We’ve all heard it. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Or rather, if the US WNT plays in Rochester and is televised nationally on ESPN2, does that make some noise? What about buzz? Is there buzz? Because that is what our newest contributor, James Weise, news director at Kick This!, is looking for? Read his first (of hopefully many) contributions after the jump.
On July 14, it was announced that the US Women’s National Team would be playing Mexico in Rochester, New York. I was really excited because the pure electricity of the USWNT’s last visit was still pretty fresh in my head even though it was almost two years ago.
On September 25, 2004, 14,870 fans packed Frontier Field to welcome the newly minted gold medalists home and celebrate the break out of hometown girl Abby Wambach who scored the gold medal winning goal in Athens. Rochester was so pumped up for that game that after Rochester Rhinos season ticket holders got to buy tickets, it took less than an hour for the public to buy up what was left of the tickets to the game. And with so many fans wanting to see the game and it not being broadcast on national TV, a local affiliate dumped Saturday night primetime programming and self-produced a local broadcast of the game.
That’s how much buzz there was for that match.
And the buzz around that team and it’s soon to be retired stars wasn’t confined to this city in western New York. The US Women’s National Team averaged 15,613 fans per game during the 2004 Fan Celebration Tour. Over 20,000 fans came out to see the US defeat Mexico 1-0 in Kansas City.
The tour came to an end on December 8, 2004 when the US defeated Mexico 5-0 in front of 15,549 fans at the Home Depot Center. And on the night that the Hamm-Foudy-Chastain-Fawcett era came to an end, it was the next generation of US stars that provided the goals. Abby Wambach and Aly Wagner each scored a pair of goals and Shannon Boxx scored the other in an unofficial passing of the baton.
And while things looked great at the time, that was the night that the buzz died.
two years of change
Personally, things have changed a lot since that fall evening in 2004. My two sons are two years older and they will have another sibling before winter is over. And soccer-wise, I’ve moved from being purely a fan to a volunteer member of the local soccer media as the news director for a weekly radio show called Kick This!
In Rochester, we’ve seen the construction of our own soccer specific stadium finally happen. And we’ve also seen the change in venue not get the reception that many had expected.
And with the US Women’s National Team, the change has been in the form of coaches and players coming and going, as well as dealing with the fallout of the WUSA folding after the 2003 season.
In 2004, the US Women’s National Team had yet to fully feel the impact that the folding of the three year old pro league would have on the program. With the veteran core of the team still intact, the team didn’t have a crying need for a top flight pro league to help with player development and identification. The program also didn’t need the exposure for players with stars like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Julie Foudy still around and getting TV time almost at will.
But after those three walked away, so did the spotlight on the US Women’s National Team. In 5 domestic matches in 2005, the US Women drew a total of 20,777 fans. That was just 342 fans more than the 20,435 fans that came out to the 2004 Fan Celebration Tour game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Things started out much the same way in 2006, with the team averaging 5245 fans per game during their first four domestic matches of the year.
But things would be different in Rochester, right?
the Abby factor
Abby working with Right To Play in Kigali, Rwanda
While the US Women’s National Team may lack star power in cities like Chicago and San Diego, that isn’t the case in Rochester. Abby Wambach often gets rock star like attention when she comes back to visit. For the 2004 match, Preferred Care, a health insurance company that has an endorsement deal with Wambach, had a huge Abby-Cadabra sign unveiled adjacent to the stadium. The local paper had a pull-out section devoted to Wambach’s career from high school soccer and basketball star to Olympic hero. And then Abby got a crazy ovation when the starting lineup was announced. Add in some really popular local soccer camps where Abby gives plenty of face time to the next generation of girls soccer stars in Rochester and you get a taste of how big a star Wambach is here in Rochester.
Add in the new soccer stadium making it’s national soccer debut and it is a lock to at least get 10,000 fans, right? Well, that’s what most people in Rochester expected. But, something happened between July 14 and September 13.
There were some concerns when the announcement was made. The prices were a lot higher than Rhinos tickets go for. Plus, the game was being held at 8pm on a school night to satisfy ESPN2. But, that didn’t go over well with parents who had kids that needed to be on school buses early the next morning.
Then there were the issues with the stadium itself. The parking wasn’t as convenient as Frontier Field. The concessions weren’t as good as Frontier Field. The neighborhood was an issue for some suburbanites. And the Rhinos attendance wasn’t as good as many had hoped.
doing our part to help out
On August 5th we had our first US Women’s National Team guest on the show to try and get some buzz going for the match. We had Heather O’Reilly on to try and let the people in Rochester get to know some of the new stars of the team.
