By Andrew Alexander
As the World Cup kicks off this week, millions of soccer fans around the globe will be glued to their television sets, oozing with national pride and cheering on their beloved teams with the same obsession that the rabid fans of Southeastern Conference football display every autumn Saturday.
For many soccer fans in Baton Rouge, the World Cup holds a special place in their sporting calendar. Occurring only every four years, fans soak up each ounce of coverage, savoring it, reveling in it and appreciating the highest competition for the game they love.
“The World Cup is the perfect sporting event,” LSU student Mitch Gregory explained. “It’s everything you love and everything you hate in sports: world class athletes, celebrities, great story lines, national pride and support, drama, juggernaut teams and underdogs, as well as egos, flopping, controversies and the British.”
Baton Rouge native Paul Scott enjoys the World Cup because it’s an extremely competitive international sporting event.
“Every World Cup, there are five to six countries with incredibly talented teams and no telling who’s going to win,” Scott said. “You just don’t see that in any other international competition.”
When it comes to sports, Baton Rouge will always be a football town. But an ever-growing, passionate faction of soccer fans in the Red Stick, Baton Rouge is slowly developing a tight knit futbol community.
At the center of the soccer renaissance in Baton Rouge are Luke Betts, Jason Bordelon and Carlos Boyd, the hosts of Soccer PM, a weekly soccer-centric radio show on 104.5.
“We have fun, we’re irreverent and we’re off the cuff,” Betts said. “Each week we rip apart what’s good, bad and damn right ugly in the world of soccer.”
The trio met at The Londoner many years ago when they were the only three people who showed up to watch soccer on weekend mornings.
“One of the things we said when we first started is we need to figure out a way to break this down a bit to make it really accessible,” added Boyd, “explain things to Americans and people who have never followed the game have questions with.”
Betts, a native Englishman, said the attitude towards soccer has drastically improved since he arrived in Baton Rouge five years ago.
What has impressed him the most about soccer culture in Baton Rouge has been the popularity at the youth level and the public facilities the city has built, especially at the Burbank Soccer Complex.
“I was amazed by Burbank,” Betts said. “We’ve got fields like that in London, but I expect to see that in London because soccer is our culture and is our favorite sport.”
Despite the popularity of The Londoner and the influence of Soccer PM over the airwaves, soccer continues to struggle to be anything more than a niche sport in an LSU football obsessed city.
Local fan Patrick Alexander believes the key to building a sustainable soccer culture in Baton Rouge is people taking an interest in the sport but according to him, that only comes in four-year cycles.
“It’s very low on the totem pole,” Alexander said. “There is a dearth of quality soccer because Baton Rouge has no professional or semi-pro teams anymore. There are pockets around LSU’s campus and the younger, hipper parts of town that remain rabid soccer fans. But it will always play sixth.”
Young professional Grant Gardner thinks the current state of soccer fandom in Baton Rouge is poor, but there is still hope to grow the sport.
“I think there are a lot of people in Baton Rouge that enjoy playing soccer, and I think fandom will continue to grow because of it,” Gardner explained.
For many local soccer fans, including Jordan Boudreaux, the success of the United States National Team in the World Cup will determine how invested they continue to become in the sport.
“I think soccer fandom has definitely grown in Baton Rouge since the last World Cup,” Boudreaux said. “I know the miracle U.S. goal (against Algeria) is what really got me more interested in soccer.”
Betts is quick to point out that while the following for “the beautiful game” may still be small in Baton Rouge, it’s still a passionate one and has a chance to continue growing.
“It’s still a minority sport,” he said. “But people that really enjoy it will take a day off from work to watch the World Cup.”