ST. LOUIS (AP) — When season tickets sales began for Major League Soccer’s newest team, St. Louis City SC leaders figured they’d be a hot ticket in a city with a deep love for the sport.
Even they were caught off guard by the response: More than 60,000 deposits for the 19,000 available season passes.
“St. Louisans are so proud of their city and so supportive of anything like this,” team President and CEO Carolyn Kindle said. “I had no idea how crazy that support was going to go.”
Seven years ago, the NFL’s Rams departed for Los Angeles after making the case that St. Louis wasn’t big enough and lacked the corporate support for three pro sports franchises. Soccer fans beg to differ.
The privately built, 22,500-seat, $458 million CityPark Stadium is spurring new development in the western area of downtown. Team merchandise sales ranked in the top five in MLS in 2022 — before the team played a game.
The franchise-opener is Saturday in Austin, Texas. The first home game is March 4 against Charlotte.
“It’s a big thing for the city, not just for soccer,” said Dave Lange, a St. Louis soccer historian. “There’s a lot of pent-up enthusiasm.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said he believed the loss of the Rams “helped energize the community to get behind a sport they love.”
“In order to be successful in sports you need to have a devoted, committed owner, you need to have a great facility and you need to have a market that really loves and understands the game,” Garber said. “We have all three of those in place now.”
Lange, author of “Soccer Made in St. Louis: A History of the Game in America’s First Soccer Capital,” said the first record of soccer play in St. Louis was in 1872. European immigrants brought the love of the game with them, and passed it down.
Soccer became the sport of choice in the region’s Catholic schools and it flourished. Five St. Louis residents started for the 1950 World Cup team that pulled off what is still recognized as one of the sport’s greatest upsets, a 1-0 defeat of England. St. Louis University became a soccer powerhouse, winning 10 national championships.
Even indoor soccer was popular. The St. Louis Steamers arrived in 1979 and played to sellout crowds. Lange recalled how he could feel the old Arena shaking during many games. “The noise and passion levels were incredible,” he said.
Amid that backdrop, it was perhaps surprising it took so long for St. Louis to land in the MLS. In fact, a 2017 effort to get a team failed when voters turned down a ballot measure to help fund a new stadium.
A year later, Kindle recalled how her uncle, Andy Taylor, called a family meeting to discuss soccer. Taylor is executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings, the nation’s largest car rental company. He is the son of founder Jack Taylor. Kindle is Jack Taylor’s granddaughter.
Kindle said her previous connection with soccer ended when she played on her eighth-grade “C” team. But she and the rest of her family recognized the potential that MLS could bring to St. Louis and sought a meeting with Garber
The league wanted proof of corporate support so the Taylors reached out to 25 of the region’s largest companies.
“That’s when we had that lunch in March of 2019 so that Commissioner Garber could actually sit down and talk to heads of corporations in the region and hear from them how much they wanted, and would support, a soccer team,” Kindle said.
It worked. St. Louis was awarded a franchise in August 2019. Garber said he was especially impressed by the support from officials from baseball’s Cardinals and the NHL’s Blues.
Kindle said the business community recognized what soccer can help offer them.
“If you look at some of the demographics of soccer fans, they have a tendency to be younger,” Kindle said. “The corporate community really was enamored by the possibilities of what having a professional soccer team could mean because it would hopefully add to the package that is St. Louis to make it an attractive place to recruit businesses, families and students.”
The new facility is one of the few in American sports where the team headquarters, stadium and training area are all in the same place — a tunnel below the street takes players and coaches to the practice facility.
A view to the east shows the Gateway Arch. Seating aisles rise steeply, with no seat more than 120 feet from the field. Rather than offering traditional stadium fare, food is provided by some of St. Louis’ hottest restauranteurs.
The stadium sits in an area once known as Mill Creek Valley. About 20,000 people, most of them Black, lived there until 1959, when the neighborhood was demolished. Described at the time as “urban renewal,” the area ended up being a long interstate exit ramp and vacant land.
A courtyard outside the stadium includes a tribute to Mill Creek Valley.
Garber said St. Louis’ response to the franchise has been overwhelming.
“It’s really heartwarming to be delivering Major League Soccer and soccer at the highest level to a community that loves the game,” Garber said.