When a near-capacity crowd of 9,460 jammed into Derks Field for a soccer game on April 21, Salt Lake City attracted the attention of the soccer world. At least the soccer world of the western United States.
The Salt Lake Sting franchise has kept that attention, by leading the Western Soccer League in attendance during most of its initial season, despite less-than-favorable weather. Another expansion franchise, the New Mexico Chiles, recently edged ahead of the Sting by a few hundred. Still, Sting officials as well as league officals are thrilled with the turnouts in Salt Lake."We're really pleased with what's happening in Salt Lake," said William Sage, the Chairman of the Western Soccer League. "It's been a pleasant surprise. They certainly have a strong ownership, have done well at the gate and on the field. That's a pretty good combination."
"I was surprised at the beginning. I thought maybe we'd get about 6,000 for the first game," said Sting general manager/coach Laurie Calloway. "Based on that first crowd, it hasn't been a surprise since. We've had a hard-core number of 3 to 4,000 we've maintained, despite the poor weather."
The Sting are coming off a five-game homestand and heading into the second half of the season. Except for a small crowd for an exhibition game in a late-April snowstorm, the Sting have never had fewer than 3,000 fans to a game. They average 5,021, which is slightly behind New Mexico's estimated average of 5,500 and well ahead of third place Colorado's 3,200.
What makes the Salt Lake numbers so remarkable is that the Sting have yet to play under perfect or even semi-perfect conditions. They've battled thunderstorms, chilly weather and persistent rain showers and still come up with a solid following.
There has been rain, ranging from sprinkles to a downpour during four of the six games, it rained hard a couple of hours before another and was downright cold for the other game.
"It's not a good feeling for the fans to get wet every week," said Calloway. "We seem to pick all the bad days."
"It's unbelievable," said Sting assistant coach/defender Joe Silviera, after the New Mexico game. "We've got a game in two weeks, so you can just mark rain on your calendar."
Sting officials only wonder what they could have done with a few more warm clear evenings.
"There are four clubs in Southern California and those fans would never be so hardy as the Utah fans," said Don Risolo of the WSL office. "If a few clouds come in, they head for the exits."
Of course that's the few fans that attend professional soccer games in Southern California.
The three clubs that rank lowest in the league, right around 1,000 per game are San Diego, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
Officials for the Southern California teams say they have marketing problems that teams in other cities like Salt Lake and Albuquerque don't have.
"We have 12 other professional sports teams, the beach . . ." said Dawn Smith of the L.A. Heat's public relations office. "No offense, but what else do you do in Albuquerque?"
OK, maybe Albuquerque and Salt Lake aren't as exciting as L.A. But you'd think a city with some 10 million in its metropolitan area, could manage more than 800 fans per game.
In the APSL East (the WSL is also known as the APSL West), only two of the 12 teams average more than 4,000 a game - Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay. Exact figures weren't available, but Eli Roleman of the APSL East office, said Fort Lauderdale averages around 5,000 with Tampa Bay about a thousand less. Penn-Jersey, an expansion team is third with approximately 3,000 per game.
The fact that Salt Lake and New Mexico are first-year teams could mean that the luster will wear off as the season wears on and could fall dramatically next year. Portland, last year's attendance leader in the WSL, has fallen from 4,500 to just under 3,200 this year. Salt Lake officials aren't planning on much of a dropoff, however.
"We've got a good thing going here and we want to develop carefully and slowly," said Calloway. "We're happy with the attendance and the league is happy. We're hoping to build momentum with a win this week, coupled with our last two wins at home and get a bigger crowd next time (June 30 against Santa Barbara)."
Average WSL attendance
New Mexico Chiles 5,500
Salt Lake Sting 5,021
Colorado Foxes 3,200
California Emperors 3,195
Portland Timbers 3,174
Seattle Storm 3,100
San Francisco Blackhawks 2,150
Arizona Condors 1,500
San Diego Nomads 1,200
Real Santa Barbara 900
L.A. Heat 800