Early Morning Matches Draw Out Football Fans
The 90-minute mark approaches, and the Liverpool Football Club is just moments from a decisive 4-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur. The March 30 win gives Liverpool three points, enough to surpass Chelsea and take the top of the ladder in the Barclay’s Premier League in England.
Bobby Trujillo, 30, begins to celebrate with a song celebrating the ascent to the top of the league. Soon he is joined by the rest of the two dozen Liverpool supporters inside Steve’s Greenhouse Grill at First and Adams streets, before 10 a.m. even strikes.
Steve's has become one of two downtown Phoenix homes for local Premier League fan clubs. Supporters of Chelsea F.C. congregate at The Turf, an Irish bar at First and Pierce streets, to watch their team's matches.
Premier League soccer has grown in popularity with Americans. February was the most-watched month for the league in the U.S., with an average of 609,000 viewers, according to a press release from NBC Sports. This was a 76 percent increase from the previous best average of 346,000 in September 2011.
The rise in popularity has made its way to the Valley. Trujillo, a resident of downtown Phoenix, said he was looking for a restaurant that would be open for Liverpool matches this season, which can begin as early as 5:30 a.m. in Arizona. He and a few fellow supporters chose Steve’s because of its central location, and because it opens every day at 6:30 a.m.
“The staff is amazing, the chow’s good, and they take care of us on match days,” Trujillo said, explaining that supporters tend to eat biscuits and gravy and drink Miller Light as they watch a match.
The Phoenix chapter of the Liverpool fan club now boasts 25-30 members on match days at Steve’s, Trujillo said, after starting with just five people. The group reaches out to fellow supporters by social media and word of mouth, but the team’s success acts as an excellent motivator as well.
“Obviously Liverpool’s in fine form as of late,” Trujillo said. “It really helps contribute to the growth of the group.”
Connie Avery, manager of Steve's, said the gatherings started out small but grew each week, with a peak of about 33 people. The restaurant even began opening for a few early morning matches, and the fans bring a great change of pace from the usual slow Sundays.
"Sometimes, they're about the only ones that are in this restaurant," Avery said.
The viewing parties haven't posed a problem so far, Avery said, and the fans can keep coming as long as they want.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," she said.
Just a few blocks north is The Turf, which hosts another Premier League supporter club. The Phoenix Blues, made of Chelsea F.C. fans, began about two years when Adrian Fraijo and a few other fans learned the city was without an official supporters group.
They initially watched matches at the 16th Street Sports Bar, but the restaurant closed when it lost its liquor license. After going without a bar for a couple of months, Fraijo contacted the general manager at The Turf, who agreed to open for the Phoenix Blues in time for the end of the 2012-13 season.
The group has grown to an average of 15- 25 fans who watch almost every match in The Turf, Fraijo said in a phone interview, and the staff in the Irish pub treats them well.
"They always have the game on, with sound, no matter what time of day it is," Fraijo, 30, said. "As soon as our game starts, they'll shut the music off and put on the sound."
The fans usually enjoy breakfast burritos, eggs and toast along with their traditional Guinness during the second half of the match, he said.
Jesse Miceli, the general manager of the Turf, loves having the Chelsea supporters.
"They're an awesome crowd," he said. "It's really cool to see a group of football enthusiasts come out here, especially in America. They've really been a blast to have here as a part our Turf family."
The difference in business between match days and non-match days is noticeable when the bar fills quickly to start the day, Miceli added.
"They're our first customers in," Miceli said. "So usually in the day, it takes a little while for it to all start up and get a roll on. But when the Chelsea people are here, we just instantly have a big group in the morning."
Marketing for viewing parties is left to the fan club, but Miceli said The Turf might look to advertise more toward soccer fans in the future, especially as the sport increases in popularity with the U.S.
"I'd love to get a couple of other football clubs in here," he said. "Probably on another day, just so they're not all fighting with each other a little bit."
The Turf plans to organize viewing parties for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which begins June 12 in Brazil.