If you’ve watched any of the World Cup coverage – or turned on ESPN at all in the last few weeks – you’ve probably had the maddeningly infectious “I believe that we will win” chant stuck in your head. Lord knows, I have.
Well, if the growing number of local soccer fans and the big turnouts to watch the U.S. team in the Cup are any indication, we may have reason to believe that Louisville is inching its way toward becoming a full-on soccer town. Well, OK, we all know basketball will always be king in the Bluegrass, but soccer at the very least seems to be getting some long-overdue mainstream attention.
For Monday’s U.S. game against Portugal, which ended up a 2-2 draw, Molly Malone’s in the Highlands was nearly standing-room only, both in the main bar and in the outdoor deck bar, both of which were packed with red-white-and-blue-clad fans, some of them wearing American flags as capes.
Meanwhile, Fourth Street Live hosted a well-attended watch party at which the new logo for Louisville City FC, a USL minor-league soccer team that will begin play here next year, was unveiled to the crowd.
Heck, at the Monkey Wrench, there is even a World Cup-themed special menu available for a limited time.
And the American Outlaws of Louisville, a group of soccer fans that started a chapter of the national organization here in 2010 during World Cup play, packed the SkyBar at Saints in St. Matthews on Monday.
Is soccer becoming a thing in Louisville? Outlaws member Eric Belmonte believes.
“I honestly feel like a sleeping giant has been awakened with the introduction of Louisville City FC,” Belmonte said, “because soccer has been a popular sport in our city for quite some time.”
Believers point to the fact that soccer has for a couple of generations now been a prevalent youth support; kids that grow up playing it go on to college and beyond to play. Justin Prather, a former University of Louisville soccer player (1997-2000) came to love soccer exactly that way.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people my age have played and now have kids that are interested, leading to tremendous interest,” Prather said. And while he remembers playing soccer, it wasn’t as accessible via the media the way it is today, which can only lead to more fans.
“When I was a kid,” he said, “a lot of times you had to watch the Spanish channel to find games at all. Now it is the feature on TV.”
Josh Hampton is a soccer enthusiast and a Chelsea supporter. He can often be found at Molly Malone’s or other spots around town sipping a pint and watching his beloved Chelsea club play; he plans to watch Thursday’s U.S.-vs.-Germany match either there or at Saints. He also believes soccer’s profile is on the rise here.
“I think Louisville has come very far, especially since the 2010 Cup,” he said. “Lots more places to watch with large groups. In 2010, the only place I can remember that actually advertised that they’d air the matches was Molly’s on Baxter.”
Belmonte points to a simple fact of numbers and participation. The Outlaws, he said, started four years ago with 20 or 30 members.
“Our last watch party at Saints had over 700, which speaks volumes,” he said. He noted that when Clint Dempsey scored at the 81-minute mark to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead, Skybar nearly exploded. (See video below.)
Meanwhile, there’s the Louisville Coopers, a fan group of sorts that helped Louisville City FC, a club that is moving here from Orlando, Fla., become a reality. That group not only is more than 1,700 strong on Facebook, it sells the heck out of merchandise to Louisville-area soccer fans.
Wayne Estopinal, the primary investor behind Louisville City FC and the man deserving the most credit for bringing the team here, obviously believes. He points to Nielsen ratings for Sunday’s U.S. World Cup match, which set a record for soccer with an average 24.7 million viewers in the U.S. By comparison, the National Hockey League playoffs on Sunday had 6 million viewers, and the NBA final on Monday that saw the Miami Heat ousted by the San Antonio Spurs captured 16.6 million viewers.
ESPN called the Nielsen record “an emphatic confirmation of the sport’s rising popularity in a country slower to embrace it than the rest of the world.”
“I think it’s huge a number,” Estopinal said. “Everybody says, ‘We’re not for sure soccer is here yet.’ I have to say, I’m pretty certain it’s here.”
As of Tuesday this week, Estopinal said, 712 Louisville City FC season tickets have been sold.
“Personally, I know over 20 friends that have already paid to lock down their season tickets,” Belmonte said. “With ESPN’s daily coverage of the World Cup, NBC’s weekly coverage of the English Premier League, and new channels introduced in the past year like beIN Sports, people in the U.S. have more exposure to soccer today than they would if they were to live over in Europe. I think some people will be shocked at how much support our USL team will get next spring when they kick-off their season at Slugger Field.”
However, Hampton remains skeptical that Louisville City FC will find great success – not that he isn’t hoping for the club to do well. But he points out that in Europe, a lower level team can rise to the Premiere League, whereas in the United States, once you’re a USL team, you are always one – a Major League Soccer franchise has to be awarded to a city based on success probability, which is a long term goal for the city of Louisville. But is it an attainable goal?
“I think it will be hard to generate new fans without the possibility of greater rewards,” Hampton said. “There will be a core group who support it, but there are so many people who just don’t get soccer in this area that I can’t see it growing beyond a certain population.
“Don’t get me wrong – I want it to (succeed). I would love for it to. And I’ll definitely support the club. I just don’t know how much the rest of Louisville is going to support it.”
It’s worth considering that we already have a huge youth soccer base here in Louisville, with top-notch facilities like Mockingbird Valley. We have University of Louisville soccer, which is about to open a new stadium. We also have the River City Rovers, a USL developmental team that has produced two pro players. We recently profiled a Louisville soccer player named Amar Sejdic who is now playing professionally in Europe.
Whether this kind of growth continues remains to be seen. Regardless, if you want to witness some firsthand evidence that soccer has set up permanent camp in Louisville, head to Molly Malone’s or Saints to watch the U.S.-Germany match Thursday at noon. Drape an American flag over your back, and good luck finding a seat. Because for the believers, soccer is definitely here – and it has been here for a long time.
“I think anybody saying the sport isn’t here,” Estopinal said, “isn’t really looking very hard.”