The rise, fall, and rise of the Western New York Flash

On University Ave in Rochester, Western New York Flash flags adorn the outside of the building that houses the club’s new office space.  The new digs are one of several indicators that it is a new day for the venerable club.

At their height, the Flash were winning leagues even if the women’s soccer climate necessitated playing a different one almost every year. They were also a popular draw at Sahlen’s Stadium thanks to global star Marta in 2011 and local icon Abby Wambach in 2013 and 2014.  The coach, Aaran Lines, was the owner’s son-in-law.  And Lines’s wife, the owner’s daughter Alex Sahlen, was an outside back.

Those days are gone. After winning the inaugural NWSL Shield in 2013 and coming within a game of completing a four year streak of winning a different league every year, a run of losing began in 2014 and extended through 2015.  Every player who wore a Flash kit in 2014 left the team (one of them, McCall Zerboni, was re-acquired last week.)  Alex Sahlen got pregnant and never got back on the pitch, moving to the front office instead.  Lines’s relationships with the players that remained soured and he eventually stepped down last December.  Even the stadium, bearing the name of team owner Joe Sahlen, had its naming rights deal expire and is now known as Rochester Rhino’s Stadium.

2016 though, is off to a good start under new coach Paul Riley who has the club playing well and residing in the preferred half of the table.  And under the guidance of general manager Rich Randall, who came on board late last season, attendance and sponsorship numbers are heading in the right direction.

[More from Excelle: WNY Flash look to keep scoring streak going]

“As of (Wednesday) our sponsorship numbers in terms of revenue are nearly triple what they were last year,” said Randall. “And right now revenue wise on the per-game ticket side we’re ahead of where we were last year as well.”

Last Saturday’s match against the Orlando Pride attracted 4,526 to Rhino’s Stadium, the highest single-game crowd since the 2013 NWSL Championship.  “We had the largest group numbers in two years, even after the World Cup.”

Through four home dates, Flash attendance sits 40% ahead of where it ended up last year and 93% ahead when compared to last season’s first four games.  The rub is that the Flash played five matches last year after the World Cup and all five of them drew better than the five that preceded the end of the World Cup.  But even at that, current attendance is beating the post-World Cup average by 12%.

No one knows what benefit if any this summer’s Olympics will have on NWSL attendance.  For the Flash the impact will be minimal since their quirky schedule has them in the midst of a seven-match homestand and will leave them with just one home match after the Olympic break.

“I hope everybody comes out for that game,” Randall said, noting the game is against the Dash who feature former Flash midfielder and national team star Carli Lloyd.

Lloyd—who publicly criticized Lines’s handling of her trade to Houston two years ago—is just one of many players with star pedigrees to call the Flash a former team.  On the current roster Sam Mewis and Jaelene Hinkle have been in with the U.S. much of this year and before breaking her wrist, goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo held an outside chance at starting for Canada.

[More from ExcelleSam Mewis emerges as a leader on young Flash squad]

These players might not be household names yet, but Randall is hoping some roster consistency (the Flash have released three international players this season and could replace one during the current transfer window, but their core looks to be locked in for the moment) and more winning will help deepen relationships with the community.

“We’re so fortunate to have a head coach that understands the importance and value of the community stuff as well,” Randall said while adding that community appearances are up from previous years.  “And our players have been great.  We have an amazing roster of players that also get it.  They have a different dynamic than other teams in the league.”

That dynamic is living and training in Buffalo while trying to sell themselves to fans in and around Rochester.  Long-term the Flash would like to put their entire operation in one place but for now a community appearance in Rochester means nearly three hours in the car round trip.

“I have never experienced a team with this much energy and camaraderie in any of the years I’ve worked in soccer,” Randall said.  “It’s really cool to see.  They all really care for each other and they all care about the brand.  That makes our jobs in the front office a lot easier because they value the company they represent—on and off the field.”

With Randall at the helm, the Flash appear to be pointing in the right direction off the field, and Riley has the team playing quality soccer on it.

“We’re continually grinding,” Randall said.  “We’re not settled with where we’re at.  We have an increase from last year (in sponsor revenue) but by no means am I content with that.  I want to continue to increase that number.”

Jump To Comments