Loudoun United’s acquisition by Attain Sports and Entertainment has provided the team with a certain level of independence that they were unable to realize onfield before, but the growth of the off-field team is also a pleasant surprise. Heading into last Saturday’s game, the team was averaging a little more than 2,500 fans per game in 2023, about half of Segra Field’s capacity. While that number is near the bottom in terms of USL Championship side attendance figures, the number nearly doubles the average attendance from its inaugural season in 2019. Ahead of the biggest game in team history, hosting the Columbus Crew in the U.S. Open Cup, we spent time recently with Doug Raftery, Loudoun’s Executive Business Officer, to get a sense of how much has been done and yet to do with the team.
District Press: How have things changed since we spoke before when you came aboard, and the switchover to (Attain), and thoughts on things this year compared to past ones on or off-field?
Doug Raftery: When I got here, it was the building of the staff and getting that off the ground, and building a team that was excited to come to Loudoun County and represent Loudoun and position the club in a different way. The on-field challenges the club has dealt with was a difficult thing, to tell the story of the soccer that I experienced in my past. I think if you’re a fan that has come in the past, you immediately see the difference (now). We’re hearing it from our season ticket members that it’s turning into a more enjoyable type of soccer. And I think Ryan (Martin) has more flexibility now to coach how he really wants to coach. And with the acquisition being announced earlier this year, we knew what was happening for some months before that, and that has helped us off the field. We’ve seen a lot of growth off the field and have done a lot of good things, (but) I think we still have a lot of work to do.
DP: Talk a little bit more about the off the field growth.
DR: I think the reason why is part of it comes from having consistent people and focus. You’re having the same ticket sales members going to Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce events, integrating into the community, making sure they’re out there, setting meetings with businesses, and building relationships with youth soccer clubs. And we hadn’t really had that flexibility to do that in the past because of the lack of dedicated full-time staff. We’re big on grassroots and getting in there and our players are fully bought in. We know the guys who are going to be on the roster, and they can be relatable, rather than having a roster that’s bouncing around like we had in the past, so that we can make them be a face in the schools. We’ve probably (gone to) at least 15 or 20 elementary schools in the area. We’re building out an assembly program that will do clinics and stuff, and the schools have been so open and welcoming. And the kids are going back to their parents with information about Loudoun United, and just the time spent is starting to pay dividends.
DP: Speaking for myself, you can definitely see that work out and about in my area. Is that a big liberty in terms of getting the chance to do that, or have there been other things (about the ownership change) that you didn’t expect?
DR: I think (the liberty) has been. From the transition to Attain Sports, that is their number one thing, that you need to be in the community before you expect the community to come out to you. That has been repeated many times and we’re fully onboard. As a staff, it’s easy to sit behind a screen and place digital ads, but it can’t be the only thing. Also, the roster consistency is going to help us in the community, so that players can see these kids when they run onto the field for post match kids’ kick, or they’re signing autographs, you won’t believe the amount of kids that I see run on the field for kids’ kick or getting autographs. And they’re giving them high fives and saying ‘oh man, I saw you at school last week!’ that stuff is so cool.
DP: What’s it like working with Attain? What were you expecting when they came on board, what’s been a nice surprise since they’ve been on board?
DR: They have a year under their belts working with similar level teams, with the Frederick Keys and Bowie Baysox. And the teams that are looking to do similar things to us in terms of the community, we all interconnect. We’re all sharing ideas, they’ll share what works, and that interconnectivity has been a nice surprise. Having that come from a high level is different than working from team to team, because you can get caught up in the minutae of your organization, and you can forget to share ideas with others sometimes. And as I do, they want more things and events in the stadium. We’re excited to be launching some different events in the near future that we’re excited about. A concert series is one of those that will be held in our front concourse starting in June, but there’s some exciting things coming down the pipeline. We’re in some conversations about late fall and winter timeframe and how to use (Segra) year-round.
DP: What types of differences have there been in Loudoun compared to your past places?
