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Why did Reno 1868 FC fold and could it return in the future?

Reno 1868 FC
Reno 1868 FC has ceased operations after four seasons in the USL. (David Calvert/Reno 1868 FC)

Just 20 days after playing in the Western Conference semifinals of the USL Championship, Reno 1868 FC decided Friday to cease operations, one of the more stunning developments in Northern Nevada sports history.

“A very difficult day," Reno 1868 FC president Eric Edelstein said during a Zoom press conference later Friday. "From when we started this team, I never would have thought that we’d be having a conversation about not continuing with this team. It’s been a lot of emotions but hardened by the responses we’ve gotten so far today. We’ve gotten a real outpouring of gratitude and appreciation, which is nice when you’re delivering bad news. It’s made a tough day just a little bit better.”

Reno 1868 FC joined the USL in 2017 and had four successful seasons, reaching the playoffs each year while leading the league in regular-season points during this COVID-19-shortened season. And it is that COVID impact that caused Reno 1868 FC to fold, making it the second USL team to cease operations this year, joining Saint Louis FC.

“COVID is the death knell here," Edelstein said. "Even if we had a bad normal year or a great COVID year where we were one of those southern teams with 50 percent capacity, that potentially could have made a difference, but playing with no fans is devastating. That’s not the model. We were not the NBA or Major League Baseball. There’s just not enough media revenue to support it. In the future, 2021 I’d love to say, ‘It’s definitely going to be better.’ But we just don’t know that."

Edelstein did not rule out the club potentially returning to action, but if that were to happen it'd be multiple years down the road and could require a soccer-specific stadium to be built rather than using Greater Nevada Field, which is home to the Triple-A Reno Aces and is a baseball stadium. Edelstein said he'd like pro soccer to return to Reno at some point.

“I think it’s too early to speculate other than to say I want to follow where pro soccer goes and I’m certainly interested in trying to get something back in Reno some day in the future," Edelstein said. "But there’s a reality we’ve got a solid two years of rebuilding in this industry, and that might be optimistic. We’ll have to see where those opportunities lie once we build back, focusing on the Aces and once we build that business back as well before we look to, to seriously and see where the landscape is at that point.

"I’d like to think we could support a soccer-specific stadium, a small one, in the future somewhere, with the amount of development we have going. That would be the best path forward in the future, because that is definitely desired, not only by leagues, but by players who want to play on the best field possible. It’s too early to speculate, but my true belief is the future of soccer and pro soccer in America, if you’re buying a 20-year stock, I’d be buying soccer right now. It’s only going to continue to grow.”

Edelstein said the idea of folding Reno 1868 FC started two weeks ago but nothing was put into motion until Tuesday when the club started talking to the league.

"It was all really quick," Edelstein said. "Like everything, COVID just devastated the business, the industry, the near-term future. There were going to be some long-term headwinds in the industry with the sport growing as fast as it is. I’m still a huge believe in pro soccer and it’s growth in America and hope there’s a point we reenter in some way, shape or form. But the near-term financial was pretty dire, and the opportunity to sort of assess what’s the right things to do over the next two, three years, which will be very challenging in the live entertainment industry, kind of all cascaded into this just might be the moment to do something hard.”

The decision to shuttered the organization was ultimately made by owner Herb Simon, the Indianapolis resident who has an estimated $2.7 billion net worth after making his fortune as a real-estate developer. Simons owns the NBA's Indiana Pacers, the WNBA's Indiana Fever and the Reno Aces and Reno 1868 FC. He also owns Simon Malls, which has more than 200 properties, including Reno's Meadowood Mall. Simon Property Group's share price has fallen more than 57 percent since the start of the year due to COVID-19.

“I wouldn’t just sit here and say he made the decision solely on his own with no input from anybody," Edelstein said. "That’s just not the way he works. But ultimately as the owner, he made the final decision to go through the process of exploring what exiting looks like, and we talked with the USL about that. That all happened really quickly in the last four days. But I’m right alongside with him. Herb treats me as a partner, and that doesn’t just mean during the good times. During the bad times, I’m his partner as well. We’ve had a lot of discussions.”

Edelstein said Reno 1868 FC's closure allows his team to focus on sustaining the Reno Aces, which he said he's "99 percent confident we’ll continue in perpetuity." The franchise has a partnership with the city on the downtown ballpark through 2043. Edelstein said the decision to shutter the soccer club was harder to swallow because of the success 1868 FC has had, posting a 60-26-28 all-time record, including an 11-2-3 mark that paced the league in 2020.

“By far one of the more difficult parts is people spend their whole careers trying to put together a winning culture and winning personnel to get the most out of people," Edelstein said. "We only had two players who played all four seasons in Reno, so the sustained excellence that Ian Russell and Chris Malenab as our coaches were able to achieve, there are teams that spent three to four times as much on payroll as this team did and never came close to achieving what this team did.

“I wouldn’t change a thing. We took a chance, we were the third baseball stadium in America to try and play professional soccer, we were only the second organization in America to strike an affiliation agreement with a Major League Soccer, which is one of the prides of my career. We moved 10 players over our four seasons from USL to MLS, some of which were completely off the radar when they walked into Reno and left as Major League Soccer players. The technical side, the on-field side can’t be judged by anything other than way beyond our expectations. Even if I knew this was how it was going to end five years ago, I’d still want to go on this journey.”

When Reno 1868 FC debuted in 2017, it drew 5,559 fans per game, which ranked eighth in the 30-team league. In 2019, it drew 4,313 fans per game, a decline of 22 percent which ranked 17th in the 36-team league. But Edelstein said the team ceasing operations had more to do with future projections on COVID-19's impact on live entertainment than anything that has happened in the past.

“Since I moved here, I’ve heard the naysayers talk about whether Reno is a sports town, and I’m hopeful that Reno 1868 doesn’t get lumped into some past set of failures because it just wasn’t," Edelstein said. "The reasons behind our departure are not a lack of success, are not a lack of support, are not a lack of belief. This is a COVID casualty, and I’m going to live to continue to prove that myth wrong as we go forward.”

Note: Edelstein said 2020 season-ticket holders who had their plan roll over to 2021 due to COVID-19 attendance restrictions will be contacted via email by the organization. “They’ve already received an email from our service director and will be given the option of carrying an additional credit forward if they’d like, which they can use for baseball, food/beverage or merchandise," Edelstein said. "Or they can opt for a refund and we’ll issue those as quickly as possible.”

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