Despite the rapid growth of youth soccer participation in recent years, fan support for area high school teams doesn't appear to be increasing.
Only in Howard County does soccer appear to have made a significant improvement in attendance, and only when the county's top schools play each other.
According to area coaches and athletic directors, even schools with winning programs usually don't attract a large audience. Kennedy, one of the winningest schools in Montgomery County and the defending Class A state champion, averages only 60 to 70 fans per game, according to Kennedy Athletic Director Leroy Ward. Kennedy's average gate of $70, compared with $1,300 for football, isn't atypical.
"The last five years, we've gotten what we consider good attendance for soccer matches," said Ward. "But there hasn't been any real significant increase or decrease."
Bowie, a perennial soccer leader in Prince George's County, averages approximately 100 persons a game, as opposed to 600 for football, according to Athletic Director John Payne. However, as Payne said, football is played Saturday afternoons and Friday evenings. Soccer is played weekday afternoons, when it is difficult for working parents and supporters to attend. "If soccer were played on Saturday afternoons, we'd draw more people," Payne said.
Payne also perceives a demographic breakdown to soccer's success. Soccer, according to the Bulldogs' athletic director, has its origins in the boys and girls clubs. Schools outside the beltway, where youth club programs usually are more developed, therefore have more opportunities for the students to be involved. Prince George's schools such as Fairmont Heights (inside the beltway) are more football-minded, whereas Largo, Laurel and Eleanor Roosevelt, along with Bowie, have stronger soccer programs.
Darrell Snyder, the athletic director at Bishop O'Connell in Arlington, feels that soccer is "more of a participating sport but not really a spectator sport." O'Connell averages 75 fans a game. Northern Virginia's T.C. Williams mirrors the others. According to Don Riviere, the school's athletic director, T.C. Williams has not had consistently good soccer attendance. Said Riviere, "We have more people who are interested in our rowing program."
In Howard County, fan support sometimes rivals that of football. When Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Hammond or Centennial compete against one another, crowds of 2,500 often show up. The county is even considering charging for soccer games. But Don Disney, Howard County's athletic director, admits that the "Big Four" is the exception.
"The Big Four is in a class by itself," he said. "When these schools compete, spectators from other schools come out to watch."
Many school officials feel that until soccer moves to Saturday or evening dates, it will be limiting those who can attend games. Bethesda-Chevy Chase Athletic Director Brady Blade said his school would increase its attendance from 150 to 300 per game if the school switched to a night format.
In Virginia, where public schools play night soccer in the spring to stay away from direct competition with football, fan interest remains low for the most part.
At Robinson, Tom Porter, the school's athletic director, says that soccer is so popular in Virginia that "the gate remains low because the people who would normally watch are out playing."
Robinson averages 250 per soccer game and 3,000 for football. "Playing in the spring really doesn't have any affect on us at all in terms of not having football to contend with," Porter said. "Soccer's competition isn't from football anyway, it's from other soccer games and practices. And in the spring, there is a lot."
Annandale has the same problems. The Atoms boys won last spring's Potomac District championship; the 1984 football squad finished 5-5. Football attendance averaged 2,000 to soccer's 125. But Bob Hardage, Annandale's athletic director, doesn't feel there is a problem.
"That's the amount of people we've been getting and that's the amount we will continue to get," he said. "I really don't think the average American is that accustomed to the sport (soccer) as a whole. It really didn't come to us with any frequency until the last 20 years."
Recently, Wootton High School put together a football and soccer doubleheader.
"It really wasn't so much an experiment as a way to get two rain dates out of the way," said Athletic Director Jack Loudenberg. "I'm not sure there would be any benefit to such a plan. I think your soccer and football fans are probably two different types of people."
"Football is more of a social thing," said Blade. "I don't think you would be increasing attendance or figures by bringing the two together. I really don't think we could milk any more people to get out there."