LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Before there were the Louisville City Ladies, there was a group of friends who bonded around soccer.
“It was pretty organic,” said Kelly Dettlinger, the group’s Charity Coordinator. “We would all tailgate together. Especially in the beginning of Louisville City, it was such a small core group, we all got to know each other at the little events that happened, our kids doing summer camps with the players and stuff like that. I feel like naturally at tailgates and games you sort of gravitate toward the people you have some things in common with, and that’s how the core group formed.”
Most stood with the Louisville Coopers, who brought the atmosphere to the southwest end of Slugger Field in the club’s formative years. Their friendships – formed over tailgates, purple smoke and plenty of victories – soon became nights out on the town, and a getaway weekend in New Orleans.
In the middle of the good times, though, was an idea. What if they could do more, and find a way to not only get more people to experience what they did through the city’s professional soccer club but try to make Louisville a better community as well?
“That’s who we were from the start,” said Michele Wilkinson, LouCity Ladies President. “That core of 10 people, sitting at tailgates thinking ‘this is great, we’re having fun, we’re drinking, but how many more people could we bring into Louisville City games if we reached out into different spaces in the community?’
“We talked about this, if we as a group of supporters reach out to the other pieces of the community in a way that supports them, we can let them know who we are and who LouCity is – and now Racing [Louisville FC] – and get people who wouldn’t even look at soccer showing up at our stadium to watch a game.”
From there, the LouCity Ladies were born.
“I feel like at the center of the LouCity Ladies has always been our charitable inclinations,” said Dettlinger. “I first started getting involved formally when Michele would say, ‘hey, do you have an opinion on how we could raise money for such-and-such,’ or,’ can you make up a form or a sign to advertise buying tickets here to support a particular organization we were raising money for.’
“I really feel like without the charity part of it, the LouCity Ladies may not exist, but because we all felt so strongly about giving back to the community, we built around that.”
Formed in 2018, the group is one of a collection of women-led supporters’ groups in the United States that back clubs in the USL Championship and League One, the National Women’s Soccer League and Major League Soccer. At the center of the LouCity Ladies’ identity is the idea of giving back to as many groups and organizations as it can, organizing and fundraising for community-driven projects that it can help support and amplify through its approximately 150-member organization.
Who could have seen Louisville, Kentucky becoming a hotbed for professional soccer? Well, one was Wayne Estopinal, Louisville City FC’s founder.
Another? That would be Jan Winter.
You could probably refer to her as the LouCity Ladies’ elder statesperson. You’d be hard-pressed to find many people with a longer connection to the sport than Winter does in Louisville’s community, and she always had a feeling this could happen.
“Louisville has a history of supporting international women’s soccer,” said Winter. “We filled stadiums with a lot of little girls. I’ll never forget the difference in the pitch of the audience at those games, because it was a lot of high-pitched little girls’ voices. We hosted the Nike Cup, which was a victory tour that happened after the U.S. won the World Cup in 1999, and we did so well – we sold out our game.”
35,211 fans packed into Cardinal Stadium to see World Cup winners like Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, both of whom scored twice in a 4-2 win against Brazil.
The reception was so good, Louisville was selected the following year to host games at the 2000 Concacaf Women’s Gold Cup, where more good crowds were on hand.
“We ended up hosting about eight games over 10 days, and practically sold those out as well,” said Winter. “An absolutely stellar experience for everyone that was involved. … When the Louisville City thing started happening, I think we already had some groundwork laid. This city was hungry for more, bigger soccer experiences.”
A professional writer, Winter’s experience as an administrator for those games – which included organizing 800 volunteers – led to other opportunities within the game. She helped edit textbooks for manuals produced by U.S. Soccer and UEFA and got more than just pay for her endeavors. Now her goals are to help others get the unique experiences she’s had through fandom, passing it on to the current group of supporters.
“I just love to encourage them, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of watching their love of the sport grow and take that ownership that says, ‘I don’t just want to go to a game, I want to be a supporter in an official way, and I want to make tifo, and I want to march with the band into the stadium,’” said Winter. “That kind of team ownership is the best, and that where people really start to love the sport. I owe the sport in that way and my efforts now are to keep that growing.”
And in LouCity Ladies, Winter sees the door opening wider for others to come in.
“The service model is the main thing,” she says. “I think they’re setting themselves apart by that responsiveness. It’s not a front office dictate. We’ve been involved in everything from picking a logo to delivering welcome baskets to new players when they’ve come to town. There’s always been that lovely open door that says, ‘this is your team.’”
