Approaching Legends Field on game night, the passion for Kansas City’s new women’s pro soccer team is undeniable. It seems to transcend fandom elsewhere. And in some ways, it does.
It’s so powerful, in fact, that Kansas City Blue Crew organizer Danielle Russell drives three hours each way from Des Moines, Iowa, to attend every KC NWSL home game. She was a follower of now-defunct FC Kansas City, too, her devotion stoked by the success of the U.S. Women’s National Team in the 2012 Olympics.
The Kansas City Blue Crew, the supporters group for the KC NWSL team playing its inaugural season in the National Women’s Soccer League — has grown to well over 200 members. That’s nearly three times the number FC Kansas City had.
Russell isn’t the only out-of-stater who treks to Legends Field for home games, either — Blue Crew members from Texas attended Saturday night’s game.
This sort of reach, and growth, is a relatively new development.
“A lot of us who have been part of the community for the last 10 years, basically before 2015, we had to really fight for attention, fight to get our sport known,” Russell said. “So it’s a community that knows the fans are just as important, and I don’t think you get that in a lot of sports.
“I don’t think you get that in men’s soccer as much, so it’s just special — it’s tight-knit.”
The boisterous Blue Crew fills sections 116 and 118 for every Kansas City home game. Game-day banners hang from the outfield wall. The group’s Twitter account retweets player news, and members engage in friendly banter with fans from other teams.
They tailgate for every game they can, mixing up drinks and laughing and reminiscing. In a nod to the team colors, teal mimosas were on the menu before a recent home game against the Houston Dash. The Blue Crew has fully embraced the branding and mission of the new club, bathing Legends Field in red and teal for every game.
Blue Crew member Anna Fowler, who grew up playing soccer and said she has always been a fan, was in disbelief last year when she heard Kansas City was getting another NWSL team. The collaboration between the fans’ group and owners Angie and Chris Long has been different, she said, than the relationship between supporters of the previous club and its ownership.
“They seem to understand like what a supporters group is for and the soccer culture where the fans are so important to the team,” Fowler said. “We really are a part of it and I couldn’t be more happy with how they’ve handled it.”
The traditional sense of fandom is one thing, but within the realm of women’s soccer there is a deeper connection than fans and their love of sport. There’s an acceptance of everyone, which was on full display at the KC NWSL Pride Night on Saturday.
Blue Crew supporters go to great lengths to ensure that their space is an unconditionally welcoming one. Pride flags drape across the front of the Blue Crew’s seating sections at Legends Field, and if you asked any Blue Crew members if they’re an ally, they would answer with an emphatic “yes.” For “I’ll Go With You,” a program launched Saturday — on Pride Night, appropriately enough — Blue Crew supporters wore pins featuring the transgender flag and an “#IllGoWithYou” hashtag.
During home games, fans can message the Blue Crew Twitter account and someone will arrive to accompany them to the restroom or anywhere else inside the stadium. Russell said she got the idea from the Chicago Red Stars’ fan group last year and implemented it in Kansas City.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing more laws across the country targeting not just the trans community, but the trans youth community with sports,” she said. “Bathroom laws are becoming more common. It’s a program to make sure to let people know that we’re going to be there and be an advocate for you if you don’t feel comfortable … especially for people who might not be out yet, or might not want to get into a confrontation, or might not feel comfortable, especially because of the statistics of violence against the trans community.
“They can just message us, and we’ll go with them. I don’t care if we are on the ball, ready to score a goal — there are things more important than sports, and that’s just basic human rights … We want to make sure everyone feels safe.”
Such ties between women’s soccer, its fans and the LGBTQ+ community are ever-present. The NWSL community has always been accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, Russell said, because women’s soccer fans understand what it’s like to have to fight for support and visibility.
“I think it goes back to fighting for your community, which is something that the LGBTQ population has always had to do,” she said. “So it’s almost a natural fit. I think that in women’s soccer, it’s this small community that’s welcoming and … there’s a lot of women and lesbians and bisexual people in that community because it’s just been an accepting place.
