About 14,000 Louisville City FC fans at Slugger Field will try to scream, sing and drum their soccer team to a national championship Monday night. A LouCity victory could tie a bow around a season already full of gifts, including the club’s first conference crown, attendance records and support from city officials for a planned stadium.
Club officials, meanwhile, hope that beyond the athletic success, hosting a national pro soccer championship match in Louisville will generate significant income, shine a spotlight on the city and the United Soccer League, and boost the team’s prestige as it looks to eventually persuade Major League Soccer officials that LouCity belongs among their growing ranks, perhaps even over regional rivals in Cincinnati and Nashville.
Local supporters will begin congregating at Preston and Witherspoon streets as early as 3 p.m. Monday — six hours before kickoff, said Tom Farmer, president of the Louisville Coopers, one of the local fan clubs.
The club’s front office staff worked some late nights last week to sell tickets and to prepare for the arrivals of national media, the opposing team and league officials. Team staff, among other duties, had to book hotel rooms for the guests and secure venues for press conferences and fan events.
“It’s definitely not your (average) regular season game, that’s for sure,” said LouCity FC Chief Operating Officer Steve Livingstone. “I’m really proud of what everyone’s done.”
The club, in combination with the Louisville Bats and SCG Fields, also put down a brand new natural grass surface for the match, which included harvesting grass from a sod farm in Patoka, Indiana. The club said the surface would take 400 man-hours to install.
The large crowd and a special agreement with the Louisville Bats also could mean that the match generates a profit for the third-year club, which, in spite of its success and growing fan base, has struggled to make money.
Club officials have said that they lose money every game, in part because they do not own their own stadium, which means they miss out on revenue from stadium naming rights and even concessions. Livingstone said that for the final, the Bats were gracious enough to allow the soccer club to share in the concession revenue, which, together with a sizable crowd, increases the chances for a profitable evening.
The club this year took a huge step toward construction of a soccer-specific stadium, obtaining support from the Louisville Metro Council, which has agreed to issue bonds to purchase about 37 acres in Butchertown for about $30 million, including environmental remediation and infrastructure, and, in a lease-to-sell deal, transfer ownership of the land to the club for $14.5 million over 20 years. Club owners plan to raise private funds to build a $50 million, 10,000-square-foot stadium in time for the 2020 season and to eventually put in a bid to join MLS. But the club will face fierce competition, including from Cincinnati and Nashville, both of which are proposing stadiums that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
But there’s at least one thing those cities don’t have: A conference champion soccer team that will play in and host a national final this year — no less in a league that this year, for the first time, was designated U.S. soccer’s official second division.
As of Saturday night, essentially no seats remained for Monday’s match — though standing room tickets were still available.
For local fans, the days leading up the final have been hectic as well, said Farmer. Fans will be amping up their pre-game celebrations, including larger displays and, because it’s a night game, some lighting effects, and even a possible route change of the typical march to the stadium.
“This is the most important match in Louisville City FC history,” Farmer said.
To reinforce that message, even for Louisvillians who care nothing about the sport, LouCity fans have wrapped some purple scarves around local landmarks. As commuters make their way to work Monday morning, Farmer said, they hopefully will see LouCity scarves wrapped around door handles of local businesses, adding even more color to Gallopalooza horses and adorning such prominent spots as the statue of The Thinker at the University of Louisville, the giant bat at the Louisville Slugger museum, and a cannon in front of the Frazier History Museum.
For the local fans, especially those who have supported the team since the early days, Monday’s event also serves as some vindication.
Three or four years ago, a lot of people scoffed at the idea of a pro soccer club in Louisville, Farmer said. Now, in its third season, LouCity will host the league’s biggest match of the year.
That’s thanks to a lot of effort from the club’s owners, leaders, employees, coaching staff and players, he said. But for the fans, too, the event is the “culmination of a lot of hard work,” Farmer said.
With this year’s success on the field, a growing fan base and financial support from the city, the fans certainly have experienced a banner year, he said.
“We’re beside ourselves with joy,” Farmer said.
For Livingstone, the club reaching the final and hosting a national pro soccer championship also sends a message to the metro council members, both in terms of a thanks for their support and a validation that they did the right thing in helping the club.
But more than that, he said, it gives all Louisvillians one more reason to take pride in their home.
“This is a celebration for the city,” he said.