USL Pro: Exclusive Q&A with New Pittsburgh Riverhounds President Richard Nightingale

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CoC: From your experience prior to this, what can you say about building a strong brand?

RN: Yeah, it’s very important. It’s all about the details. A great experience is what (we want) to be known for, whether it’s the stadium or having a great product on the field on the pro side. Anything you do is about excellence, and you want to strive for that. People look at you and say, ‘That club there sets the benchmark.’

For me, working with companies like Nike, you don’t accept the norm. Push the boundaries and look at things with fresh eyes and think about the future. Often, when you come in for your first month, you do have put changes in place, and sometimes that’s not easy. We’ve had to do that, but I think ultimately I think we’re going to move forward, and more forward in a really good way.

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CoC: As someone who was brought in to instigate some change, what is your approach to bring that about?

RN: We’ve got some great talent here in the front office, but it’s like anywhere you go or any company that you work for, you just want to find the right position for people, so you can maximize their talents. I’m a big believer in giving people the opportunity to excel. I’ve asked people to be solution-driven, to push the boundaries and ask ‘What if?’

Don’t see the glass as half-empty. I mean, how good is it to work for a sports franchise and come in and do this every day?

CoC: Are there any model franchises or companies that you’d like to emulate here?

RN: You look at (former USL Pro team, now MLS expansion club) Orlando City. I know (Orlando City president) Phil Rawlins from when he was in Austin (Texas), just to see how he’s approached it and in such a short time has gone to the MLS. He’s been a good mentor and somebody who I’m not afraid to steal ideas from. (Laughs) Don’t reinvent the wheel unless you have to.

CoC: With regards to MLS, is that the ultimate goal?

RN: I think anyone wants to participate at the pinnacle of the game that they’re in, but I think for now we’ve got to focus more on a successful USL Pro 2015 season, continuing to evolve our youth academy, and really just cement Highmark Stadium as an iconic venue for events.

There’s no question that we have aspirations. Everybody should aspire to new heights, but I think you’ve got to be pragmatic and not over-stretch ourselves and look too far ahead. You’ve definitely got to have a two-, five-, 10-year plan, but 2015 is an incredibly important year for us and what we choose to do, and how we conduct ourselves.

Just the foundations that we put in place coming out of bankruptcy and what was probably a disappointing season in 2014. All I’m doing is focusing on getting to March 28, our first game, and working on those other pieces of the club for 2015.

CoC: What are your thoughts on USL Pro and some of the changes that it’s gone through?

RN: USL Pro is in great hands with Alec Papadakis. I think aligning with the MLS is the smart way to go. It’s definitely improved the quality of play we see on the field with the MLS adding their reserve teams. So from that regard it’s really, really good.

I think U.S. Soccer is in great hands with (CEO) Dan Flynn, (men’s national team coach) Jurgen Klinsmann and what’s going on. I think we can tap into that from the place we are in USL Pro, and through our academy. I think the game’s in a great place.

CoC: Besides the soccer, what other kind of events do you foresee pursuing for this venue?

RN: We’ll have lacrosse here, obviously you’ve got the high school football with Central Catholic. We’ll have a series of concerts this summer, people are going to be surprised about some of the artists we’re going to bring in. I’ve had a lot of inquiries, even professional frisbee.

I think people look at the venue, they go online and they say, ‘Wow. We’d love to have an event there.’ Once again, it comes down to the backdrop, which is quite incredible. And then having Station Square here, so you can go have a dinner and a drink and then wander down here.

CoC: How important is that to you, to make it so more things are identified with Highmark Stadium (than the Riverhounds)?

RN: From a business standpoint, sure. You have 15 home games, right? That’s a good platform to have. Primarily it’s a soccer facility and always will be, but part of my responsibility is to generate revenue and make it viable. Whether you’re here or at Heinz Field, you have that responsibility.

But primarily, it’s such an iconic soccer stadium, when you have 3,500 people in here on a Saturday night, and you’ve got a great game going on, I don’t think you’re going to beat that.

CoC: You’ve mentioned the youth aspect and the Riverhounds academy quite a bit. How does that fit into the grand scheme here? Is that something you think can be a self-sustaining system all the way up to the pro club?

RN: Absolutely. That goes back to the pyramid I was talking about. All the way up from being nine of 10 years old, from your first footsteps in the game and you start to get training. The Riverhounds have become known for the way they train and coach, not only in Pittsburgh but regionally and nationally. The way the pro team plays is emulated down through the youth teams.

The speed and strength focus is something we have as well, and I see it as critical. It separates us. I’m continually challenging the academy to figure out how we evolve and how we keep pushing forward and setting new benchmarks. If you do that, you’ll attract players if they can see the opportunities to move through the pyramid. We’ll bring a women’s pro team here, but you’ve got the men’s pro team and the PDL if you choose.

Nothing would give me a greater sense of joy than seeing players who started in our youth program pull on the shirt of the first team in USL Pro. If I can have a player come through the ranks much like those great players at Manchester United did, I’d be ecstatic.

CoC: Speaking of your heritage and growing up in England, is there a part of the game there and how it’s such a part of the culture that you can bring over here?

RN: It’s about the match-day experience. That’s why I love night games, under the lights, what a great atmosphere. I used to so much enjoy going and standing with my father at matches. We want to bring that at the (south) end of the stadium. In the supporter’s section, along with the Steel Army (fan group), anyone who wants to stand can do that.

You know, on their feet all the time, singing and really generating a great atmosphere. That’s what I want to bring, great Saturday night soccer to families and individuals.