The golden, post-rain haze had already wafted away from the field at Lynn Family Stadium and given way to night, but the crowd was glowing with the energy of anticipation and uncertainty: 5,300 people, dots of purple and lavender against the concrete, were waiting for a miracle.
The Racing Louisville Football Club, Louisville’s new professional women’s soccer team, was losing to the Orlando Pride by a point in the 93rd minute. The game was in stoppage time, in the team’s first ever match, and the Louisville club faced the formidable threat of Orlando standouts like Ali Krieger and Marta.
Louisville defender Brooke Hendrix, by her own admission, doesn’t score often. She wasn’t expecting that her teammates would head the ball to land right by her feet. She wasn’t expecting that she’d be the one to kick it past the Pride’s goalie, right into the net.
She wasn’t expecting to single-handedly change the game for her team.
The drums beat; the fans roared; the sky lit up with the flashes of purple lights against purple smoke. The Racing, who were now swarming Hendrix with hugs, had tied their debut game 2-2. In soccer parlance, they had “equalized” it. And that’s how the match ended.
It was the team’s first accomplishment on the field, but it definitely wasn’t its first challenge — or its last. In a debut season, the players have had to connect with new teammates, a new city, a new community of fans and a new coach. That’s challenging for any expansion team in its inaugural season, but even more so during a global pandemic.
But Racing Louisville, as the only top-level professional sports team in the city, has the chance to become a major revenue generator and provide a cultural boost.
Hendrix said being a year-one team has its difficulties, but it also provides new opportunities.
“With Racing, because it’s a new team, there’s a lot of unknowns of what we’re going to bring, what we can bring. I feel like it gives us a blank slate, which is really cool,” she said. “We get to do what we want, rather than having to form to a mold.”
The Racing’s coach is Christy Holly, a native of Derry in Northern Ireland, who joined the team in August of last year. When Racing lost to the Washington Spirit in its second game on Thursday, April 15, Holly was dismayed at the result, but not devastated.
“We know we’re in a long journey here of growing and evolving a team and adversity, and losses are vitally important,” he told LEO.
Holly feels “very, very honored” to coach. He offered praise for the “tremendous professional” Michelle Betos, the team captain, and the “world-class” vice captain Savannah McCaskill.
“There’s not one player I looked at last night as we walked off the field and thought, ‘God, I wish you weren’t here,’” he said. “Every single player is so aligned and really driven to contribute to the bigger goal.”
A New Team, A Lingering Pandemic
The Racing Louisville Football Club players come from 15 different states, and some are from as far away as Sweden and Japan. For all but one of them — forward Emina Ekic, a duPont Manual grad who played for the UofL women’s soccer team before coming to Racing -— playing in Louisville is a new venture.
“Every player in this club has a point to prove,” Coach Holly said. “They do have to show that they belong at this level. The reason that we got access to them is because maybe it didn’t work out for them at their previous organization. And that’s not a poor reflection of them, or of the previous organization — it just wasn’t the right fit. So it’s an opportunity for them to come in and show that they belong at this level, and they can contribute, and that they’re deserving of the opportunities that lie in front of them.”
“When we have that hunger and that cultural alignment, I think it makes them a little bit different-than and somewhat dangerous,” he continued.
The pandemic put a dent in Holly’s initial recruiting and team-building plans — as he puts it, “You can’t email a handshake.” Still, he says, the larger losses of the last year remind him to reframe the losses of competition.
“There could be someone associated with our team, associated with our community, with our fans, that may have lost a family member to the pandemic or various other reasons,” he said. “It’s been challenging, but it helps keep things in perspective that we’re still very privileged, and we should use our platform for the greater good.”
The pandemic’s impact is being taken extremely seriously inside the stadium during games.
This season, Lynn Family Stadium is using the same VenueShield protocols as event centers like the KFC Yum! Center and Freedom Hall: masks required, hand sanitizer stations everywhere, temperature checks and social distancing signs, amongst other things.
For what it’s worth, I have covered a number of sporting events in Louisville since February, including multiple bull riding shows, a basketball game at Freedom Hall and a boxing weigh-in, but I have never felt as COVID-safe — nor seen as much mask-wearing — as I have in two reporting trips to Lynn Family Stadium.
And the pandemic hasn’t quashed the ever-growing fan energy that has been building up since the team was founded in October 2019. When I went to that inaugural game on April 10, I didn’t feel like the team was breaking new ground — I felt like I was watching a team that already belonged. The fandom was enthusiastic and the journalistic interest was strong. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the Racing had already been an active presence in Louisville for a year or 10.
The Purple Bus In The Gold Lot
If you’ve been to a soccer game in Louisville, you’ve seen them: they park a purple bus in the gold lot. These are not the fans who sit idly by, sipping their beers while the game action rages in front of them; they are the game action, every bit as much as the players. Their claps, their chants, their cheers, and their capos — group members with megaphones who lead the crowd — collectively create a soundtrack to the gameplay, both to encourage the players and elicit cheers from the fans.
These are the supporters groups, more commonly called SGs, who make up the most visible fan presence in the stands.
You see their purple face masks, purple lipstick, purple t-shirts, buttons, scarves and shoes. You see the purple smoke grenades that they set off when a Louisville player gets a goal. You see their banners, like the one bearing a silhouette of a player, big enough to cover a car, with the caption “THIS IS HER LOUISVILLE,” that hung from the rafters on April 10.
You hear their chants — “Vamos Morados!” — through their megaphones.
