Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Being There

The first professional soccer games that I attended featured the Chicago Sting. As a boy, it was impossible not to notice that the atmosphere at Sting matches was muted in comparison to the city's enthusiasm for the Cubs, Sox, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks.

After leaving the city, I didn't venture to another professional soccer game until dropping by RFK to take in a Washington Freedom match in the wake of the Women's World Cup in 1999. By 2001, my disdain for the sport had waned, but in that inaugural season, getting to the occasional Freedom game helped transform me into a fan (both of soccer and of women's sports generally). The energy at RFK during matches was incredible and unlike anything I'd previously experienced at a stadium. The cheering and noise from fans was non-stop and unremittingly positive.

Although I enjoyed going to the matches, I failed to become a season ticket holder or to regularly show up to games. I took the team and the league for granted and the WUSA folded after three seasons.

Now, with my daughter, I have come to appreciate the Freedom again as part of the WPS. But it may be too late.

Last Friday, the new majority owner of the Freedom, Dan Borislow, gave an interview to The Equalizer, indicating that he intended to rebrand the team and implied an ultimate plan to relocate the team in South Florida or, at a minimum, to split a home schedule between Montgomery County and somewhere around Miami-Palm Beach.

I have no complaints. Mr. Borislow may have unconventional ideas that do not seem to have a high likelihood of success, but he put his money on the line where no one else would. In this vein, The Equalizer's interview with Nancy NeSmith, the former owner of the defunct FC Gold Pride is instructive. While the general reaction to Mr. Borislow's thoughts has been derisive and dismissive, the vast majority of people offering opinions are not terribly interested in actually helping the team with anything beyond the benefit of their superior intellect.

DC-area soccer enthusiasts have, in the span of a few months, lost Crystal Palace Baltimore, seen Real Maryland drop from a professional team to the USL PDL, and received a last minute reprieve on the collapse of the Freedom following Mr. Borislow's intervention.

Yes, the Freedom may still be gone. And although they may leave the area sooner rather than later, I think that the belief that these developments are somehow worse than the complete collapse of the franchise is wrong.

If people in Washington want to see the Freedom or magicJack FC/SC remain in the area, the gauntlet has been thrown down -- unless fans show up and buy tickets, there is no reason for the club to remain here. The attendance for games last season was impressive (a 3,422 average for 11 games at the SoccerPlex), but with an overall capacity of around 6,000, the club obviously has room for improvement (as former GM Mark Washo acknowledged in October).

I had waffled before on committing to season tickets, but Mr. Borislow's willingness to openly discuss his plans following his significant investment in the team is the final push I needed. Hopefully, others will also be willing to meet the challenge.

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