Another big international match, before another big crowd, comes to St. Louis this Friday as the United States plays St. Vincent and the Grenadines in a World Cup qualifier at Busch Stadium. But after the 48,000 fans walk away and the big show leaves town, St. Louis is back to square one:
A city with a storied soccer heritage (first reported game in 1875), current international-caliber players (Tim Ream, Vedad Ibisevic and Becky Sauerbrunn) and a demonstrably supportive fan base — but without a Major League Soccer team.
The situation confuses, perplexes and frustrates the local soccer community.
They’ve been told to support the games, and so they have. Friday’s game marks the sixth international match in St. Louis since May 2013, after a long dry spell. The previous five games averaged 36,552 fans, including one crowd of 54,184, the largest to watch a soccer match in Missouri.
OK, that’s good, the soccer faithful heard, but going to one-off games is not enough. You need to back your local teams.
But the good fans of St. Louis had only a first-year outdoor third-division team and a fledgling indoor club to watch.
No matter.They went anyway.
• They packed the World Wide Technology Soccer Park to capacity six times in 14 home league games during the recently concluded inaugural season for St. Louis FC in the third-division USL. St. Louis FC finished fourth in the 24-team league in average attendance, despite playing in a facility that holds about 5,500.
• They stumped the naysayers who said you can’t draw in St. Charles by supporting the indoor St. Louis Ambush at the Family Arena. The Ambush, in their second season of existence, were third in the Major Arena Soccer League in 2014-15 with a reported average attendance of 6,111.
Neither team had winning records.
“Before I got involved in soccer in St. Louis, I would consistently hear, ‘St. Louis is a great soccer market,’” said Ambush CEO and general manager Andrew Haines, whose team opens its third season at home Saturday night. “But it wasn’t until after I started working in St. Louis full-time for the team that I saw everyone was right. St. Louis is a great soccer market.”
Confused? Perplexed? Frustrated? You bet. Especially when St. Louis is the nation’s 21st-largest television market. Especially when St. Louis had the highest TV ratings in the nation for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Especially when three TV markets smaller than St. Louis have MLS teams.
OK, St. Louis has gone above and beyond in recent years in supporting soccer. The real obstacle, it’s been said, is finding filthy-rich owners willing and able to part with the hundreds of millions of dollars to pay the MLS expansion fee and an MLS team’s operating costs.So more than a few people were shocked to hear MLS commissioner Don Garber say at a Ballpark Village event in May:
“I think if we have a stadium plan that’s logical we’ll find an ownership group. There’s more interest in investment in MLS today than we have teams.”
Master of ceremonies and St. Louis’ Mr. Soccer, Bill McDermott, standing a few feet from Soccer Don, said, “I was very surprised to hear Don Garber say that an investor/ownership/operator group is not a major issue to find in St. Louis.”
If Garber can be taken at his word, then the major thing keeping St. Louis from joining the ranks of MLS cities is the s-word: a stadium.
That’s where the Dave Peacock-led effort for a new riverfront football stadium comes in.
“I believe Commissioner Garber left St. Louis thinking that if the riverfront stadium becomes reality, it significantly enhances our ability to attract a qualified MLS owner, with the emphasis on ‘qualified,’” said Jim Woodcock, who oversees the global sports portion of the business at St. Louis-based FleishmanHillard, one of the world’s leading public relations firms. Woodcock, a senior vice president and partner, handles powerful soccer clients such as the U.S. Soccer Federation, A.S. Roma in Italy’s Serie A, and England’s Fulham F.C., along with national and international soccer sponsors. Woodcock works with Peacock on the recently christened, but unfunded and unbuilt, National Car Rental Field.
Link – Riverfront Stadium as home to an MLS Team via STL Biz Journal
The concept of MLS basing a team in a 64,000-seat facility intended to lure an NFL tenant seems at odds with the MLS doctrine of playing in intimate, soccer-only stadiums. Woodcock disagrees. Global architectural firm and St. Louis-based HOK “is incorporating soccer into the design of National Car Rental Field so that the stadium isn’t merely suitable for soccer, it’s actually ideal,” Woodcock said.
