TAMPA, Fla. – It’s almost become a cliché, the missives announcing another landmark for USL attendance, but for those clubs that both helped build the league into what it is today and have bolstered its ranks more recently the continued rise of the league on and off the field has become a source of great pride.
“Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the continued growth in attendance is something that benefits the entire league,” said Sacramento Republic FC President & COO Ben Gumpert recently. “We’re happy to see the investments that these new clubs are making in their communities, and the results are playing out.”
The arrival of clubs like Sacramento Republic FC and OKC Energy FC in the 2014 season helped kickstart the league to its current point, with the crowds – in particular Sacramento’s record-shattering inaugural season – proving a case study for those that would follow them and those that had long histories within the league. It’s remarkable to think that the total attendance of almost 700,000 fans that attended the league that season would have tripled by the end of the 2017 season, but now, the league is taking even bigger steps forward.
This weekend the league is set to surpass the 1.5 million-mark in total attendance, a record-setting pace for sure but a remarkable number on its own for the fact that it will outstrip the league’s total attendance of just two seasons ago when the league’s total attendance for the 2016 season sat at 1,496,493 fans. Among those having a major effect on those numbers this year have been newcomers like Las Vegas Lights FC, whose success at the box office has been no surprise to those at the club.
"Las Vegas was the second largest city in the world without a professional soccer team, and Cashman Field is an ideal 10,000-seat venue in the heart of downtown,” said Lights FC Owner & CEO Brett Lashbrook. “Combining that with the overall growth of soccer in America makes it unsurprising to see local fans support us in record numbers in our inaugural season. We are just getting started in Las Vegas.”
Then there’s the duo of Nashville SC and Indy Eleven, both of which helped power the second-highest attended week in the league’s modern era over the past seven days, as both saw five-figure crowds pack into two top-class venues at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium and Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. The level of engagement produced by Nashville in its first professional season has been remarkable and a testament to the work put in by the club’s front office and staff since the club joined the USL in 2016.
“The engagement that we have seen in our inaugural season is the result of two-plus years of fan-building by our club, along with a deep, organic embrace by Nashvillians,” said Nashville SC CEO Court Jeske. “It has been incredibly fulfilling to see the fans respond like they have so far this season.”
For Indy, meanwhile, the move to Lucas Oil Stadium for the club’s first season in the USL has seen a rise in attendance of more than 20 percent from 2017, and a level of comfort for both those within the club and its supporters that the long-term goals of the club are reachable.
“Lucas Oil Stadium is a fabulous facility, and it’s great for our fans. We’re very pleased to be playing there,” said Indy President Jeff Belskus. “The move to the USL has been very good for us. Some of the regional rivalries that have been created between teams like Louisville, Cincinnati, Nashville and even Pittsburgh have been great. The USL is a much bigger and stronger league, the fans are very engaged, it’s been a very positive move for us.”
With Indy and Nashville joining both FC Cincinnati and Republic FC in averaging five-figure crowds this season, and the top 15 clubs in the league all averaging more than 4,000 fans per game, it has meant some memorable atmospheres throughout the season so far. From a player’s perspective, that support – whether at home or away – adds an intensity to games that is magical. The sellout crowd that celebrated Republic FC’s fifth anniversary season at Papa Murphy’s Park this past Saturday night produced another memorable night in the club’s history.
“Playing at Papa Murphy’s Park is special,” said Republic FC forward Wilson Kneeshaw, who joined Sacramento midway through the 2016 season and has become a fan-favorite since. “Since my debut, I came off the bench, and the fans were just crazy. They welcomed me right away, so it’s always had a special place in my heart.
“Just talking to other players around the league and people who have come in and left the team, you see that this is our staple. It’s what we envisioned as a club, and it’s definitely the way we want to go forward with everything. Credit to the fans that come out every match and make it such a great environment.”
With the league set to welcome another group of strong clubs for the 2019 season, say nothing of the highly-anticipated launch of USL Division III next spring, the trend that began five seasons ago looks set to continue as the USL builds a strong framework for professional soccer across North America.
"In 2018, it should no longer be a surprise to see new markets like ours having success,” said Lashbrook. “The USL is a great league that Las Vegas Lights FC is proud to be a part of alongside so many other great soccer markets. With so many teams the League is ripe to have clubs with different styles, history and personality. The USL plays an important role in American pro soccer landscape – and fans across the country are supporting it in record numbers.”