DR: Well I’m in a soccer stadium now! I kid, but there are a few things in Reno we had, like multiple supporters’ groups. And in Loudoun, we’ve had the Stampede, and they’ve grown, have had some solid attendance and we’re having active conversations about sound, and how do we build that supporters’ culture, whether that’s high schools, or even colleges, and what would be taking it on as a club to help the Stampede. Also, we don’t have our own kitchen, but it provides cool flexibilities like food trucks, (and) the variety and coolness factor. And then the youth soccer landscape around here is way different than Reno, in terms of the number of kids that play and the number of kids you can relate to when you go into the schools. There is so much opportunity and there’s so much support that is now coming from the soccer landscape.
DP: In terms of partnerships, we’ve seen more with the team, such as with the vendors, and with (jersey sponsor) Betfred and a recent partnership with Bold Rock Cider, are we in the infancy stage of that with Loudoun?
DR: Very much in the infancy. That’s really my background, in corporate partnerships, it’s an area we need to grow in and that grows with more fan support. But now, as we host businesses in our community, it’s a different feel than it was, even in 2022. A business owner can come out and truly see what we’re doing and look at the stadium and have a respectable enough number in their to consider a partnership. And I’m hopeful that those owners and marketing directors who are now coming out to the stadium are seeing the fruits of our labor.
DP: When we talked before you were getting the metaphorical child from crawling to walking, so now it’s kind of in a better position now. So what are the things that you’re looking at to get them to run or ride the bike?
DR: I think it’s a great opportunity for us to think about our identity. And I don’t have an answer for this (now), but how do we create our own identity from the ownership change? I think the on-field product will be helpful in that, but I think that’s a step we as a club need to make. And we’re still putting plans around that, of how do we make noise in that aspect and be respectable? We love that D.C. United is still involved, and Jason (Levien) is a great dude, and I still have phone calls all the time with him. I think (our identity) is still a mystery but it needs to happen, creating that and getting Loudoun to a point where it’s consistently drawing thousands of fans. While our (season ticket member) base is still fairly low, we have tripled it from late 2021. So that’s the next step, building the base, and then part two is events. Building out more events, we are hopeful to land some friendlies down the road. We’re hopeful to build out movies at the pitch with a video board that will be installed soon. We’re working with the Taste of Nova, (and) that’s a huge even that’s going to draw a lot of people in, and all that’s going to hit Loudoun United, so everything works hand in hand.
DP: MLS comes to town Wednesday. Talk about what is in the hopper.
DR: Wednesday’s massive. Once Saturday ended, we met Sunday morning, and we continue to go. We have a five-page document that we’re activating off of for this Columbus game, we’ve had eight days to move around the community, and it’s going back to everyone and anyone who we’ve worked with to ask to come out and support. We’re positioning it as the biggest game in Loudoun United history, and I don’t know how you can argue that at least on the field. The Open Cup is so cool, for the fact that it’s something that’s existed for more than 100 years. And we honestly didn’t know that we were going to be in it until very, very late, and the (Attain) acquisition was a main piece of that. I found out a couple of days before the announcement happened and we rushed to submit everything we needed to submit. And here we are in the Round of 32. It’s a great opportunity, for what looks to be a nice weather day for youth soccer clubs, typically a practice night. But skip your training, the educational factor of seeing an MLS team in a 5,000 seat stadium does not happen all that often. I think in the end, the goal is to come together as a community and how do we continue making a run at this thing, and educate people on what the Open Cup is. Having an MLS team come to the stadium, being able to showcase what we’ve got to our community, it makes a bit of a different statement than just hosting USL Championship games.
DP: Is there anything that you wanted to add before we sign off?
DR: I’m obviously a face, but my team works their tails off, and kudos to all of them, it doesn’t happen without a lot of work. This industry is known for beating you up a little bit at times, and they’ve stuck in it, where we’ve made some internal promotions and progressions, and brought on some good people with some really good experience in past places, so that’s a large piece of it, I can only do so much.