By Tommy Romanach
Last year, Luke Betts watched nearly 1000 fans enter his bar, rabid and ready to cheer for team USA in the World Cup.
This year the genders have changed, but people like Betts are confident “World Cup Fever” is here to stay in Baton Rouge.
“Whatever happens this summer, it’s only the start of the revolution,” Betts said.
The 2015 Women’s World Cup kicked off earlier this month and continues until July 5, and local bars and restaurants throughout the Capital City are preparing for an influx of passionate soccer fans with national pride, similar to what they saw in 2014 for the men’s tournament.
Those packed crowds from a year ago displayed a rise in popularity for soccer, a difficult challenge considering Baton Rouge’s affinity for sports like football and baseball. But the interest is there, leading many bars to air World Cup matches alongside events like the NBA Finals.
Betts, owner The Londoner Pub & Grill on South Sherwood Forest Blvd., has seen the change since the bar opened in November 2010.
“Back in 2010, I was watching the World Cup at the Fox and Hound with 16 other guys, and we all felt like losers,” Betts said. “Fast forward to last year, we were showing it, Pluckers, Varsity and Pelican House were playing it, everyone was playing it.”
Betts co-hosts “Soccer PM,” a weekly soccer radio show with The Londoner manager Jason Bordelon. Bordelon grew up in the area playing the game and considers his generation the first one to not only play soccer, but to embrace and follow the sport.
“Whatever happens this summer, it’s only the start of the revolution.”
– Luke Betts, The Londoner Pub & Grill owner
– Luke Betts, The Londoner Pub & Grill owner
That generation is grown up now, some with kids playing and following soccer just like their parents. Bordelon theorizes this new “family” aspect has helped give rise to the sport’s popularity.
When Bordelon and Betts came to their bar for the first US World Cup match last season, those theories came to fruition.
“There’s two floors here, 7000-square feet. We were absolutely packed solid,” Betts said. “Economically, we saw same revenue in four or five hours that they typically saw in a week.”
Betts and Bordelon think they’ll see about 60 percent of those numbers while the US is in the group stage, but expect attendance to rise the further the team advances. The Londoner will also go beyond just the home country, showcasing all 52 games in the tournament.
This type of devotion is what Betts and Bordelon believe separates The Londoner. They call their establishment “The home of soccer in Baton Rouge,” a place that made the beautiful game its top priority.
“We are not a sports bar. We’re an English restaurant that shows soccer,” Betts said. “Of course we will play football and of course we will play baseball. But if there’s a US national team playing or a Champions League game coming on, I don’t care what’s on TV it’s going off.”
While The Londoner’s pride can’t be understated, other places in town expect considerable numbers cheering on their home country. Gavin Jobe, co-owner of The Pelican House, was shocked by the crowds he saw last year and is prepared to see his bar fill up in the coming weeks.
Jobe said while most women’s sports don’t garner the same coverage as their male counterparts, the World Cup is different because of the US national team’s potential to win the tournament. The Americans are already two-time champions and currently ranked No. 2 in the FIFA women’s world ranking.
Continuing a trend from last year, The Pelican House plans to team up with Baton Rouge Soccer Club adult leagues and offer discounts to those who play the sport. Jobe hopes this will bring the same electric feel the bar saw in 2014.
Hannah Jobe, Gavin’s sister and another co-owner, is a former soccer player herself. However, she does not think any experience or knowledge in the sport is necessary for some people to tune in.
“Even if you’re not a soccer fan, it’s still America, and it’s a chance to show patriotism,” Hannah said. “People that don’t even know anything about soccer will come in and watch it.”
BRSC President Bob Johannessen has been to The Pelican House, The Londoner and other establishments in town to watch soccer, claiming he typically just goes where his friends go. No matter the place, Johannessen says the state’s interest in the sport is evident and it begins at the youth level.
Few know this better than BRSC Academy Director Adam Allerton. Ten months ago, he moved to Baton Rouge from Connecticut, a state he claims is very far along in its development of the sport.
He realized things moved slower in the South, but people were not resistant to being educated. He said once people recognize the technical acumen required for the sport, they begin to understand the environment he is trying to create.
And while education in the sport is a little behind, player development is not. Allerton said the difference in players now compared to when he was a kid is not only clear, but intimidating.
“Looking at the top players now compared to when I was growing up, I probably would not have survived.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the U.S. women’s team will be erasing the disappointment of past World Cups, most notably a loss to Japan via penalty kicks in the 2011 Final. Allerton said the Americans have to win this season, and that type of pressure will trigger a curiosity in those impervious to the team.
Championship or not, an impact will still be made. Whether it is educating fans in the bar or educating players on the field, interest in this sport is not going away.
“It’s moments like this, where you have places dedicated to the sport, that is the next step in growth,” Allerton said. “The kids I’m working with on Burbank, there could be the next kid out there who could take this country to the next level. That’s what it’s all about right there.”