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The hype had been building for months. The team was slowly assembled, the local media had been publishing features on the club, the support on social media was starting to swell, and excitement was rippling around town ahead of NWSL side Racing Louisville’s first ever home match last Saturday night.
The stage was set. Then, it rained. Hard.
Despite only a 15% chance of rain at kickoff, a torrential downpour soaked the stadium for most of the first half.
“It was raining harder than I’ve ever felt it rain in my life,” said Leigh Nieves, president of Racing Louisville supporters group, The Lavender Legion. “It was crazy, but it was so cool because no one moved. Everyone was standing in their seats, yelling, cheering through the pouring rain. I was just like, ‘People are really here for this team.’”
The rain, and the rainbow that appeared soon after the downpour, only added to the magic of a dream debut for Racing Louisville and its supporters.
“We’re jumping out of our skin. There’s no better way to say it,” said Michele Wilkinson, the president of LouCity Ladies, a supporters group dedicated to both Racing Louisville and Louisville City FC, a men’s side that competes in second-division USL Championship. “Saturday was just unbelievable. It was everything we hoped it would be.”
The 5,300 fans in attendance at the club’s inaugural match on April 10th were treated to an exhilarating 2-2 draw against the Orlando Pride, that saw Cece Kizer score the club’s first ever goal, and Brooke Hendrix net a last-gasp equalizer that sent the stadium into a frenzy.
But one of the main talking points after the match was the energy provided by the supporters.
“You could hear us throughout the stadium, and we weren’t even at half capacity,” said Nieves. “You just think it’s such a small personal experience, especially because the amount of people that can be there is so much less for the moment. So you think, ‘Here’s us, 400-ish people spread out across the supporters section.’ But the fact that after the game, on social media, the players posted about the supporters being there and being loud, just the fact that we were able to make that much of an impact has been awesome to hear.”
The next morning, Lavender Legion vice president Robin Pryor, who, along with Nieves, had been a capo for most of the match, texted Nieves incredulously. “She was like, ‘Leigh, we’re in charge of the entire fan experience. People were looking at me and you to get them hyped. People are actually listening to us.’”
Supporters also used the platform of their first match as an opportunity to unveil a powerful tifo display, featuring a large purple canvas that read “This is HER Louisville” with Breonna Taylor’s name displayed below it.
“We wanted to make a dedication to the fact that we now have the top tier pro sports team in Kentucky. This is Her Louisville, this is our women’s team,” said Nieves.
“We thought it was really important to include Breonna Taylor, because she’s here, she’s in Louisville. It was just so personal to everyone, because a lot of people in Louisville personally knew her, so it wasn’t just a name on TV or a name you’d see on social media, she was an actual human being,” she said. “So, we really wanted to pay tribute to her and the fact that she had such an impact on starting this huge movement. We had decided months and months ago whatever we’re doing, we want to include her in the first one.”
They also created 6 smaller tifos highlighting other influential women from Louisville, including the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, an inspirational local news anchor, and an LGBTQ-rights activist.
“We wanted to show that these are the women who have made an impact on Louisville,” said Nieves. “We wanted to celebrate them, and the history of amazing women in Louisville, and honor the fact that now we get to kickstart another generation of these women who are going to be playing in Louisville and have an impact.”
This wave of women’s empowerment, which is not new to Louisville, has had an effect on both supporter groups, and the city as a whole.
“I do think by shining a positive light on our city, it’s allowing more women to step forward and be seen and heard, and it’s wonderful, it’s absolutely wonderful,” said Wilkinson. “I mean, we’ve got members in our group who are kind of quiet, they’re not the most boisterous supporters, who are stepping up to take the lead on things that they’ve never done. We get to see the growth in our own people. So, if we’re seeing it within our groups, you know it’s happening all over the city.”
In the club’s second ever match, Racing was on the opposite end of a late-game comeback, falling to the Washington Spirit 1-0 thanks to a stoppage time goal. But that didn’t diminish the strong start and positive momentum that both Nieves and Wilkinson believe will continue to carry into the regular season.
“Our first game, the weather was horrendous, and so many people showed up,” Nieves said. “Now I’ve got so many people reaching out saying, ‘We missed the first game, how can we be involved? Can you post the chants online?’ So I really think it’s going to accelerate because if there’s one thing that people in Louisville like, it’s any sort of outdoor event where there’s alcohol and fun. So once people see how much fun these games are, it’s really just going to ramp up from there.
“It’s just amazing for everyone else to see what we already know,” said Wilkinson. “We know what we’ve got here. Everyone sees Kentucky and rolls their eyes, but Louisville is its own thing. We know we’re a soccer city. For the world to be able to look in on our city and see this, we love it, we absolutely love it.”