May 31, 2024 - Sports

Richmond's soccer teams are drawing huge crowds at City Stadium

Richmond Ivy players signing autographs in the fan section.

Photo: Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography (@jshfoto)

If the number of butts in seats is any indication, Richmond is something of a hotbed for soccer.

Why it matters: Richmond's already-budding soccer scene has taken on a new life during the rebound from the pandemic, fans tell Axios. The city is home to the country's longest continually running men's team and one of its newest women's teams.

  • The urge to get out of the house coincided with the Kickers — Richmond's pro USL League One men's team — posting one of their best seasons in almost a decade in 2022.
  • And the momentum only continued during this year's inaugural campaign for the Richmond Ivy SC, the franchise that brings pre-professional women's soccer back to the city for the first time since 2009.

What's happening: Ivy is hosting its third home match Saturday, after playing its first two in front of packed crowds at City Stadium last month.

  • The team also sold more merchandise in its sold-out home opener than the well-established Kickers have at any game in their history, per the Times-Dispatch.
  • Meanwhile, last year the Kickers set their own attendance record and crushed USL League One's crowd-size standings, with an average of 4,786 fans per game.

Fans say a big draw for both teams is the top-tier matchday experience that includes cheap tickets, myriad food and beverage vendors, free parking and easy access to a stadium that has seen about $3 million in investment since 2019, according to Rob Ukrop, chair/CEO of both teams.

Between the lines: As part of the teams' efforts to build a bond with fans and "showcase Richmond talent," the Kickers and Ivy front offices have emphasized recruiting players with local ties, Ukrop tells Axios.

Every player on the Ivy roster has a previous connection to Virginia, writes the Times-Dispatch's Zach Joachim. And the Kickers have a number of VCU grads and players who played for the local youth academy, Richmond United, which several current players now also coach.

  • "We feel connected to the players. They're part of our community and part of our world," says Alex Ashton, a Richmonder who covers USL soccer for League One Updater.
  • "At the end of the games every single player will start at the supporters' section and go all the way down the stadium and shake hands and give autographs — the entire team, even the ones who are injured."

Zoom out: The Kickers have also seen more Latinos come to games in recent years, fans say. That has culminated in the Kickers supporters' group, River City Red Army, recently adding Spanish chants to its inventory.

  • "When I was playing for the professional team in the early 1990s … most of the fans — it was just white suburbia," says Ukrop, who played for the Kickers for nine seasons. "But now you're seeing this great melting pot that Richmond has grown into."

Ivy's launch has dovetailed a general boom in interest women's sports, and it's given girls and women in Richmond "the opportunity to participate as sports fans on an equal basis," says Kate McCarthy, a co-host of "RiverCity 93" podcast covering the Kickers and Ivy.

  • "There are already so many women and little girls who are showing up to Kickers game. But to feel like [Ivy] is a space for them — I think the audience is there for that," McCarthy says.

The team's front office and coaching staff is also women-led, including the sporting and communications directors, head coach, assistant coach and goalkeeper coach.

What's next: Ivy is hosting Christos FC of Baltimore Saturday at 2pm.

  • It's the first weekend home game since the opener, when team had to start turning fans away two hours before kickoff because the stadium was full.

Go deeper: Richmond was the top market for Premier League soccer viewership in English in 2022-23.

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