WASHINGTON — For the second consecutive game, the Washington Spirit drew big numbers to Audi Field. Large crowds for Spirit home games could become the norm.
“I think there is a great market here for soccer,” Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin said after the 2-2 draw with Reign FC. “We are interested in playing a lot more games at Audi. We will see where that goes with our conversations with D.C. United, who has been great to partner with.”
While Baldwin was not specific about the number of games the Spirit could play next year at Audi Field, the past two games prove there is interest in the nation’s capital.
“I am hoping we can play every single match here,” Spirit coach Riche Burke said. “I think the atmosphere is fantastic.”
Among the 17,418 people in the crowd Saturday were representatives from about 25 Fortune 500 companies that Baldwin hopes to turn into league sponsors. Money will be necessary to sustain the third iteration of professional women’s soccer in America. Baldwin already worked out one of the Spirit’s biggest sponsorships: a deal with insurance giant Geico.
“There is an incredible opportunity for a brand to become the title sponsor of this league,” Baldwin said. “I will not rest until we find that partner that steps up and does that deal.”
Crowd noise has played a large part in raising the energy level of Spirit games in Southeast Washington, D.C. The first Audi Field game, Aug. 24 against the Orlando Pride, came down to a last-ditch defensive effort to hold on to a 2-1 win. The roar once again reached deafening volumes Saturday as Chloe Logarzo captured the lead for Washington in the 90th minute, before the Reign found a stoppage time equalizer.
“The crowd that we get here, it is amazing,” Spirit forward Mallory Pugh said. “You can start feeding off of it. It is great to have different exposure down here in D.C. At Audi, the stadium is amazing.”
Burke mentioned the fans’ energy in his halftime motivational speech Saturday.
“I told them that there are 17-to-18,000 people out there who came to support you, why don’t you go out there and justify their appearance,” Burke said. “I think in the second half that gave them the kick in the pants that they needed.”
The Spirit averaged 18,645 in attendance over the two games at Audi Field, including a record sellout crowd of 19,871 against the Pride. Even Washington’s opponents took notice.
“I mean, I have been saying it for a long time: Women’s soccer can’t draw, right?” 2019 World Cup golden boot winner Megan Rapinoe quipped. “Incredible. That was just what could be a normal game here. It wasn’t like it was the only game they would play here or the championship match. Just kind of a regular game in the league bringing that many people.”
In their one-off game at Audi Field last season, the Spirit drew 7,976. While new ownership has brought a fresh look and sponsorships to the team, there is no denying the World Cup boost provided by players such as Rapinoe, Pugh and Rose Lavelle.
In her second game back from injury, Rapinoe said there is a huge responsibility to help bring eyes to the league.
“More than a responsibility, it is kind of like why wouldn’t you,” Rapinoe said. “In the scope of my career to see how much the game has changed and moved forward, it is really more of an honor.”
The Spirit currently have a partnership to play games roughly 50 miles from Audi Field at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md. While Baldwin says he maintains a strong relationship with the facility, it is difficult for fans inside D.C. city limits to attend without simple public transportation to the venue. If the two games at Audi Field this season are any indication, the front office may need to reconsider how often Washington plays at the SoccerPlex in 2020.
“I hope they get to play here all the time. I think they deserve that,” said Rapinoe, who has been with the Reign since the NWSL’s 2013 inaugural season. “The Plex was good when it was good, and we are ready to move on now.”