About three years ago, when executive producer Randy Heitz and I discussed a new sports radio station called “The Franchise,” we did a little catching up. Knowing that the split with my previous employer wasn’t the best time in my life, he asked a legitimate question, “Have you been keeping up with local sports?”
My answer was that I had, but not as close as I used to because I had a new passion.
Randy, like many other people from my past that I try and discuss the beautiful game with, rolled his eyes and shook his head. A few weeks later, I interviewed with our program director, Buddy Wiley. He asked what sports I was most interested in. I put soccer at #1 on the list. I remember telling him, and others, “You just wait. Soccer is taking off in this community and it’s the next big thing.”
As you would imagine, covering soccer in this market is always going to encounter push back. People that aren’t a part of the soccer community in OKC have a hard time grasping it. Understandably so, to them, it looked like a cult movement, a vocal minority, a minor blip on the OKC sports radar screen.
In 2014, the USL’s OKC Energy FC started playing at McGuinness High School. I fielded question after question from friends and colleagues about the viability of soccer in OKC. I told them it would work. Not many believed me.
In 2015, OKC Energy FC moved to Taft Stadium, a bigger venue with more amenities, and the ever-important ability to sell beer. Again, people wondered if this team could sustain. People wondered when the newness would wear off, but it did the opposite of wearing off. More people came out to watch the Energy than ever had before. Newer faces were in the crowd, not just faces of people who had loved soccer for years, but faces of new fans to not just the team, but the sport.
Now in 2016, those that love to hate soccer had more bullets in the chamber. The NASL’s Rayo OKC began playing home games at Miller Stadium in Yukon. People that didn’t think this city could sustain one professional soccer team surely didn’t believe that it could sustain two.
Then last Saturday happened. For the first time since the two clubs have co-existed, they hosted home games on the same night, at the same time. The weather was below average at best, temperatures in the upper 50’s with 30 mph south winds, but it didn’t stop the masses from enjoying soccer. Energy FC played to a 2-2 draw with St. Louis FC and Rayo OKC lost in heartbreaking fashion 3-2 to the Carolina RailHawks, but on this night, the winner was OKC’s soccer community. 12,306 fans showed up between the two venues (6455 for Energy FC, 5851 for Rayo OKC). When you combine the two attendances, it is greater than any attendance at an OU or OSU home basketball game this season. Aside from football, the only people to outdraw the combined attendance of the soccer matches last Saturday are the OKC Thunder.
Enough with the “soccer won’t work here” narrative. Enough with the silly jokes people make about a sport they have never even tried to understand, and for crying out loud, enough with underestimating the soccer community in OKC. Many have doubted you. Many still do. I never have.
For once in my life, I’ve been proven correct, and for that, I say thank you.