‘Just getting started’: how San Diego smashed the NWSL attendance record | NWSL

The San Diego Wave broke in Snapdragon Stadium by setting a National Women’s Soccer League attendance record on Saturday night as more than 32,000 fans watched a 1-0 win over fellow expansion side Angel City.

The record-breaking crowd is part of a trend in 2022 after Barcelona twice broke the worldwide mark for a women’s match this year, most recently with a 91,648 strong crowd in April.

The Wave crowd, meanwhile, topped the 25,000 ticket-holders who attended a Portland Thorns game in 2019 to set the NWSL record, all while watching the first-year club return to the top of the league table.

It was 30 minutes until the crowd, electric from whistle to whistle and led by the Sirens supporter group, was rewarded with a goal when 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw scored the first goal in Snapdragon Stadium history, on a header off a pass from Sofia Jokobsson. Shaw, a star on the US Youth National Team, joined the Wave in July after she was granted permission to enter the league’s Discovery Process in midseason, relinquishing her NCAA eligibility and allowing her to turn professional ahead of the 2023 draft. Shaw has now scored in every professional game in which she’s played.

Wave keeper Kailen Sheridan closed the door on Angel City’s best opportunity of the night in the 71st minute, diving to her right to save a penalty shot then snuffing out a rebound opportunity and smothering the ball before flashing an ear-to-ear grin to three defenders standing above her. Angel City never threatened again and the game ended 1-0.

Before moving into Snapdragon Stadium – constructed by San Diego State University, primarily for the use of its football team – the Wave’s home for their inaugural season had been nearby Torero Stadium, capacity 6,000.

The team said it sold those games out, but their plan to move to the brand new, 32,000-capacity stadium across town nonetheless caught many by surprise.

San Diego Wave
San Diego’s crowd on Saturday topped the 25,000 fans who attended a Portland Thorns game in 2019 to set the NWSL record. Photograph: Denis Poroy/Getty Images

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said the record-breaking crowd offered a “proof of concept”.

“People will value our league the way we value ourselves,” she said. “If you play in small stadiums, it looks like we’re not a real professional league, and it will be hard to command the kind of respect and credibility that we want. We showed up in a 32,000-seat stadium a lot of people were like, ‘That’s a lot of seats to fill,’ particularly when San Diego was playing in a 6,000 seat stadium. Jill Ellis called me at the beginning of the summer and said, ‘We are going to sell it out.’”

Ellis, the club’s president who won World Cups in 2015 and 2019 as the coach of the US women’s national team, said setting the attendance record made a statement.

“We want to make a big splash. And while this is a show stopper, to say ‘Hey, we’re here and we can break records,’ to be fair to ourselves, we’re just getting started,” she said. “A realistic goal is to grow from this and have a crowd that’s competitive with the other top teams week in and week out.”

Snapdragon Stadium was still under construction in May, when the Wave started their inaugural season, leaving the team to start its existence in the smaller Torero Stadium. Splitting the season between two stadiums also meant they couldn’t sell season tickets this year.

That meant the team needed to push single-game tickets to their new stadium debut with a purpose, an effort Ellis hopes to pay off with season tickets for next year. She said she’s expecting the team to settle into a sustainable attendance area around 15,000 to 20,000 a night next year, comparable to Angel City and the Thorns.

Among the team’s ticket-selling strategies was a “Battle of the Clubs” competition between the region’s youth soccer clubs, with the club that sold the most tickets (CITY SC, ultimately), winning a free practice led by Wave coach Casey Stoney and a donation to their financial aid fund.

Ellis had experience with San Diego as a soccer hotbed before she started with the Wave; in more than a decade as the coach of the University of California Los Angeles, she recruited the region heavily.

“There’s just a great soccer tradition and history here, and ‘Battle of the Clubs’ was a great way to get that activated,” she said. “This is a city that just wants to throw its arms around you.”

Women’s sports have continued to have a big year in 2022. It’s seen the biggest fight in women’s boxing history, Barcelona’s two record-breaking crowds, a women’s Champions League record crowd to see Lyon beat PSG in France and a sold-out crowd for Angel City’s home debut in April.

San Diego Wave fans
San Diego Wave fans cheer during the first half of Saturday’s game. Photograph: Denis Poroy/Getty Images

“We now know, what has maybe been a question for some years, that when women’s sports, and the NWSL in particular, is given an opportunity to be successful, that it can be and it is,” Berman said. “We have various proof points in 2022.”

For 39-year-old Chelsea Klaseus, the Wave’s coming-out party had been a long time coming.

When she was 16 years old, her parents took her to see the United States in their semi-final match of the 1999 World Cup against Brazil. When the World Cup went to Canada in 2015, she went to a game in Vancouver again with her parents and brother. Four years later, the family caught three games together in France. Next year, they’re headed to Australia to do it again.

But first, they were part of the record crowd on Saturday night – though with her brother, a Los Angeles resident, wearing an Angel City FC scarf.

Before the NWSL awarded San Diego the wave, Klaseus had to settle for the handful of times the women’s national team played at Qualcomm Stadium, all well attended, before it was demolished to make way for the smaller Snapdragon Stadium when the San Diego Chargers relocated to Los Angeles.

“I always just knew that with the right team, the right stadium, and the right timing it was going to come together with the NWSL in San Diego,” she said.

The Wave’s big night came when the team didn’t even have the undivided attention of the region’s soccer community: just five miles away, the San Diego Loyal of the United Soccer League played in the Wave’s old home at Torero Stadium.

The triumphant evening though also came after an auspicious start for Snapdragon Stadium. SDSU’s first game at the stadium was marred by record heat in the area, combined with a lack of shade in the seating area, that led to roughly 200 heat-related medical requests and more than dozen people taken to the hospital.

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