While Travis Cooke was scoring a hat trick to lead Lionsbridge FC to a 6-1 victory over D.C. United’s U-23 team June 19, something just as impressive was taking place in the stands.
More than 1,120 fans remained on hand at CNU’s Pomoco Stadium, waiting out an hour rain delay to see the USL2 team based on the Peninsula dominate a developmental roster from the MLS team based in the nation’s capital.
“It was great that people wanted to stick it out and cheer on the guys,” said Lionsbridge chairman and co-founder Mike Vest, who added they had sold 1,600 tickets for the June 19 game. “It’s probably reasonable to think we would have had 1,700 or 1,800 people there (if it hadn’t started raining about two hours before the game).”
The second-year club followed it up with its largest crowd of the season (1,328) witnessing a 2-1 victory over N.C. Fusion on June 22, and another four-figure crowd (1,067) taking in a 2-2 draw with Virginia Beach United on June 26.
Through seven home games, the Lions are averaging 1,173 fans.
In their inaugural season, they averaged 1,340 for nine home games, which placed them in the top four of the 74-team league. With three more home dates, including a July 3 fireworks night contest (vs. the Tri-Cities Otters) and a game July 9 against the Richmond Kickers, who play one level above the Lions in USL1, Vest is expecting more big turnouts.
“The crowds have been consistently growing through the summer,” Vest said, noting last year’s July 3 fireworks crowd drew a record 2,295 fans. “Last year, our biggest crowds were when summer actually hit and school let out. I think we’ll see that happen again this year.”
The buzz from the team’s inaugural season in the developmental amateur league geared toward college-age players, in which they went 6-5-5 overall and finished third out of six teams in the South Atlantic Division, hasn’t worn off. The team sold 620 season tickets this year, up from 406 last year. They still were selling season packages as recently as a few weeks ago.
“I was surprised how deep into the season we were selling season tickets,” Vest said.
No too long after the end of last season, the team entered into an agreement with Cox Cable to broadcast its home games on YurView, which comes with the basic cable package and is in nearly half-a-million homes throughout the state.
“What’s really neat about that is that channel sits right between NBC and ESPN on the channel guide, so that’s pretty good real estate for us,” Vest said, adding the games also are streamed live on Facebook, as was the case last season.
Things are going just as well on the field.
After the game against Virginia Beach, the Lions are 5-4-2 in league play and in first place, but second-place North Carolina Fusion has played one less game. The Lions have three league games remaining and two non-league games left.
“I think we’re probably a more talented group, and that’s no disrespect to the group we had last year,” Coach Chris Whalley said.
In every area, it appears the Lions have found a place in the sports landscape on the Peninsula.
“The community seems to be really behind it,” Vest said. “We’re very happy with where we’re at, but we also know we’re just really scratching the surface of where this could go.”