“It’s a place that may be the first time somebody has been able to express themselves, or you can go to games and maybe that’s the first time you saw somebody outwardly gay. The community was accepting at the beginning and it continues to bring people in.”
Sports in general have been an inherently more inclusive space for women in the LGBTQ+ community, because it is a space for those who do not adhere to the societal standard of femininity or gender roles, according to Marissa Ellis, who is a KC NWSL season ticket-holder. As a women’s sports fan and member of the LGBTQ+ community, she recognizes women’s soccer as an inclusive space.
In Ellis’ eyes, as someone pursuing a human relations master’s degree, the fight of women’s sports and their fans and the fight of the LGBTQ+ community are intertwined. The narratives in both communities historically have overlapped, and at their core are in search of inclusion, visibility and acceptance.
The visibility of high-profile LGBTQ+ athletes in women’s soccer underpins this validation that fans find, too. Players such as Megan Rapinoe, who came out publicly in 2012, or Abby Wambach, who came out in 2013, have been outspoken on the field and off.
Their activism hasn’t always been welcomed. In 2016, Rapinoe was the first athlete to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick to protest police brutality against the Black community. But the U.S. Soccer Federation effectively banned her from doing so, implementing a policy requiring players to stand for the anthem.
The attitude towards player protests has come a long way since then. Players with the Orlando Pride, home to married USWNT stars Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris, have worn tie-dyed warm-ups throughout Pride Month proclaiming, “Protect Trans Kids.” And Orlando players continue to kneel for every anthem, as do players on many other NWSL teams.
Ellis said she got chills when she first saw the shirts.
“If you look up and down that roster we’re talking to some of the best female football players, actively like on planet Earth,” Ellis said. “For them to take that stance, that’s such an intentional stance with the platform that they know that they have … it reaches so many people it crosses so many lines.”
Vocal, intentional activism for not just the LGBTQ+ community, but also the Black Lives Matter movement, has fostered another thread of connection between the fans and the players. No matter how much soccer knowledge one might possess initially, this inclusive environment creates fans for life, Fowler said.
“A large chunk of our fan base is part of the queer community, and for the players to speak out and say, ‘You are welcome here, we represent you, we play for you,’ and also people of color, every community,” Fowler said, “everyone is welcome here. It’s so important for everyone to feel welcome.”
The practice of speaking out goes both ways. When an announcer mis-gendered OL Reign midfielder Quinn during a Challenge Cup match earlier this year, fans took to Twitter to call out the mistake: Quinn’s pronouns (they/them) had been listed correctly on the roster, and yet the announcers repeatedly used the wrong ones. Russell said she would like to see the league be more proactive so that sort of situation does not repeat itself.
With Quinn and now Washington Spirit forward Kumi Yokoyama coming out last week as transgender, the fight of the LGBTQ+ community for validation, for support in the sports world, is now — if it wasn’t completely already — adopted by NWSL fans.
The next generation of NWSL fan is being raised in this space, too. Ellis saw families and children throughout Legends Field on Pride Night, and it was a scene she never saw as a kid. It simply didn’t exist.
“Just how many parents and their kids were just fully bought in to that space in that vibe, it was it was really unique to see,” Ellis said. “As a little girl…there were very few spaces where I was able to see representation, people that I identified with.”
Yokoyama played at Legends Field in the Pride Night matchup between Washington and Kansas City in front of 5,157 fans. Fowler said the fact that KC NWSL sponsored a Pride Night is just one example of the progress already made under KC’s new women’s soccer ownership.
She said it felt as though fans had to beg FCKC for a Pride Night, and when they finally got one, it felt performative.
Those days are long gone.
Kansas City’s pride logo was magnified on the video board at Legends Field Saturday — it was the first thing fans saw, in fact, as they walked up to the stadium. KC players wore custom Pride Month jerseys, which they later signed to be auctioned off, with proceeds going to the KC Pride Alliance.
Pride flags flew across the stadium, and the game was promoted for weeks ahead of time across social media.
“To have all this stuff means that it’s very important to this front office,” Russell said. “They want to make sure to support the community, and it’s not just done because they have to.”