There are several supporters’ groups for the Racing and Louisville City Football Club who maintain an active presence on social media and at the games. Five of them, including Scouse’s House, The Sheep’s Pen, the Louisville Ledgehogs and The Louisville Coopers are “official” groups recognized by the Club itself; others, including The Lavender Legion and the Derby City Ultras, are “unofficial,” but no less active. The groups concentrate largely in the lower part of the standing-room-only Estopinal End, right above the goal. Collectively, they make up a subculture that officials and players cite with gratitude as a driving force for both the team and the sustainability of the franchise.
Even during the pandemic, their members are here at Lynn Family Stadium in the hundreds, making a vocal, united show of support. After years of supporting the men’s team, they’re now eager to bring that support to the women of the Racing.
Still: why and how would they bring such fervor for a team they don’t know yet, for whom, unlike LouCity, they don’t have years of precedent?
“We’ve had a year to plan for this,” said supporter Michele Wilkinson. “The team’s had a year to market, the supporter’s group has had a year to market. The thing that has built soccer in Louisville is word of mouth. If you tell a friend, you bring a friend; and if you bring them, they’re coming back, they’re bringing another friend. That’s just how soccer is built in Louisville.”
Wilkinson is president of the LouCity Ladies, an officially recognized SG whose members are all female and female-identifying. You might not see them in all the commotion and color of a regular match, but they’re there, both seated and standing throughout the stadium, keeping an eye on the action on and off the field. (In fact, they are the only official SG that has permission to sit outside of the supporter’s section.)
For the Ladies, their club isn’t just a group of women, it’s a group for women — women who might not feel completely comfortable at a sporting event, even with a women’s team on the field.
“Sometimes the women’s voices get kind of lost in the mix of the people who have been around the game forever, and unintentionally, women get the feeling [of], I can’t ask a question — if I ask what an offside is, somebody’s gonna judge me,” Wilkinson explained.
As part of her role with the Ladies, she answers texts about the game mechanics of soccer — and, when necessary, deploys members to go sit or walk with women in the stadium who ask for company, for any reason.
“Find us — we’re everywhere; you’re safe,” Wilkinson continued. “Whether you’re trans, whether you’re femme, especially if you’re an out-of-towner, coming to a new city might feel uncomfortable and unsafe. We want people to know, when you come to Louisville, find us. There’s somebody everywhere that you can sit with, and you’ll feel safe.”
Amidst the purple banners and flags at this season’s Louisville soccer games were rainbow Pride flags and flags in support of Black Lives Matter, both of which made appearances on fans’ apparel as well. Several female soccer celebrities are part of the LGBTQ community, including married couple Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, who played against the Racing this year.
There were a few other signs up at the first game, too, courtesy of the supporters’ group The Lavender Legion. Black and white banners hung on the Estopinal side bore, in all caps, the names of notable women from Louisville: on one side, ANNE BRADEN, SUE GRAFTON, DAWNE GEE; on the other, AMIRAGE SALING, TORI MURDEN MCCLURE, ELIZABETH KIZITO.
A banner easily four times as large as the others was front and center, visible all the way across the field. It had only one name:
The Economic Impact
Conquering social inequities is a key factor in bringing healing to the city, one that the Racing’s officials, players and fans take seriously. Still, it’s impossible to overlook the economic benefit that a new professional sports franchise will produce. As Karl F. Schmitt, Jr., president and CEO of the Louisville Sports Commission, wrote in an editorial last December, “Sports […] are an important boost to the economy. At this point in our history, sports are not a luxury, they are a lifeline.”
The numbers agree: Sports bring in very big bucks. A casual Racing fan who lives in Louisville might pay for a ticket and a snack at the stadium a few times a season, but they might also need gas on the way there. A serious fan visiting from out of town would pay for multiple tickets, multiple meals, multiple hotel nights, multiple flights or bus tickets and lots of merch. Multiply that by 5,300 — or 15,000 in any other year — and those numbers create a serious economic force to be reckoned with.
“Kentucky tourism is an $11.8 billion industry in the commonwealth and is the third largest industry in Louisville, generating an annual economic impact of $3.5 billion,” said Danielle Jones, executive director of public affairs and constituent services in the Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet, in an emailed statement to LEO. “While the tourism industry has suffered significant loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky’s strong tourism industry combined with access to outdoor recreation positions us to be a leader in recovery.”
When I spoke to fans, one recurring theme I kept hearing was the idea that this team’s existence was proof positive that Louisville is and deserves to be a major sports city.
Jessica McGraw, who serves as a capo for The Coopers, said, “There a lot of haters out there because we’re Kentucky, and we still have that stigma [that] it’s a little podunk area,” she said. “I’ve seen in all these different group chats where [people say], ‘Why would they want to go to Kentucky?’ Well, Louisville is not the same as Kentucky as a whole, and if you don’t know us, then you don’t realize Louisville has a lot to offer.”
Calvin McPherson, who associates with the LouCity Ladies through his wife Hope, agreed: “I think we’re going to play better than a lot of other cities may have given us credit for. I think we’re gonna show them that the players want to be here and that Louisville’s a serious soccer city.”
“Soccer City” is a phrase I’ve heard numerous times in the process of reporting this article — on a Zoom call with Coach Holly, in a video of a press conference on Twitter, from fans that I talked to in the parking lot. Even without the exact phrasing, the sentiment is there from as far away as Frankfort; Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman told LEO in a statement that she was excited for the Racing’s new season.
“The team will serve as ambassadors for Kentucky and powerful examples to our daughters that, with hard work and dedication, they can accomplish their dreams,” she said.
Being a part of the National Women’s Soccer League has the potential to reshape Louisville’s future as a city of sports.
The road to Soccer City is just beginning. •