It was an impressive picture: a cart loaded to the gills with beer, with the promise of even more out of frame. Sky Blue FC general manager Alyse LaHue had tweeted earlier that Rutgers was unable to allow the team to put on a beer garden, and therefore she would be taking matters into her own hands. When life hands you lemons: slice them up and use them as garnish for beers.
Rewind a couple of weeks. LaHue and Rutgers had been having a back-and-forth dialogue in the months leading up to Sky Blue’s July 12 home game against the Utah Royals. Rutgers was potentially going to switch concession providers, which would affect their liquor license to sell alcohol on campus. In a phone call with AfXI, LaHue said that after months of asking for clarification from Rutgers, she found out right before that July 12 game they didn’t have their license in order, which meant no beer garden.
Sky Blue had another home game on July 24, against the Washington Spirit. This one would be a World Cup player homecoming, with Carli Lloyd, Rose Lavelle, and Mal Pugh in attendance. After the disappointment of the Royals game, LaHue had promised fans the beer garden would be back for the Spirit game. And again, Rutgers didn’t have their liquor license in place. LaHue was even willing to try to bring in a third-party vendor at the last minute, but no amount of money would secure them a liquor license in 24 hours. What to do?
Well, if you live somewhere with a bulk store, you go buy eight new coolers (from team partner ShopRite, natch), and fill them with free beer. And then you hand them out to the over 5,000 fans coming to a midweek game at not-super-conveniently-located Yurcak Field and enjoy your sellout crowd. It was a creative solution to a problem not necessarily of the team’s making, but LaHue felt obligated after promising fans a beer garden.
“I’m a woman of my word,” she said. “I felt terrible having to come back and tell fans it wasn’t going to happen for the 24th, so I had to spring into action. I didn’t have a choice. I promised them we would come up with a solution.”
LaHue wasn’t saying any of this tongue-in-cheek. She genuinely believes in the value of building communities around soccer in order to grow a team’s fanbase. “When I announced that we weren’t going to have a beer garden, I thought I was going to get flamed to be totally honest,” she said. “I was willing to do that because I had made that promise to the fans. So seeing them come together, be supportive, and everybody working together and just saying okay, let’s do this in the tailgate area, let’s make this happen - to be honest, for me it was a moment that was heartfelt for me seeing all the fans coming together.”
Sky Blue supporters group Cloud 9 definitely didn’t seem put out by the compromise. A spokesperson told AfXI via DM that they had more people than usual joining them, particularly for a midweek game, and that they got some new members out of the deal.
The line to get into the stadium was a long one - sellout, remember - and it snaked right past the new “beer garden.” Lots of people entering the stadium, new and returning, had a free drink in their hand courtesy of Sky Blue, while learning more about Cloud 9 and the sense of community enjoyed among regular fans. Sky Blue also put new league sponsor Budweiser front and center. Not a bad last-minute advertisement born out of necessity and one stubborn GM’s guilt.
It’s not specifically about the beer garden, according to LaHue. It’s about the stadium amenities they’re able to offer as part of the fan experience. “It’s engaging fans that are maybe casual that only come to a game or two a year; how can we expand them into coming to five to six games a year, expanding them to then become season ticket members and really becoming part of the club?” she said.
“I think especially our adult fans, they want to have something for them as well,” said LaHue. “It can’t all be about kids’ games and kids’ activities. I want us to be a space for all. And I think serving alcohol helps to do that. It brings more of our millennial fans and our supporters group fans, adults that want to have a beverage at a sporting event and kick back a little bit.”
“I think right now we’re seeing growth across all categories,” she continued. “And certainly when a club is going to have essentially a free beer tailgate, I think you’re going to tap into a lot more young fans that might be intrigued by that. I certainly am not upset about the extra press that we got through this initiative. I think it’s just been about community and spreading the word, and I‘ve seen new fans come into the fold in the last couple days and that’s really exciting.”
A midweek sellout at a venue off the beaten path for a team with a, shall we say, subdued spot on the league table is also exciting. The game was already headed for the 4,000-plus mark, but LaHue said that they sold nearly 800 tickets on game day as well - unheard of for Sky Blue until now. “I think it was a lot of things around the game,” she said. “The World Cup return, we had a lot of our partners promoting the game, Estelle Johnson went on the radio that morning and they talked about the free beer. I think it was a microcosm of a lot of different marketing channels and as the game got closer, the weather was beautiful. The fans turned out.”
Now the question becomes: how to keep the good times rolling? LaHue knows a sellout every game is unlikely, and that in general, they’ll see attendance spikes with certain visiting teams, like when the Reign are in town (hopefully with a healthy Megan Rapinoe) or the Pride, with their numerous international stars. And she knows that stadium experience counts for a lot, which is actually why Sky Blue’s days at Rutgers are numbered. She’s already told media that the team is looking for a new venue, a place that will make Sky Blue more of a priority. “[Rutgers has] their own focuses, and rightfully so,” she said. “I don’t think that we are necessarily their focus, so it makes it very difficult for us to make a professional environment, at times, that we want for our fans. And the truth is the amenities just aren’t there. We don’t have a video board, we don’t have LED boards, there’s pretty limited concessions, it’s a very small concourse. So on a game like Wednesday night where we had a sellout, it is really, really cramped.”
A forward-looking GM is definitely something Sky Blue needs, and LaHue clearly intends to chase down every possible opportunity. She has an upcoming meeting with Budweiser’s marketing team, based in New York City, and wants to capitalize on the chance to cross-promote Sky Blue with the slew of professional sports teams in their NY/NJ market who are also sponsored by Budweiser’s owner, Anheuser-Busch. Sky Blue might be a relatively small-time operation compared to some teams, but LaHue’s approach demonstrates there is a path forward to growth. With creative local marketing from the bottom up, and more league sponsorship work from the top down, there are ways to capture more fans and more dollars.
“There’s so much sense for optimism right now,” said LaHue. “Obviously the US women’s victory creates a slew of new opportunities for us at the league level, but we also have to grab them and run with them and take these opportunities. We can’t just sit back and expect that people are going to come to us.... I think it’s making sure as front offices we are doing everything we can across all of our revenue streams and our outreach opportunities to take advantage of the is moment, because it doesn’t come along very often and it could pass us and we’ve missed it.”