Sky Blue’s upward trend this season has been undeniable. The team has been building positive momentum on and off the field this summer, from sell-out crowds to improved results and the capstone of the recent changes: a move to Red Bull Arena and record-breaking attendance of 9,415. The club’s previous attendance record was set way back in 2009 when 6,053 fans turned up for Sky Blue’s first-ever game in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) against the LA Sol at TD Bank Ballpark, a minor league baseball stadium in Somerset, New Jersey.
Sky Blue captain Sarah Killion celebrated her 100th NWSL appearance in yesterday’s game at Red Bull Arena. As a veteran of the team who played all 100 of those caps with Sky Blue, she’s experienced the club’s ups and downs, and feels that this is a turning point for Sky Blue. “Some big changes have been made,” Killion said, “And because of those changes, I think that we’ve been able to take steps forward on the field, because of those steps off the field. It’s exciting and being here this long, sticking with it, seeing it kind of turn around, seeing where it is now… it just brings me a lot of joy.”
More butts in more seats
For a number of players and fans, the spark behind this new era is interim general manager Alyse LaHue, whose can-do, laser-focused attitude towards implementing positive changes has led to Sky Blue setting and reaching new goals. Pulling off the feat of moving to Red Bull Arena has been a longtime goal for LaHue. For her, the move was a no-brainer. “The response that we got about the ease of transportation to get here and having public transportation options… we know that there’s a denser population center in the North of Jersey and NYC. So for us, being able to listen to them, to sort of do a trial run at Red Bull Arena and get this turnout on short notice is promising.”
By short notice, LaHue means the 13 days since the move to Red Bull Arena was announced on August 5. “I asked a tremendous amount of my staff, to pull this off with two weeks’ notice. Ticket sales went on sale for even shorter than that—we only had 11 days to sell,” LaHue continued. “So to be able to essentially double what the original attendance was at Rutgers in coming here with maybe only maybe 11, 12 days to sell and the efforts of the staff was absolutely incredible.”
Across the league, teams are experiencing record attendance numbers, from the Portland Thorns’ single-match league record of 25,218 on August 11, to the 17,388-person crowd that the Chicago Red Stars welcomed to SeatGeek Stadium when they faced the North Carolina Courage in their homecoming match for stars of the 2019 World Cup. Sky Blue now adds to these impressive numbers, and the turnout at Red Bull is particularly notable considering that Sky Blue didn’t have the three months of planning and strategy that went into the Red Stars achieving their record crowd, or the tradition of incredible support and high attendances that the Thorns experience on a weekly basis. “I was really tremendously blown away by this outpouring of fan support—fans that were willing to purchase tickets, or fans that didn’t live here that said ‘I just want to support what you’re doing, I like where Sky Blue’s going, I like the efforts your making, I’m going to donate tickets,’” LaHue said. We were able to bring out several youth groups and we were able to get some new fans into the supporters section tonight that haven’t been to Sky Blue games before.”
A move long overdue
Past experience as the general manager of the Chicago Red Stars has given LaHue perspective on where Sky Blue is currently and the kind of progress that needs to be made if the club’s progress is to continue. The Red Stars played at Benedictine University’s sports complex until 2015 in a stadium that seated 3,000, then moved to SeatGeek, known at the time as Toyota Park. “I see a similar model here probably should have been had,”she said, “Where you start at Rutgers, you stake in, see how the league’s doing, and once you get past that amazing year three into year four—the mystery year four for women’s pro soccer in America—and you realize it was stable, that was the time to take the leap.”
From not having showers for players to use after games, to running into liquor license conflicts with Rutgers over selling alcohol at home games, Yurcak Field has been lacking for Sky Blue for much of the club’s 10-year relationship with the facility. “We need to do big things at this club just to catch up to where other pro teams are in this league, and I travel with the team and I’m looking at other venues,” said LaHue. “We just can’t compete at Rutgers with what other teams are offering in terms of professionalism, in terms of what other players are being offered, so we have to take really big leaps now. This ends up being five or six times the cost of Rutgers for us, but we also realize we’ve outgrown Rutgers, both from just a professionalism standpoint and obviously from an attendance standpoint at times. If we have an opportunity to come into another arena, we’re going to stake our marketing roots in that area and make a big push for attendance. This gives a lot of promise for the future for us.”
