the Riverhounds organization. Check out City of Champions regularly for ‘Hounds coverage throughout their first season at Highmark Stadium and beyond.