It was odd sitting at the top of the stands in the Wanderer’s Grounds Friday night. It’s such a Halifax institution–you see the old Wanderer’s Grounds even when it’s not really there anymore.
But one of the things I most liked about the new place is how legacy!Wanderer’s is still there.
The stadium doesn’t feel entirely out of step with what it’s always been. Wanderer’s was always picturesque, next to the beautiful Halifax Public Gardens, and it still is. The main stand looks out over the trees along Sackville St. You really can’t think of a more pleasant backdrop.
It’s the same basic shape, same basic pitch (just better), same metal bleachers (just more of them). It’s a tin can temporary stadium, but that very temporary-ness, it’s half-finished heart, feels very much in keeping with what it’s always been.
I’m an aesthetician at heart, as you can probably tell, but the real story of the #HFXDerby Friday night was the attendance. I’ve been to a lot of AUS games, men’s and women’s. Even the frosh week games, as this one does, don’t draw more than a few hundred at best.
Over 2,000 people showed up at Wanderer’s Grounds Friday night to watch university soccer.
Let that sink in, for a sec: 2,000+.
There have been some concerns, especially this past week, about the financial viability of the Canadian Premier League, particularly its ability to draw crowds in small markets. For a bunch of reasons I want to talk about in coming weeks, and for a bunch of reasons I will talk about here, Friday night in Halifax isn’t necessarily representative. But forget representative: more than 2,000 people watched an Atlantic University Sport game.
Never mind memberships, or buzz. Walk-up gate is what drives soccer revenue in like 90% of the world’s leagues (not your La Ligas or Premier Leagues, with their crazy TV deals–but good, functional domestic top flights, yeah) and it’s the great unknown of CanPL: will hockey-mad hosers show up for the beautiful game?
They did, Friday night.
I’ve been to a lot of frosh week games. The biggest and noisiest crowds I’ve seen have always come when the residences get themselves out. They had a decent showing down at Wanderer’s Grounds, but the real numbers were casual walk-ups. Some youth teams, but it wasn’t just a family event. Lots and lots of intrigued locals, and that’s exactly what CanPL needs to reach.
People wandered in and out, and the announced attendance was tickets sold across both the men’s and women’s game, but the main stand was just about full for the three hours the ball was in play, and that’s including the men’s game, which I would not have blamed anybody for leaving. (Soccer at the Wanderer’s Ground wouldn’t be complete without a drab 0 – 0.)
Was it loud?
It wasn’t bad. There was some occasional chanting, and it’s worth noting nascent Wanderers FC supporters group Privateers 1882, who were, shall we say, noticeable when a local selects side played Fortuna Dusseldorf’s U21s back in July, were present but took a neutral view of Halifax’s inter-city match.
I’d describe the atmosphere as carnivalesque, in a good way. Lots of people milling around, following the game but also just having an all-around good time, and in the early days that’s really, really important. We want people coming, and then coming back. Nobody is going to build a culture of support overnight. It starts with interest and enjoyment.
Part of the reason for the above? This match has been blanketed all over Halifax for more than a month. Average people had heard about it on the radio, and some of them had come down to check it out. There were signs and posters everywhere on the university campuses, and plenty of social media chatter.
No doubt it helped that it was a pleasantly warm September night. (Even then, you can really feel the wind coming off the ocean. This is not going to be an easy place to play for visiting teams.) It was also a 5:15pm start for the women’s game, though, which is tough coming off a work week at rush hour, and the place had filled out nicely even in the first half as people found their way down. It cannot be emphasized enough that this is the perfect location for a walk-up crowd.
This is important. Success begets success. When you know what works in a market, you can replicate, and intensify the effort. Friday night was a dry run for more than just the pitch and facilities, and Wanderers FC, who were very obviously driving the marketing effort, nailed it.
The new team had–and continues to have–a really energetic presence in the community. This felt like a Wanderers FC event rather than an AUS event, which is good because AUS events tend to be produced by the universities and vary wildly, but none are ever especially energetic.
The club made some mistakes, to be sure–the gate staff were a bit disorganized (and frankly undermanned–I don’t think anyone expected so many people) and some people are going to find the in-stadium announcer very, very trying–but at this stage I think I’m willing to forgive the blips and look at the overall. It’s important that this felt like a Wanderers event, and it mostly went smoothly. Food, beer, and pre-game ceremonies were all really well planned out.
The little things can be ironed out. At some point, they will figure out that playing music during subs isn’t the done thing in this sport. But you know what? The little things don’t matter in Year 0.
The big thing: How was the pitch?
One of the biggest questions about CanPL, but particularly, I think, about Halifax and Wanderer’s Ground, is how the grass pitch will hold up.
Granted, a warm evening in September is not the sternest test. April in Nova Scotia is a different story. I think, though, that we won’t have to worry too, too much.
I talked to Saint Mary’s goalkeeper Christian Oxner after the game, who called it the best pitch he’s ever played on. And I have to say, as a spectator–the ball never took a visible bobble, it played smooth and quiet, and I never saw a chunk tear up.
By far the biggest issue was the players familiarity with it. University soccer is mostly played on turf, and club premier soccer is almost entirely played on turf. A lot of the players looked unused to the different traction on grass, and there were a lot of underhit passes. Doubt that’ll be an issue for professional players, though.
If I had a criticism of the surface–and to be clear, this is reaching for one–it’s that it’s a little bit soft. Not bad soft, but soft. It’s not a super fast pitch, and it looked a little spongy, though when I walked on it a bit post-match it felt a tad more firm. Add a little water, though, and it’ll get slippery.
To be honest, though, I’m really proud of it already, as a Haligonian. I’ve spent a lot of time refereeing on some very iffy grass surfaces around here, and our climate is a natural challenge. I honestly wasn’t sure a pitch like this was feasible.
I was wrong.
I came into Friday night a little bit sceptical about the stadium, the pitch, and the market in general. Call it one too many September AUS openers with less than 200 people in the stands. Friday had ten times that.
Maybe I’ll do a list of little suggestions later in the week (hint: trash cans), but for now I want to bask in the feeling a little longer. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a soccer match–hell, enjoyed a night out–in Halifax quite like that.