Of course, Jamie Vardy wants to rebuild the Rochester Rhinos soccer club. What English Premier League star wouldn’t want to buy a franchise run into the ground in a U.S. city with a spiraling murder rate?
Vardy has signed on to a reality television show destined to expose the Rhinos as the sports world’s Ozzy Osbourne: a one-time great that deteriorated into a train wreck (“Crazy Train,” we suppose) and finally became impossible to watch without feeling a twinge of guilt.
The international soccer community will wonder why Vardy signed on for a fool’s errand.
Jamie Vardy has emerged as a Premier League star
The Leicester City story is almost too good to be true. Founded in 1894, the club has played in the upper echelons of English soccer from the start but been relegated a dozen times. The worst blow came in 2008 when Leicester City slipped to the third division for the first time.
And then something amazing happened: Leicester City returned to the EFL Championship division the following season and reached the Premier League alongside the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, and Liverpool in 2014.
Contending against teams with lengthy international resumes should have taken years. Instead, Leicester City won the Premier League title in just its second season. Observers tagged them as “The Unbelievables.”
Vardy, a 29-year-old striker at the time, led the charge. He scored 24 times in 36 games, and Leicester City finished 10 points clear of runner-up Arsenal. Vardy has scored 89 times in league play over the five seasons since and posted eight goals in 33 other appearances.
On May 15, Leicester City beat Chelsea in the prestigious FA Cup final, 1-0.
Jamie Vardy has taken an ownership stake in the Rochester Rhinos
David and Wendy Dworkin, the owners of the Rhinos soccer team in upstate New York and minority investors in the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, revealed in mid-June that Vardy had purchased a minority stake in the soccer franchise.
“This is a huge coup for Rochester and the Rhinos,” David Dworkin said in the announcement, according to the Democrat and Chronicle.
The Rhinos went dormant at the end of the 2017 season in the second-division United Soccer League but intend to resume operations next spring. Vardy will continue playing for Leicester, and his role in Rochester will be to help take the team out of mothballs by recruiting players and taking on other duties.
Left unsaid was that Vardy’s participation will be the subject of a documentary series by Love Productions USA, whose credits include Last Chance U, according to Variety. That disclosure this week explained why a major soccer figure like Vardy would cross the Atlantic Ocean to work with a franchise on life support.
The Rochester Rhinos have been a running joke
The Rhinos were founded in 1996 and contended in the second-division A-League within three years. In 1999, they shocked the American soccer community by capturing the U.S. Open Cup with a string of victories against MLS teams.
The Rhinos played home games in a baseball stadium, but the Open Cup victory and the belief that the Rhinos’ then-owners could land an MLS expansion franchise created the momentum for a taxpayer-funded, soccer-specific stadium in a rundown neighborhood.
Everything fell apart in less than a decade in a fashion worthy of the This Is Spinal Tap mock-umentary:
- The MLS outgrew Rochester and its executives stopped mentioning it as an expansion candidate.
- Plummeting attendance led to the team defaulting on its agreement for operating the stadium, which was seized by the city.
- A new owner took over in 2008. The Rhinos went through a series of league changes, and their 2013 edition missed the playoffs for the first time ever.
- The team lost its lease in January 2016, forcing the USL to operate the Rhinos until the Dworkins took over two months later.
The Dworkins fielded teams for two seasons. With attendance slipping to less than 20% of its level from the 2000 season, they suspended operations.
Vardy’s job is to lead the team out of dormancy. He will compete with beloved minor-league baseball, hockey, and indoor lacrosse teams for corporate sponsorship money in a community that residents are fleeing. He must convince prospects to come play in a city that has seen 34 homicides through June 24 — a per capita rate higher than Chicago this year, according to Reuters. Its mayor is currently indicted for alleged election fraud.
It may make for interesting television, but Vardy risks looking foolish trying to revive soccer in a city that has seen multiple franchises die over decades.