Over the next five weeks we had Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach on. And then on the Saturday before the game we had Natasha Kai and Heather Mitts on for one last push before the game.
Personally, I was feeling pretty good until I heard that they had only sold 5,000 to 6,000 tickets to the game. To say that I was disappointed would be a big understatement. I am really proud of the reputation that Rochester has gotten over the years as a strong soccer town. And I saw this as yet another example of how 2006 was turning into the year that Soccertown USA died.
But, Abby was going to make an appearance at the Rhinos game that night and the bulk of the team was landing at the airport the next evening, so maybe the buzz would really start once they were here.
me and the news crew
The team’s plane was supposed to land at around 6:13 pm last Sunday evening. And even though the Rhinos’ final regular season game in Charleston was starting at 6, I was going to head out to the airport and thank the players that had come on our show for doing so. Lilly, Kai, and Mitts were real troopers as they were on the show before 8am on Saturday mornings LA time. Having never “covered” something like this as a member of the media, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But, I was disappointed about what I saw when I got there.
The only people that showed up to the airport were myself and a crew from the local cable news channel. And the reporter from the news channel admitted that he wasn’t even a sports guy!
The funniest thing about my whole time there was my conversation with Kristine Lilly. Most of the players asked about the weather being so cold, but Lilly asked about how ticket sales were going. I probably looked like someone shot my dog as I explained how there were reports of only about 6,000 tickets being sold. And I told her that I wouldn’t be happy with Rochester having just the largest crowd of the year. I wanted a sold out crowd for the game. Kristine’s response was a classic – “We’ve still got a few days to sell tickets!” I loved the optimism. And somehow, it made the impending let down feel even worse to me.
We talkin’ ‘bout practice!
On Monday afternoon I headed down to the stadium to watch the team practice. I had never seen a national team practice before and I spent a lot of time just soaking it all in. Arguably the best women’s national team in the world was in my backyard practicing in the stadium that has become my pride and joy regardless of what anyone else thinks.
I got to ask Kristine Lilly if she was a Jets fan like my wife (she is), I got introduced to Abby, and I got to relay a message from my two little goalkeepers at home to Hope Solo.
The only thing I’d change would be leaving early and not taking up the offer to referee the little game between the US Soccer and Rhinos staff that was to take place after the practice was over.
While the forecast had called for rain (just like on PAETEC Park’s opening night), the soccer gods smiled on Rochester and the weather was merely overcast and a little chilly. And as expected, the crowd was less than I had hoped for.
The official number was 6,784 fans in a stadium with over 12,000 seats.
The good news was that the crowd that was there gave the team, and especially Abby, a great reception at the start of the game. And Abby returned the favor by giving the crowd two chances to applaud her goals. The first goal was a rocket of a PK after Abby herself was taken down just inside the Mexico penalty area. The second was another rocket finish, this time on a bad angle off her left boot. That second goal had me singing “We’ve got the best striker in the world!”
where do we go from here?
Abby got on a plane headed to LA to shoot a Gatorade commercial. And she’ll be headed right back here afterward as she has her soccer camp this weekend, along with an appearance for Preferred Care at the Rochester Marathon on Sunday.
With residency camp complete, the US Women will have a few weeks off before getting back together prior to next month’s matches in LA versus Chinese Taipei and in Richmond, Virginia versus Iceland. Then at the end of October it’s off to South Korea for the 2006 Peace Queen Cup prior to CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup in November.
But the million dollar question is will the buzz ever return to this team?
Is this attendance and attention lull the last two years merely due to a lack of a major competition? Or, is US Women’s Soccer waiting for the next buzzworthy star to emerge. Although, with Heather Mitts, Aly Wagner, and Abby Wambach on board, shouldn’t that be a nice mix of talent and marketability to draw fans to games? Add in emerging stars like super-sub Natasha Kai who’s tattoos landed her in Sports Illustrated last month, goalkeeper Hope Solo, and youngsters like Heather O’Reilly, and it would appear to me like there is a ton of talent for US Soccer to market.
Hopefully the 2007 Women’s World Cup will be the tournament that leads to the return of the WUSA and helps bring the buzz back.
Anything can happen as I’ve seen over the past two years.
Do you have a knack for writing? Can you vent - with educated opinions - about the growing pains of American Soccer? Well, we need you. The nation needs you. for crying out loud, send me an e-mail with your best essay or article, and it could see the light of the internet’s day on TIAS. Keep ‘em coming and you too could be a regular contributor.