With traffic backed up for blocks, fans lining the sidewalks, and supporters tailgating in the parking lot, Red Bull Arena braced for an unfamiliar sight: a sold out lower bowl for a National Women’s Soccer League game. In fact, for the first time in history, the upper bowl of the stadium had to be opened to keep up with demand for tickets to see NJ/NY Gotham FC take on the visiting San Diego Wave FC on Sunday, June 4th.
Such a spectacle seemed like a pipedream merely years ago for the team formerly known as Sky Blue FC, a franchise that failed to make the postseason between 2013 and 2021 and also dealt with the departure of former vice-president and general manager Alyse LaHue during that campaign.
The club was founded in 2007 by Phil and Tammy Murphy. Now the Governor and First Lady of the State of New Jersey, the pair always knew that this was an achievable future, even for a team that just last year finished at the bottom of the table. Just minutes before kickoff, Tammy Murphy was in the stadium, taking it all in, and reveling in just how far both the team and the league have come.
“We are the longest-serving owners within the league. We have seen this league go from being a mom-and-pop operation to really becoming a much more professional experience at every level,” Tammy Murphy exclusively told The Equalizer.
Now in its 11th year, the National Women’s Soccer League continues to grow. This year, the league saw a 48% increase in opening day attendance from 2022 and is on track to expand to 16 teams over the next few years. Gotham FC has grown right along with the league, and on Sunday hit a record of their own, attracting 15,058 fans to their Pride Night match against San Diego. Although the team lost 0-1, Gotham has proved to be a formidable side in the NWSL this season and now sits fourth in the standings.
“To see this today for me and for all of the owners is, and I’m not trying to play a pun on this, but it’s just a moment of pride,” Murphy continued. “We are so proud of the team, we’re proud of everything that goes on behind the scenes and what you’re seeing out on the field because it takes everyone coming together in order to pull this off.”
Going into Sunday’s match, Gotham sat atop the NWSL table for two weeks, and despite the loss, still remains well in playoff contention. “We always knew we could do this,” Murphy said. “As Lynn Williams said, we’re not surprised, everybody else is surprised. I think that just speaks volumes, because I think that is exactly the sentiment here.”
Playing for Pride
Gotham’s record-breaking evening coincided with the team’s annual Pride Night celebration. Since at least 2015, the team has held a match to commemorate Pride Month. For the Murphys, celebrating diversity is extremely important to show players and fans around the country that New Jersey will always welcome them, celebrate them, and embrace them.
“Gotham is the most diverse team in the league, and that is another point of pride. My husband and I have always said the strength of New Jersey is that we are not trying to put up barriers and push people away, but we’re always trying to walk in one another’s shoes. I think that the ability to embrace and understand one another is one of the most important aspects,” Murphy explained. “Of course, we live in New Jersey. Not every state embraces pride the way we do. We want to show that we are all better when we’re working together. This is a moment of celebration. I’m glad when other teams are able to come here and they’re able to celebrate alongside us in this particular month. Some can’t do that in their own home states and that’s really a shame.”
Although Gotham’s record-breaking match was certainly a byproduct of the confluence of the team’s performance, Pride Night, and the visiting stars in San Diego like U.S. women’s national team star Alex Morgan, Murphy knows her team is ready to continue drawing local fans back to the stadium through enhanced game day experiences and working closely with their official supporters’ group, Cloud Nine.
“As the league has professionalized, so have we. We invested really heavily last year into the soccer side of the operation, and this year, it’s on the business side,” Murphy said. “We love [our fans] and Cloud Nine, who have been there through thick and thin. I think when fans come in and have a good experience, that word will carry.”
Especially meaningful for Murphy is the network of youth leagues in New Jersey that now have the opportunity to see women’s soccer played at the highest level right in their backyard.
“In New Jersey, we have great youth programs. What we want to do is make sure that we are opening the doors and giving these younger women the chance to see where they can go and that they have an opportunity,” Murphy said. “That’s why we did this from the very beginning.”
Murphy hopes that the momentum from Sunday’s match will be just what the club needs to capitalize on this big moment for women’s sports and prove that Gotham FC is a destination for players and fans.
“So how are we going to keep it up? We’re going to keep working on it. I think we just build on the momentum each time and keep winning,” Murphy explained. “I view this as an ecosystem. When the players play well, the fans have fun, the sponsors are happy, it all builds on itself.”
That includes the hiring of former NWSL player and NWSLPA president Yael Averbuch West as general manager. Averbuch West was pivotal in negotiations around the history-making collective bargaining agreement in 2021.
“I just really am happy with the direction and as long as we can keep this momentum which I really feel confident that we can, I think things are really coming together,” Murphy said. “We’re heading to a good place.”
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