Chicago Red Stars eye NWSL attendance record in Wrigley Field match

by Admin
Chicago Red Stars eye NWSL attendance record in Wrigley Field match

The Chicago Red Stars are returning to the city Saturday for a historic match at Wrigley Field. The club hopes to set a National Women’s Soccer League attendance record — and, in the process, pave the way for women’s soccer to stay in the city for good.

The Red Stars announced Friday morning that they were “nearing” the NWSL attendance record, set by the Seattle Reign at 34,130 for Megan Rapinoe’s final regular-season appearance on Oct. 6, 2023. Wrigley Field could hold several thousand more, with a capacity of 37,000 seats after the stadium was reconfigured for the Saturday match against Bay FC. The team had sold 22,000 tickets when it provided its last official update May 23.

For longtime Red Stars players such as goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, the excitement surrounding the match feels like a sign of changing times under a new ownership group helmed by Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts.

“My first year here (in 2016) we were training in Oak Brook on polo fields,” Naeher said during a news conference Friday. “The trunk of my car was my locker room. So we’ve come a long way. To now have the opportunity to play here at Wrigley is certainly not something that I had on my bingo card of things that were going to happen in my time here in Chicago. But Laura (Ricketts) has come in and she’s worked hard and she’s tried to make a lot of changes — meaningful changes.”

Chicago is one of the longest-standing women’s soccer markets in the country, hosting the Red Stars since 2006 when the club was founded in the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer. But for the entirety of that tenure, the team’s home sat more than a half-hour outside the city at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview.

The Red Stars have played in Chicago only once in their NWSL history — a 2022 match at Soldier Field that drew a club-record crowd of 23,951 for a doubleheader with the Chicago Fire. But that could change after the team’s lease with SeatGeek ends in 2025.

Establishing a venue within city limits is a crucial goal for Ricketts and team President Karen Leetzow, who told the Tribune in February that ownership has entered the initial stages of locating a new home for the team. And when the Bears and the White Sox this year rolled out proposals for publicly funded stadiums, the Red Stars pushed to join the conversation, a movement that since has earned interest from Illinois legislators.

“Women’s sports need to have a seat at the table,” Leetzow told the Tribune. “We need to be in the mix because otherwise we’re just going to end up chasing our tail around how to grow women’s sports. If you’re a politician, what better way for you to leave a lasting legacy in the state of Illinois or the city of Chicago than to do something that’s never been done, which is provide meaningful funding for women.”

Attendance has been a key issue for the Red Stars throughout their NWSL history. The team drew a franchise-best 5,863 fans per game in 2022, but that still was the fourth-lowest in the league. And as expansion franchises such as Angel City FC continue to lead the way, the Red Stars are only falling further behind, drawing the lowest average attendance in the league in 2021 (3,143) and 2023 (4,848).

The Chicago Fire have benefitted from such a move since the franchise paid more than $60 million to leave SeatGeek for Soldier Field in 2019, breaking a lease that was supposed to run through 2036.

The Chicago Red Stars have been playing home games at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview since 2016.

While the pandemic limited the early gains of that move, average attendance jumped to a franchise record 18,170 in 2023 despite the fact the team finished 10-14-10 and missed the playoffs. The move also positioned the Fire for moments like last season’s match against Inter Miami, which drew 62,124 fans despite a no-show from international star Lionel Messi.

For the Red Stars, a potential move into the city is about more than just ticket sales. The team is still striving to establish a stronger foothold in Chicago. After attending Cubs and Bears games, Naeher cited simple differences — being able to take the red line, seeing fans flock to local bars and restaurants before and after games — from the experience the Red Stars currently offer in Bridgeview.

“As a player, it would be great to have a stadium in the city,” Naeher said. “You can feel the energy around the stadium even prior to the game. That’s what being in a city does. That’s what that energy does, that environment does. Just from that perspective, it would be amazing to be down in the city and just have it be more of an event rather than just a game.”

That stadium experience is still out of reach for the Red Stars — but Saturday will offer a glimpse at how the future could look with women’s soccer inside city limits.

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