As the front office works to secure a new home for the 2020 NWSL season, the game at Red Bull Arena provided some perspective on what a bigger, more professional environment could mean for the club at all levels, especially for the player experience. “If we could play here every game, that would be fantastic,” said Killion. “Obviously that’s a goal and a dream of the entire organization at Sky Blue, so it’s just a matter of making that happen and doing it in an intelligent way because we know that this is the time when we can push women’s soccer forward towards the direction of having games at stadiums like this.
”It was overall a great atmosphere… it just goes to show you how far Sky Blue’s come and we just have to keep going,” Sky Blue veteran Carli Lloyd said. For Lloyd, a recent World Cup winner with the U.S. Women’s National Team, the next goal is making days like yesterday and crowds like the one that turned out for Red Bull a regularity. Only 2,558 fans turned up for the team’s thrilling stoppage-time victory over the Chicago Red Stars last Wednesday. While high demand for tickets and a sellout weeks in advance for this game prompted the move to Red Bull Arena in the first place, Sky Blue only sold out one other game this season: the return match for USWNT World Cup players. The last time they sold out before then? 2015. “We saw this [bump] in 2015 as well,” said Lloyd. “The biggest challenge is how are we going to sustain that you know when next year there’s the Olympics and the year after that when there’s nothing. We’ve got to get to that point where we’re sustaining. It’s great, the big increase in numbers right after a World Cup, but we kind of saw that dip down as well after the last one. The word has to get out, ultimately. There’s so many people that don’t know that there’s a women’s professional league in this country and that’s a problem.”
Reign midfielder Allie Long commended Sky Blue on the move to Red Bull Arena. “Everything about [RBA] is a professional environment, and I think that should be the standard for us,” Long said.
What it actually takes to move from Yurcak
The move to RBA allowed some New York City-based fans to get to their first game ever. As the team looks for new venues, that accessibility to a larger fan base will be a critical point of consideration.
There are other considerations that will need to be made as a venue is scoped out as well, LaHue noted. “If we end up moving venues, then the reality for us is that we’re probably going to end up looking for new training facilities. And then we probably need to move our front office, and then we need to move where our players live. So for me, it starts with the venue but then there’s this whole trickle effect on all these other things that we also need to try to bring with it. So there’s going to be a lot of work to be done,” LaHue said.
Sarah Killion said that the work that the front office is doing to improve conditions, facilities, and professionalism, and having the players’ best interests in mind at every turn has been apparent. “They are really really pushing forward what we want to be when we say professional and that’s a whole other level,” Killion said. “You can tell how much they are about us, and how much energy and effort they put into making sure that we’re comfortable, that we feel safe, that we feel like we have the environment to improve. And that, in turn, wants us to give back to the club, give back to them, and step onto the field every single time and make sure that we’re balling out the best that we can.”
The next goal for Sky Blue: keep imagining big, striving for progress, and taking risks when they are needed. “[The game at Red Bull] was a risk,” LaHue said. “When I say ‘It’s going to cost five or six times the cost to go play at Red Bull, and these are the tickets that I need to sell to make up that cost,’ it was a risk, with only 11 days to sell.” Ultimately, the risk was worth it, as the 9,415-person crowd was more than promising for Sky Blue from a revenue perspective. “We could probably pull half of that revenue-wise and still be okay in a venue like this,” LaHue said.
From the perspective of the front office staff, the success of this game sets them up for negotiations for Sky Blue’s next venue. “For us, it’s a conversation,” said LaHue, “So now that we’ve had this opportunity to play in Red Bull, I can go and talk to them. I hope that they had a good experience with us and appreciated the turnout that we were able to bring on short notice, and I hope that helps with the conversation in the future.”
Fans are pleased with the experience, too. Many of them have been waiting to see Sky Blue play in a bigger and more professional year for a decade. Others are completely new to the team and the league. “We have a lot of new fans that came up today, a lot of repeat fans that have never been to Red Bull Arena from our games at Rutgers, so for us, we have a really tiny staff but it’s important for me that we really try to connect with every single fan,” LaHue said. “I want to try a get a touchpoint on every single one over the next couple weeks.”
That personalized, supporter-centered approach has made a lot of fans feel like they have a stake in the club and its current moment of growth, something that longtime and returning fans maybe haven’t felt as deeply before. All of the changes have led to an air optimism for Sky Blue that feels promising and permanent. From LaHue’s perspective, focusing on the fans and improving their experience is the key factor. “I think the most important thing is to listen to your fans, listen to what they have to say.”