By Nathan L. Redd
When the Louisville Lightning first took the pitch more than three years ago, few expected the franchise to survive. In an era when sport organizations move, fold, and file for bankruptcy on a regular basis, a professional indoor soccer team in Louisville didn’t exactly get heart rates racing.
Fast forward to 2012, and the Lightning are thriving. A near-record crowd packed into Mockingbird Valley Sports Complex for the regular season finale in late February. Louisville and the Detroit Waza battled in a back and forth contest that eventually saw Detroit pull out a 9-8 victory, snapping the Lightning’s five-game winning streak.
The most immeasurable statistic from the Detroit game was the disappointment of the fans after the loss. The atmosphere was arguably the most emotionally-charged of any game in Lightning history. For sports franchises outside of the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, NHL, and Major League Soccer, getting fans to a game is usually based on everything but the game itself. That’s why you see minor league baseball teams often concocting outlandish promotions to draw attention and garner fans. Once they’re in the door, getting the fans to care about the product on the field is another battle.
The Lightning has fought that battle as well, and it’s a battle they’re winning. In the regular-season finale against Detroit, fans were standing and cheering for much of the game, and it was because of the actual game. The indoor soccer franchise no one thought would make it to a second season is accomplishing what many small franchises strive for. At the end of season three, they packed a house in Louisville during college basketball season and got fans to care about the game itself.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, really,” Coach Scott Budnick said after the game. “Our players feed off the energy from the crowd, but this was amazing. No one but us thought we would be here at this point.” The same could be said for the Louisville Lightning franchise.
Budnick’s words could easily describe the entire Lightning season. Season three of Louisville Lightning soccer saw the team earn a playoff berth for the first time in franchise history, finish second in the PASL Eastern Division, and wrap the season with a12-5 record. In their first three seasons, the Lightning have also boasted of ten players with the team who claim experience with Major League Soccer (MLS) teams. Additionally, Lightning Head Coach Scott Budnick also played in America’s premiere league of soccer. Budnick’s experience gave him the capacity to deal with defections from the team due to invitations from more established leagues.
Over the final month of the season, the Lightning lost J.T. Murray (Los Angeles Galaxy), Charlie Campbell (Orlando City, 2011 USL Pro Champions), and Tee Shipalane (Carolina Railhawks, 2011 NASL Regular Season Champions). Despite losing three superstars, Budnick kept the team composed...and winning. The Lightning finished the regular season by winning five of their final six games, and went 7-2 over their final nine games. Budnick, along with coaches Mike Dickey and Ted Nichols, adjusted their lineups and replaced key players with versatile athletes who kept the momentum going.
In a nation where sport attendance and ticket sales are declining in nearly every league, the Lightning maintained an average of over 1,000 fans at home games for the third consecutive year, while boasting 30% higher investment from corporate partners and receiving more exposure in the local media than ever before. It is the only indoor soccer team in the PASL (and possibly the entire country) to have had multiple games on television this season.
Lightning co-owner Wayne Estopinal praised the franchise and its components earlier this week, saying the management and ownership were committed to taking the franchise to new heights in season four. "We have everything that we need in place here. We need everyone back, but we’re going to take this club to places never before seen in Louisville. We’ll build on this season as we get ready for season four," he stated.
For Lightning players and fans, season four can’t come soon enough.
(Excerpts from this article appeared in the Louisville Voice-Tribune recently. Nick Stover also contributed to this article).