USA's World Cup stars return to big crowds – but will it last?

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<span>Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Wednesday’s match had been over for 20 minutes when hundreds of girls, holding posters and T-shirts and patiently standing at a rail that separated the bleachers from the pitch, spotted their favorite player and began to shout as one: Car-li! Car-li! Car-li! Car-li!

Carli Lloyd, the 37-year-old captain of Sky Blue FC and a veteran of four Women’s World Cups, would sign autographs and pose for selfies, because that is what she always does. There was a big difference, though: Lloyd’s team had just played before a loud and rare sellout crowd.

Sky Blue FC had expected a big crowd for the first home game since Lloyd returned from the Women’s World Cup in France. But the grandstand at Yurcak Field, a soccer ground on the campus of Rutgers University, was filled with 5,003 fans, three times the size of an average turnout at home.

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“The biggest thing is just kind of making everybody aware that we do have a league,” Lloyd said after the 1-0 loss to the Washington Spirit in the eight-team National Women’s Soccer League. “There are a lot of people who have no idea that there is a National Women’s Soccer League, a women’s soccer league. There are some kids I had interactions with who had no idea that there’s a league. That’s a problem. We need to make sure everyone is aware.”

Carli Lloyd (right) talks to Kailen Sheridan, and Estelle Johnson after their team&#x002019;s loss to Washington Spirit
Carli Lloyd (right) talks toKailen Sheridan and Estelle Johnson after their team’s loss to Washington Spirit. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

At the very least, many more people are buying tickets, even to a match involving Sky Blue FC, the NWSL team with the most outdated stadium, the poorest record (two wins, nine losses and two draws) and lowest average home attendance: 1,501 before Wednesday.

The US team’s success this summer appears to have changed that. The attendance for the four home teams (Utah, Chicago, Orlando and Washington) in the first match week with World Cup players back topped a combined 48,000, twice those clubs’ combined previous season averages.

“I hope that it’s not just kind of like a one-week thing,” said Rose Lavelle, the 24-year-old Washington Spirit midfielder who scored a goal for the US in the World Cup final. “I hope that people keep coming back and seeing this league is something special, and this league is very competitive. Hopefully, it keeps building not just every four years [after a World Cup], but hopefully, it’s every year.”

This would seem to be the NWSL’s challenge. A month after the US won the Women’s World Cup in 2015, Sky Blue FC attracted 5,547 for a game to Yurcak Field. But their average home attendance dropped in 2016, rose in 2017, then dropped again in 2018.

Sky Blue FC have not qualified for the NWSL playoffs the last five years, and after undergoing a coaching change last month, are likely to keep that streak going. Alyse LaHue, the interim general manager, has said the team is looking for a new home field. “Rutgers has been a great partner for years,” she said, “but it’s time for us to grow up.”

The NWSL has scored two enormous business deals post-World Cup, agreeing with ESPN to televise 14 of its games this year and swinging a multi-year sponsorship with Anheuser-Busch to make Budweiser the league’s first official beer sponsor.

LaHue has had ongoing discussions with potential sponsors for Sky Blue FC, but she acknowledged that large crowds like Wednesday’s would help her cause. After a three-game road trip, Sky Blue FC will play six of their last eight games at home.

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Two of those games will be against the Chicago Red Stars, whose roster includes USWNT players Alyssa Naeher and Julie Ertz and Australia striker Sam Kerr. LaHue said advance sales for an August home match against Reign FC, who have the undoubted star of the World Cup, Megan Rapinoe, have been particularly strong.

Sky Blue FC defender Estelle Johnson, a native of Fort Collins, Colorado, who played for Cameroon in the Women’s World Cup, said, “I think the key here is just to keep it going through the season.”

LaHue, who had been the general manager for five years for Chicago, is optimistic that the piggyback effect from the World Cup to the NWSL could be longer lasting than it was in 2015, calling the US victory “almost a cultural moment for us and for women’s sports”.

The stars of the 2019 US team, Rapinoe in particular, are bigger celebrities than they were in 2015, but they have also been engaged in a public effort to be paid as much as those who play for the much less successful US men’s national team.

“What they’ve done off the field will have repercussions that will last much longer than their victory,” she said. “This isn’t just about women’s soccer anymore. It’s a bigger conversation.”

So far, so good. Prior to Wednesday, LaHue thought the match against Reign FC would be the first sellout for Sky Blue FC. She expected a good turnout for the match against the Spirit, but there was a surprising game-day surge in individual and group ticket sales.

“I said, ‘Holy cow, we’re going to be out of tickets!’ “ LaHue said, smiling.

Because Rutgers has changed concessionaires, Sky Blue FC were also out of beer, an element as important to a soccer game as a scoreboard with replays – which Sky Blue FC do not have, either. LaHue rushed out to buy eight coolers of beer to distribute for free in the parking lots outside Yurcak Field, which were filling up an hour before the match.

“They call it hand-to-hand combat, and maybe it’s one fan at a time, one beer at a time,” she said.

Lloyd and Lavelle got the biggest applause from the crowd when the lineups were announced, but some fans in the family-infused audience wore T-shirts of other US players who were not in this match, including Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, a midfielder from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who plays for the Portland Thorns.

Crowds were up across the NWSL this week.
Crowds were up across the NWSL this week. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

It is apparent that the league knows the value of its World Cup stars. Lavelle fell hard when she was tripped by Sky Blue FC defender Julie James Doyle in the 50th minute. Lavelle limped off the field, but she returned minutes later, and the Spirit scored.

Washington coach Richie Burke ended a post-match news conference by apologizing in advance if Lavelle were unable to talk to reporters, saying her ankle was the size of a balloon. “She a national treasure now, so we have to take care of her,” Burke said.

Minutes later, however, Lavelle showed up to answer a few questions. She said she would be fine. The turnout for this match was modest compared with the 57,900 for the Women’s World Cup final, she said, but Lavelle was keeping this in perspective.

“I think a lot of us have played in front of big crowds,” Lavelle said, “but sometimes in the NWSL, you don’t play in front of big crowds. So it’s awesome to have had back-to-back games where there’s been a sellout crowd. Hopefully, it keeps continuing.”

Later, Lloyd would say that would happen by “changing people’s lives, just going down the line and signing autographs and taking selfies, you know. A kid sees that – ‘I got a selfie with Carli! I want to come back!’ That’s what it’s really all about. Got to spread the word.”