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Welcoming the world’s game

Fans embrace city’s two major league soccer teams

(Published July 16, 2001)


Staff Writer

A member of La Barra Brava, one of D.C. United’s fan clubs, punctuates the crowd’s cheers at a recent soccer game at RFK Stadium.

It is a warm evening at RFK Stadium. Cars are filing into the parking lots, tailgates are being set up, balls are being tossed around. Soon after, the stadium starts filling with people. Once everyone has reached their seats, a loud roar resounds as the players take the field for warm-ups. The cheers grow louder as the starting line-ups are introduced, and they do not stop throughout the game. The sideline stands are bouncing. Confetti flies in the air with each score.

Sound familiar? Sure. But it’s not what you think. This is not Redskins football. This is a different type of football. Soccer (called football in the rest of the world) is rapidly becoming one of Washington’s biggest sports, and now the District has two professional franchises: D.C. United of Major League Soccer and the Washington Freedom of the Women’s United Soccer Association.

D.C. United started it all, arriving on the scene in 1996 with the creation of Major League Soccer. The team had such stars as Raul Diaz Arce of El Salvador and world-renowned Bolivian superhero Marco Etcheverry. D.C. United took full advantage of this situation, marketing the game heavily to Washington’s Hispanic population.

They responded, bringing their drums and horns to the north end of RFK Stadium, D.C. United’s home. Some of them organized into "La Barra Brava," (literally The Crazed Ones), filling Section 136 with noise and color. La Barra Brava’s next door neighbors are the Screaming Eagles, who have now grown to occupy sections 134 and 135. They are a more non-Hispanic group of supporters who model themselves after the great fan clubs of Europe with singing and clapping.

"We’re a supporters club," explains David Lifton, a member of the Screaming Eagles from the District. and a lifelong soccer fan. "Our goal is to provide an atmosphere inside the stadium that creates a bit of intimidation toward the opponent." They are hard to miss, standing throughout the games and almost never quieting down.

In recent years, however, D.C. United’s marketing strategy has changed. With the rise of young American stars such as Ben Olsen, Bobby Convey and Santino Quaranta, as well as the rise of the United States national team, the focus has shifted to marketing this homegrown talent.

"I think one of the things we’ve done exceptionally well is reaching the youth soccer market. Our sales reps build a rapport with local clubs, teams and associations, and we’ve created a lot of ‘youth soccer nights,’" said Stephen Zack, D.C. United’s senior vice president.

The strategy seems to be working, as youth soccer teams across the region are showing up more and more, with some teams even rescheduling games to bring kids out to games. And United is not done yet. "We’re constantly looking for new groups to go after," Zack said. Such groups have included the armed forces, the Boy Scouts and a coalition of church groups. United’s marketing crew also offers many corporate hospitality packages.

Grant Braswell, a 17-year-old fan from Northwest who plays on a local team, brought a few of his friends to see a game on June 30. "It’s summer, might as well, it sounds like fun," was all the reason he said he needed to show up. He was not alone that night, as the names of many youth soccer teams flashed across the electronic scoreboard during the game.

The United staff is quite pleased with the results of their initiatives. Their proof: During the life of Major League Soccer, D.C. United’s attendance has steadily risen, from 15,281 per game in the first season to a league-leading 20,633 per game this season as of July 11.

And this year, soccer in D.C. has gotten another boost with the arrival of the Washington Freedom of the Women’s United Soccer Association. With U.S. National team superstars Mia Hamm and Siri Mullinix, along with international stars such as Brazil’s Pretinha and Finland’s Anne Makkinen, a new demographic of soccer fan is being created: young girls from the wealthy suburban regions. They are flocking in droves to see the heroes of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which took place in the U.S., with an average attendance this year of 23,617 per game through July 11. And they are spending plenty of money. At the opening game of the season, almost all the merchandise in the stadium was sold out by the time the game was over.

In spite of the emphasis the Freedom puts on attracting the youth soccer market, others are drawn to the games as well. Washington’s Brazilian community has brought its unique brand of support, sporting the nation’s traditional bright yellow shirts, banging drums and singing throughout. There is also an unofficial fan club, the Crusaders, formed by members of the Screaming Eagles. They stand in Section 139, on the corner of the horseshoe-shaped lower bowl of RFK, and despite their small numbers, they are able to make a lot of noise.

Both teams draw well on their own. But twice this year, United and the Freedom have staged doubleheaders. They have proven enormously successful, averaging 33,400 fans per game, a 60 percent increase over D.C. United’s average and a 41 percent increase for the Freedom. Plans are in the works for more doubleheaders next year, and both teams hope for the same amount of success.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator