Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

A Pitch for St. Louis

In Soccer on June 5, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Last week, Manchester City and Chelsea of the English Premier League competed in an exhibition match at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The match was unique, but St. Louis has a long history with the beautiful game.

A sea of blue shirts is an odd sight to see in Busch Stadium. The home field of the St. Louis Cardinals is usually filled with more than 40,000 fans each clad in a ubiquitous red shirt and cheering on the 11-time World Series champions. But last week, blue was the color of the day as English Premier League teams Manchester City and Chelsea clashed in an exhibition match in front of the largest crowd for a sporting event in the stadium’s eight-year history.

Chelsea appeared to be in control for the majority of the match. In the 14th minute, Chelsea forward Demba Ba’s header sneaked past Manchester City keeper Joe Hart to put the Blues ahead 1-0. Cesar Azpilicueta’s penalty kick made the score 2-0 going into the half. With a half hour remaining in the contest, the Blues held a commanding 3-0 lead over Man City. But Chelsea couldn’t seal the deal, and Man City rebounded to even the score at 3-3 in the 85th minute. Midfielder Javi Garcia capped off Man City’s rally with the game-winning goal at the beginning of injury time.

The match was only an exhibition contest, but that fact did not deter St. Louis soccer fans from bearing the chilly weather to watch two of the world’s best professional soccer teams compete. And while the novelty of the match — soccer in a baseball stadium! — and the high profile of the teams likely boosted attendance and media coverage, the resounding success of the exhibition match illustrates St. Louis’s unique relationship with the beautiful game.

As a sports town, St. Louis has a reputation as a one-trick pony. From April through October, St. Louis wears Cardinal Red like a civic uniform. And for the rest of the year, the small faction of St. Louis Blues fans clamor for recognition, while the St. Louis Rams plan how to waste their inevitable top-10 draft pick. But surprisingly, the city has had a long-standing attraction to soccer. Every year, youth soccer leagues fill up with elementary- and middle school-aged children (including, at one time, yours truly). In the spring and summer, recreational soccer leagues and pick-up games dot the public fields in Forest Park. Even high school matches and playoff games have been known to attract hundreds, if not thousands of spectators. It’s not quite Texas football — or Cardinals baseball — but it’s undeniable that St. Louis has a relationship to soccer that’s almost unique in America.

That relationship has been decades in the making. Perhaps no factor contributed to soccer’s popularity in St. Louis as significantly as the dynastic success of the Saint Louis University Billikens men’s soccer team. From 1959-1974, the Billikens captured 10 NCAA men’s soccer championships, and finished second three times. The largely Catholic city rallied around its Jesuit university and never looked back.

In 1968, St. Louis got its first taste of professional soccer. The Saint Louis Stars of the North American Soccer League gained a sizeable following, averaging over 7,000 fans per match at the cavernous Busch Memorial Stadium. The Stars finished the 1972 season as league runners-up, losing the championship match to the New York Cosmos. But the team faced leasing issues and moved to Anaheim after the 1977 season.

Since the departure of the Stars, and the subsequent collapse of the NASL, there have been other attempts to bring professional soccer back to St. Louis. The St. Louis Ambush competed in the National Professional Soccer league in the 1990s, but the league folded in 2001. The St. Louis Athletica of Women’s Professional Soccer featured Olympic gold medal-winner Hope Solo, and A.C. St. Louis competed at the second level of the American men’s professional soccer pyramid, but neither franchise lasted past 2011.

The city’s demographic makeup also points toward a strong soccer culture. In the aftermath of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, St. Louis became a major center for refugees from the Balkan states affected by the conflict. Having grown up in the strong European soccer culture, those individuals brought a love of the game that has reinvigorated St. Louis’s soccer tradition.

But without a high profile professional soccer franchise, St. Louis’s soccer passion has remained fairly nebulous. But, perhaps counterintuitively, now might be the perfect time for Major League Soccer to consider a franchise in the Gateway to the West. MLS has looked at St. Louis as a candidate city for an expansion franchise in the past. In 2008 and 2009, an ownership group calling itself “St. Louis Soccer United” lobbied MLS leaders for a franchise. However, both bids were rejected in favor of Vancouver, Portland, Montreal and New York.

But a lot can change in five years.  Nationwide, the popularity of soccer, both international and domestic, has increased significantly since the last round of MLS expansion. American television ratings for Euro 2012 were 51 percent higher than in 2008. The Fox Network’s bid for broadcasting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups was 147 percent higher than the winning bid for the broadcasting rights for the 2010 and 2014 cups. Domestically, MLS has expanded to 20 clubs, three clubs are valued at $40 million or more, and the value of the Los Angeles Galaxy exceeds $100 million. MLS per game attendance exceeded both the NBA and the NHL in 2012. New broadcasting agreements nationally televise at least one game on ESPN every week. Fox launched the Fox Soccer Channel, and NBC Sports signed a three-year deal to nationally broadcast 40 matches per season.

These developments compliment St. Louis’s existing soccer tradition. Soccer is becoming a national sport in the United States, and it appears it will only grow in the coming years. But any professional league requires engaged local fan bases for support. For more than 50 years, St. Louis has demonstrated that it can be a soccer town. As long as it’s kept on the pitch, maybe Cardinals fans could get used to cheering on Chelsea blue in Busch Stadium.


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