Recent revelations about the stadium include provisions to close parts of the seating areas with a curtain hung from the roof to cut capacity for soccer to a cozier 38,000. Garber inspected the stadium site and plans when he visited in May. “Dave Peacock (told me), ‘We want it to be a World Cup stadium. We want it to be a stadium for big international games. We want it to be a stadium for MLS,’” Garber said at Ballpark Village. “If you get a stadium downtown, we want to be in the urban core, and if you build it with MLS in mind so it can be downsized, that’s a good thing. If you can build a soccer stadium, that’s a better thing.”
At odds with those comments and its own soccer stadium doctrine, MLS is going into a new NFL stadium in Atlanta, where Falcons owner Arthur Blank also will own the MLS franchise. The soccer team is slated to begin play in 2017 in 71,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There is one more similarity with National Car Rental Field: HOK is the architect of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Noting that MLS attendance is on a steady upward curve — tickets distributed averaged 21,546 in the 2015 regular season, up 2,400 over 2014 — Woodcock says the large capacity of National Car Rental Field might be a good thing to accommodate projected growth. Three teams averaged 29,000 and above in 2015, with Seattle far and away the leader at 44,247.
“I am sure Arthur Blank was insistent on a stadium design that 100 percent delivered for both football and soccer, as well as the athletes,” Woodcock said. “That would be the mandate here in St. Louis if the stadium becomes reality.”
The stadium becoming reality apparently is the biggest obstacle left keeping St. Louis from MLS membership, given what Garber said at Ballpark Village. Garber says potential investors are available, and St. Louis has shown it will support soccer.Jim Kavanaugh, the CEO of St. Louis FC, was not so sure before the team opened the 2015 season. Now? “I’m definitely more bullish today on the St. Louis soccer market than I was a year ago,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised to see the broad base of fans who attended our games. Our fan base was made up of traditional soccer fans, kids, millennials, parents, grandparents and first-time soccer fans. We were also very fortunate to have the great support of the St. Louligans, one of the most passionate and creative support groups you will find in any sport.”
Added Woodcock, “Subtract the two most crucial elements needed that we unfortunately lack — an owner and a stadium — and I believe that St. Louis is otherwise the most MLS-ready market in North America. We have favorable demographics combined with a cultural and historical profile with the game that no market can rival.”
St. Louis in MLS creates instant rivalries with MLS teams in Kansas City and Chicago, and could draw well from surrounding states, Woodcock said. “An MLS team in St. Louis would serve an entire Midwestern audience, and we’d take a major step (with Sporting Kansas City of MLS) toward making all of Missouri one of the greatest soccer states in the nation.”
Few, if anyone, qualifies more as an expert on St. Louis soccer than McDermott, who played at St. Louis University and has broadcast games from local to World Cup levels for more than 40 years. “I think the St. Louis soccer market is alive and well and has been lifted to new heights because the fans here in town see what is happening in other cities,” McDermott said. “Furthermore, there’s an entirely new soccer market not only here in town, but around the United States because soccer is a sport for a changing America, driven by youth and fostered by a steady diet of games on television at every possible level.
“After decades of having to explain the sport as the world’s game and how it can work in the United States, thankfully those days have vanished. The sport is a viable alternative on our country’s sports landscape.”
And on the St. Louis sports landscape, apparently if National Car Rental Field becomes reality.This story contributed by Dave Lange, author of Soccer Made in St. Louis: A History of the Game in America’s First Soccer Capital, published in August 2011 by Reedy Press.
Previous contributions to this site include STLFC Host Des Moines in 1st US Open Cup match and stories from the USWNT visit in April, including “Perfection #STLsoccerCity” along with Lori, Becky and their JB Marine Club Coach Mike Gauvain. See all of his contributions here