Looking For A Leg Up

Bars, Hotels Embrace Soccer Fans (and Their Cash) As 2 Top Clubs Square Off Tonight At M&t Bank Stadium

July 24, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

The doors at Slainte, an Irish pub in Fells Point, will open early today, and by midafternoon the place should be packed with soccer fans, many of them headed for M&T Bank Stadium.

Bill Irvin, director of operations at the pub and restaurant, knows what's in store - he's witnessed similar scenes for televised broadcasts of top international soccer matches many times before.

Baltimore, on the other hand, might be in for something much different from anything it has ever seen as two of the world's elite soccer clubs, Chelsea FC and AC Milan, square off at 8 p.m. before a flag-waving, anthem-chanting sellout crowd of more than 71,000 at a venue typically reserved for American football.

"The guys that are into this are more raging lunatics than Ravens fans," said Irvin, whose pub will serve a four-hour, $35 all-you-can eat buffet beginning at noon. "When these guys come in, everyone always has a jersey, a scarf. They've got bongos. ... They're nuts."

They typically spend with the same fervor with which they chant.

If estimates from city and state officials are on target, the soccer faithful will help contribute between $14 million and $20 million to the local economy this weekend. For those who think that Ravens-Steelers or Orioles-Yankees games are the measuring stick against which all Baltimore sporting events should be judged, this matchup, part of an eight-day, six-city U.S tour featuring three top clubs from Europe and one from Mexico, might raise the stakes.

"It's historic," said Anirban Basu, whose Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group conducts economic impact studies, adding that Friday's game will generate "two to three times" what a big Ravens' home game typically would.

Basu said that, in terms of bringing in out-of-town fans, the impact of the event is comparable to that of an Army-Navy football game. State officials said that matchup, last played in Baltimore in 2007, brought in about $20 million.

"It's been crazy, nuts," said Irvin, who said he expects to do 30 percent more business today than on an average Friday. "I've had 15 people calling for tickets every half-hour."

City hotels, restaurants and bars are expected to benefit most from the influx of fans this weekend. Most of the downtown hotels are full, according to reservation agents, and nearby bars are bracing for big crowds as well.

Paul Leader, an Englishman who is director of event management for the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, said he attributes a recent pickup in business to the game. A Chelsea fan since 1970, he will attend the game with his family and also purchased 50 tickets for hotel guests.

"This event is unique in a way because it has such an international as well as national following behind it," said Terry Hasseltine, director of the 11-month-old Maryland State Office of Sports Marketing, which was partly responsible for bringing the event to Baltimore. "You're bringing in two of the most high-profile international soccer teams in the world and putting them in our backyard."

Daraius Irani, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute in Baltimore, said that "novelty" events such as this, especially those with a rabid and large fan base, are relatively immune to the pressures of a recession.

"Soccer fans are such die-hards, the lack of economic prospects is not going to affect their desire to see the game," Irani said. "This is much bigger than your typical Ravens game."

Added Mayor Sheila Dixon: "It's a great opportunity because in a lot of cities, the hotels are not getting the numbers, the people are not taking the vacations, the conferences have been downsized."

To have 71,000 people in town for a soccer match, she added, will give many area businesses a much-needed lift.

Even some aficionados of the sport have been amazed at the buzz the match has created.

As he finished off a late-afternoon cocktail Thursday, Slainte regular and Chelsea supporter Adrian Stupski said that he was "shocked" the game had sold out. Stupski, who has followed Chelsea since its games were first televised in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, said he went to RFK Stadium in Washington in 2004 to watch his favorite club square off against D.C. United.

"They filled the lower bowl and had something like 30,000 [fans], and I thought that was pretty good," Stupski said. "I'm so taken aback by the interest. It makes me proud."

The sellout - the only one so far on a tour that has included stops at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta - bodes well as Baltimore tries to position itself for more marquee matches in the future. The U.S. hopes to play host to soccer's premier event, the World Cup, in 2018 or 2022, and Hasseltine said Baltimore is on a "short list" of 48 U.S. cities in the mix to host games. That list will be trimmed to 20 later next month, he said.

"An event like Chelsea-AC Milan opens the eyes, it allows others to see there's a huge culture of sports that could be here," Hasseltine said.

Added Leader, the hotel executive and Chelsea fan: "It's brilliant, having two of the top five teams in the world in Baltimore. Bring 'em back next year."

By the numbers

$14 million-$20 million

Projected economic impact from Chelsea-AC Milan game

$20 million

Economic impact from 2007 Army-Navy game

source: city and state officials

Inside

Fans wait outside the stadium to glimpse heroes. Sports, PG 1

World Football Challenge

AC Milan vs. Chelsea FC

When:

Tonight, 8

TV: ESPN

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