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Highlanders shifting matches to Royal Athletic Park
The Victoria Highlanders FC men’s team will divide its season between Bear Mountain stadium and Royal Athletic Park as the relationship between the franchise and Langford grows increasingly strained.
The Highlanders announced Thursday the PDL men’s squad would play their May and June matches in Langford and July games at RAP in Victoria. General manager Drew Finerty cited scheduling conflicts at Bear Mountain between the Highlanders and the Victoria Rebels football team.
Between the men’s and women’s first team squads and respective U-20 reserve teams, as well as the Rebels starting its season in July, Finerty said there is simply not enough field time at Bear Mountain.
“We’ve grown so much in the last year,” Finerty said. “It’s really become a capacity issue – there’s dressing rooms, field space, seating, training all stacked on top of one another. You get to a point where you don’t know if you can make it work or not.”
The women’s team, which is playing in the United Soccer Leagues W-League this season, the Highlanders academy program and the reserve squads will remain based out of Bear Mountain.
Finerty couldn’t say if this third season is the final season for the men’s first team in Langford – the organization needs to gauge the new revenue stream and response from soccer fans at RAP.
“It’s too early to say right now. We need to see the support from fans at both facilities,” Finerty said. “We’ll be having talks with all our stakeholders in the next six months.” The deadline on permanently changing homes will come in August.
Over the past year, Highlanders management has been pushing Langford to purchase and install more permanent seating at Bear Mountain stadium, a request the City has patently refused.
The men’s team is itching to move into a professional division within the USL, but needs a home base with at least 2,500 permanent seats. Bear Mountain has about 1,100 grandstand seats and hundreds of temporary seats – RAP, on the other hand, has more than 4,000 permanent seats and has the ability for thousands more.
“We could see 5,000 people (at RAP). That’s something we couldn’t even dream in our current situation,” Finerty said. In Langford, the Highlanders drew about 1,600 spectators per game, but the organization says it's fans want more midfield seating.
Langford maintains the number of seats at its three-year-old stadium is more than enough for the user groups renting time on the artificial turf. Mayor Stew Young estimates that installing grandstands on the north side of the field would cost $500,000.
The City offered to help the Highlanders find used portable seating, but wasn’t interested in footing the bill. Young said it’s disappointing that the Highlanders are shifting marquee matches to Victoria, and didn’t bother to tell Langford.
“We like the entertainment here, no question. But we can’t afford spend $500,000 on new seats for 10 games,” Young said. “I’m not putting taxpayers on the hook for that. For us it’s taking a risk. Sports teams are here one day, gone tomorrow.”
Young also noted that spending money on grandstands wouldn’t pay for itself. Income from the field rental wouldn’t change – at $95 per hour – and the City receives a small portion of the concession receipts. New grandstands would have meant increasing municipal taxes.
“We hope to see the Highlanders around for a long time and I wish them the best of luck. But from a municipal point of view, we can’t justify spending the money,” Young said. “I love the sport, but it was a simple decision for us.”
Finerty said as a tenant of Bear Mountain, the organization couldn’t justify purchasing seating. He also noted that the operator of the stadium is looking to sell its own advertising, which could potentially conflict with Highlanders sponsorship deals.
“We got the notice in March that there would be no extra seats coming. It’s part of the problem, but not the only problem,” Finerty said. “If they go and sell advertising, that could put us in conflict ... that could affect our relationships with our long-term partners. That’s not something we want to participate in.”
Soccer season openers in Langford:
The Victoria Highlanders women’s team first home game of the season is May 14, 7p.m. at Bear Mountain Stadium against the Seattle Sounders.
The Victoria Highlanders men’s team first home game of the season is May 21, 7 p.m., at Bear Mountain Stadium against Vancouver Whitecaps Residency.