The fascination with World Cup Soccer not only filled local pubs and sports bars with enthusiastic fans this summer, but the fervor also spread to LaGrave Field, where the Fort Worth Vaqueros FC semi-professional soccer team, in its inaugural season, has been attracting larger crowds than the long-established Fort Worth Cats baseball team.
The soccer matches, played while the Cats are on the road, have pulled in as many as 2,700 fans. And most aren’t casual and laid-back seat-fillers –– they wear jerseys, chant, razz the other team, wave scarves, and, perhaps most important for the team’s future, they keep coming back.
“This year, leading up the World Cup, was a great year to start,” Vaqueros club services manager Marian Gandara said. “It helped draw interest for sure.”
Also helping drum up excitement is Panther City Hellfire, a booster club that usually brings 40 or 50 members to the right-field seats dubbed Hell’s Half Acre by fans.
“There were actually two groups at the beginning, but we decided we shouldn’t be fighting each other for the role, and we decided to come together,” said Hellfire member Brian Price. “We’re here because we love the city, we love the club, and we want it to succeed.”
Some other fans were concerned at first about the booster club –– would its members act like European-style football hooligans? The Hellfire are more PG-rated and family-friendly. Sure, they yell and bang on drums, but they keep their chants clean and in good humor. Many of them are soccer moms and dads who’ve gotten interested in the sport through their children.
“We have fun. We get after the other team and have a good time supporting our club, but we try and keep it clean and sportsmanlike,” Hellfire member T.J. Weber said. “We don’t want to drive anyone away, especially our fans with children, because that is what is going to grow and sustain the team and community.”
The Vaqueros launched in January, and in a matter of months their supporters have turned them into what may be Tarrant County’s most intriguing summertime sports organization, particularly as the Texas Rangers season fades.
“We are a soccer family, and we love having a local team to support,” regular attendee Freddy Espino said. “We bring the whole family every time. We try not to miss a game. It’s a community here, not just a sports team. Look around –– almost everyone is wearing a jersey. It’s an awesome environment, and it’s a lot of fun.”
The Vaqueros compete in the National Premier Soccer League. The organization started as the regional Men’s Premier Soccer League in 2002 in the Western United States and gradually expanded into a national league with more than 80 teams in 29 states. Each team plays about a dozen games a year. The United States Soccer Federation sanctions the league, and the teams are individually owned and operated.
The Vaqueros rent the stadium from the owners of the Cats, the minor-league baseball team that has struggled in recent seasons with financial problems, a stadium in need of maintenance, and employees who don’t always get their paychecks in a timely manner. Attendance has been abysmal the last two seasons, with fan turnout sometimes numbering in the low hundreds.
Even creative marketing ploys aren’t working for the Cats. The team signed former Rangers star Julio Franco to play in the opening home stand this season to drum up fan interest. The drums fell on mostly deaf ears. One person who attended the May 22 game, Franco’s third appearance of the season, said only about 500 people were there, and most sat in silence. The fan said Franco was warming up with a look on his face that said, “Where is everybody?” During the game, the fan cracked up the crowd by playing a cricket sound on her telephone because everyone was so quiet. “I think the whole stadium heard it,” she said.
The Vaqueros drew 2,700 to their first game and have averaged about 2,000 fans in their seven home games thus far. Their next game at LaGrave Field is an exhibition match on July 25.
Team owner Michael Hitchcock racked up experience in Major League Soccer (MLS) as president and general manager for FC Dallas and vice president of the Los Angeles Galaxy. He owns the sports management company Playbook Management International. His carefully calculated plan to roll out the Vaqueros appears to be working well so far. He surveyed local residents to see what they wanted in a professional soccer team and solicited public feedback when designing the team’s logo and jerseys.
“In doing this, you build a strong community, and they get more of a sense of ownership,” he said. “The fans, along with Panther City Hellfire, have been providing passionate support for our club.”
There were other factors besides the World Cup that made this a great year to introduce an outdoor soccer team to Cowtown. Soccer is popular among Hispanics, who currently make up more than a third of the city’s population and are slowly overtaking Anglos to become the majority culture. The city also boasts a vibrant soccer community including many young professionals with children, the driving force behind the boost in soccer’s popularity.
Two years ago, about 85,000 fans packed into AT&T Stadium to watch Mexico play Brazil in an exhibition match leading up to the World Cup. A few years earlier, the Mexican national team drew 82,000 to the same stadium for a game against Haiti. Both games set records for the largest attendance at a soccer match in Texas.
Children at Vaqueros games appreciate being allowed on the field to play soccer during halftime and after the games.
“I want to get kids more interested in the sport and help them reach their potential,” Hitchcock said.
He envisions some of those kids growing up, playing for the Vaqueros, and moving on to the next level of competition.
“This is a place for some of them to develop,” he said. “Our job is to showcase and develop them. We are putting a professional club together to help them get to the next level.”
The Vaqueros, unlike the current Cats owners, started with baby steps. The Cats owners bought the team, the stadium, and surrounding property and appear to have stretched their liquidity into the danger zone. The Vaqueros started with a relatively minimal investment, a lease agreement rather than a mortgage on the stadium, and began in the league’s lowest amateur division, the fourth division. Higher-ranked leagues require teams to travel greater distances, accruing more expenses. Teams in the Vaqueros’ league are only as far away as a bus ride to College Station, Dallas, or Tulsa.
“We decided to [be] realistic and start small,” Hitchcock said. “Over time, if our market grows, we can go where we need to in terms of more competitive divisions. The goal would ultimately be MLS.”