The Washington Spirit kept a list of predictions on a large poster board in its office in Germantown leading up to Saturday night. Front office employees wrote down what they thought the attendance number would be for the team’s first match at Audi Field this year. Majority owner Steve Baldwin predicted 19,200-plus—a sellout.
Since taking over the majority stake of the team earlier this year, Baldwin has aimed to make Spirit players more visible to the larger D.C. audience.
“They’re world class athletes,” Baldwin told City Paper in June. “They are in the top 1 percent in the world … I think we have a real moment of opportunity … with the World Cup this year, the Olympics next year, the increased exposure that the national team is getting. Our league has to take advantage of that in ways we haven’t done before.”
After the Spirit’s 2-1 victory over the Orlando Pride on Saturday, Baldwin walked on to the pitch to loud cheers. An announced sellout crowd of 19,871 had watched his team play, shattering the previous attendance record of 7,976 set last year at Audi Field.
“Tonight is about excellence of women’s soccer,” Baldwin said to the crowd, his voice drowned out by the ovation. “Please keep supporting our club, our league, and our country’s national team as we move forward.”
The night had provided proof for anyone who doubted: Support for professional women’s soccer exists in D.C. Large groups of fans chanted, “Equal pay!” as the game winded down. Young fans wore jerseys of their favorite U.S. women’s national team and World Cup champion players, including those of Spirit stars Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh.
Even without Lavelle, Pugh, and Orlando’s Alex Morgan on the field due to injuries, long lines of fans waited outside on the temperate evening to get to their seats as the game kicked off a few minutes past 7:30 p.m.
“I think we learned that we need to open the gates a little earlier because we’re going to pack the house,” Baldwin told reporters after the match, “and it takes a little bit of time to get 19,000-plus people in the venue, but we will get that better next time.”
The game marked the first time since last season that fans have been able to watch the Spirit play in D.C. The team usually competes at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, which is located more than 30 miles away from Audi Field and not easily accessible by public transportation.
Spirit chief marketing officer Gretchen Hamm says the team has an “annual contract” with the Maryland SoccerPlex and won’t likely make a decision on where to play its games next season until the front office can evaluate season ticket presales. Teams are not required to give their home schedules to the National Women’s Soccer League until January, according to Hamm.
Asked if the team would be deciding between Audi Field or Maryland SoccerPlex, Hamm replies that “it is not an either-or” situation. Both right now, she says, are options.
“I’m very fortunate right now,” Baldwin told reporters on Saturday. “We have two wonderful partners. I have a wonderful partner with Maryland SoccerPlex. I have a great partnership with D.C. United … I’m thinking bigger and bigger and bigger, so we’ll see what happens.”
Spirit captain Andi Sullivan didn’t feel shaken up by the change in environment. Sullivan has played in front of capacity crowds as part of the U.S. women’s national team and while she praises the SoccerPlex for its intimate environment, she says the volume and energy of nearly 20,000 fans gave the team “an extra boost.”
“It’s fun,” Sullivan said post-match. “We love the Plex and the Spirit Squadron that’s always there. We want everyone to be a part of the Spirit Squadron and we want them to be here. I’ve talked about this with Mallory and Rose before, we’ve played in front of crowds like this before so we don’t want to be like oh my gosh … We don’t want it to be that absurd. We want this to be standard. That’s what we’re going to push for.”
The Spirit will play again at Audi Field on Sept. 14. Baldwin predicts another sellout.