The walkway to the main gate of Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. is called Wambach Way, a reminder of just how endeared Abby Wambach is in Rochester. And that was dedicated before Wambach was even part of a team that would be playing there, never mind before a league even officially existed.
She’s an A-list celebrity in the region. Her arrival at the stadium in the past has typically filled the building, which seats about 15,000 fans, depending on capacity for the day.
That’s just a small sampling of how big the U.S. women’s national team forward is in the greater Rochester area, where she grew up.
Most recently, Wambach and her U.S. teammates kicked off their celebration tour of a third-straight Olympic gold medal in Rochester in front of 13,208 fans on Sept. 1, 2012. That came a little over a year after the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) played its first game back from the 2011 Women’s World Cup at that same Sahlen’s Stadium.
On that day, 15,404 fans packed into additional seating and others had to be turned away at the gate. The whole city shut down. Thousands of fans and swarms of media — a paparazzi sort of scene if women’s soccer has ever seen one — packed into a local mall for a runners-up welcome back rally primarily for Wambach, along with Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger, who were also in town.
It was, and still is, The Abby Effect in Rochester. But now, that’s an every day thing. And now Rochester’s claim as Soccer Town USA is put to the test. How fleeting is the region’s affection for its city’s biggest star?
Unlike 2011, when Wambach played for (she didn’t actually play in the homecoming match due to a sore Achilles) the road team, the infamously rogue magicJack squad, Rochester’s First Lady is on the home team. Sure, she’s on the home team when the United States plays there, but that occurs sparingly.
Now Rochester has 11 Flash games (plus potential playoffs) to show up and support Wambach and the rest of this Flash squad, which has won three straight championships in three different leagues.
We already know that Wambach will miss the home opener as a “precautionary” measure after she sustained a head injury in last week’s 1-1 draw with the Washington Spirit.
But even before that was known, the sales for the home opener — the first chance of the year to see the Flash and Wambach — didn’t sound up to expectations. Per Wambach’s tweet:
Wash spirit 4500+, Portland 16,000+, KC 6,000+ in their home openers. I’ve heard we have 2,000 so far. Let’s go @wnyflash fans. Lets compete
— Abby Wambach (@AbbyWambach) April 23, 2013
That is the sort of attendance the Flash averaged in 2011 before the post-World Cup boom. That’s the kind of number that makes the very open Sahlen’s Stadium feel empty.
As of Friday morning, the Flash would not comment on how many tickets had been sold for the home opener.
So the question remains: Will Wambach still sell when she is in Western New York all the time? The answer is not an implication on Wambach, but the market’s elasticity. Relative to women’s soccer, this should be a slam dunk for attendance and marketing. Whether or not it is remains to be seen. And those expectations need to be realistic, too.
The Flash won’t sell out every game. They may not sell out at all this year. But the hope in Western New York is that Wambach can turn those crowds that may have previously hovered around 2,000 fans into double that. Even that would be a major victory for Rochester and the National Women’s Soccer League.
The test begins Saturday, but really kicks into gear on Wednesday, when the Flash host Sky Blue FC on a weeknight, four days after the home opener. Then, of course, every home game after that.