How can a community-oriented organization succeed and grow when its community is closed?
For LouCity Ladies, it’s been through Zoom, plenty of ideas, and treats for delivery drivers.
“Last year with the pandemic we didn’t get that visibility,” said Wilkinson. “We were used to 8,000, 9,000 fans every game at Slugger, we move into this wonderful new stadium that we can’t wait to show off and we’re locked at less than 5,000, so we didn’t get to do a lot of ‘hey, see what we’re doing.’ Like everything else you did last year, a lot of what we did was virtual, so I think we grew more off reaching out to our community in other ways.”
The sense of stasis around the world didn’t reduce the Ladies’ capacity for creativity. In the past year they’ve found ways to continue their community outreach, with a notable success coming in the buildup to the holiday season in December. While in previous years, toy donations would have been a staple of the large holiday party hosted by the Louisville Coopers that brought together all the elements of – as Wilkinson dubs it – the Purple Family, last winter the drive to benefit Kentucky Refugee Ministries went in large-part online.
“I had the idea,” said Dettlinger. “Why don’t we create a Wishlist on Amazon, everybody can either drop off or ship everything to my house and then we can get together with the team and KRM and we’ll go and drop it all off.”
“Our website manager made a site and put all the information on there and we shared that with our community on Twitter, on Facebook,” added Lillie Mathews. “The different supporters’ group like Scouse’s House, the Lavender Legion, the Coopers, the Black Sheep, everybody helped out, posted that to help people make donations, we were thinking at the beginning we’d be getting a few things, and it would be great.”
The response from fans was rapid. “I had to bribe my UPS and USPS drivers, constantly give them treats to say thank you,” said Dettlinger. So, too, was the response from the club, which allowed Mathews to set up a collection point at the team store. Then there was the effort of the LouCity players, led by Niall McCabe and George Davis IV, who took money from the small fines racked up for team infractions throughout the season by players and went on a local shopping spree of their own.
In all, around 160 families received donations, far outweighing what the group had anticipated going in.
“The look on everybody’s faces when we dropped all of that stuff off was just amazing. That’s what blew me away,” said Dettlinger. “I didn’t expect that much. It’s been a hard year for everyone so I would have been happy with half as much that came in, but I think everyone needed something to feel a little bit more in the Christmas spirit and a little happier this year.”
If there’s a forebear and inspiration to the LouCity Ladies, it can be found at the other end of Interstate 64.
“I’ll be honest with you, St. Louis, the St. Louligans, the Louligan Ladies have always been a big influence on us,” said Wilkinson. “We’ve always watched what they do in their community, how every gameday is a charity day. You hate to give them too much credit when they spent five years being your rival, but we really did look to them. They’re doing it right.”
And at the heart of what LouCity’s Ladies learned from their counterparts at the St. Louligan Ladies, it’s to make sure the door is always open and welcome for newcomers. While the group started small, it’s grown and embraced new arrivals as one of their own.
For Motselisi Moseme, that’s been a beautiful thing.
“The women gave me that opportunity to stay connected and current,” said Moseme. “The other amazing opportunities with this group, we were able – when COVID started – we were able to start meeting via Zoom, so we had Happy Hours and talk about soccer, so we could stay connected, even though there were no games going on.
“I felt like there was this energy that was positive that kept the women connected. I was still new in the group, but they were so welcoming, always reaching out, I didn’t feel like I’m a new member. Not at all. This is a group of women who are welcoming of everyone.”
Moseme had her own close connection to Louisville City FC previously. The wife of Thabane Sutu, who served as the club’s first goalkeeping coach with Head Coach James O’Connor, Moseme regularly attended games. When Sutu joined O’Connor in Orlando while she remained in Louisville to continue her private practice, which specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy, Moseme was looking for a way to remain connected to the club.
Through LouCity Ladies, she found not only a connection but a group that was offering the opportunity to expand the horizons of its members.
“We have women who are open to diversity, who are open, who are accepting of others, who are inclusive, who have passion for the sport and who like to see the sport get support from people from all walks of life, no matter who they are,” said Moseme. “I think people’s opinions as part of the group are really respected and appreciated. I feel just honored to be part of this larger group as a fan of the whole organization of the club, but more specifically to the women who embrace what life is all about.”
Louisville has become a haven for refugees – since 1994, more than 30,800 refugees have been resettled in Kentucky, including just over 4,500 in Louisville in the past five years. That’s resulted in a noticeable rise in the city’s diversity for long-time resident Moseme as newcomers find their own place in the community.
For Winter, the diversity in the crowd that can be found at Lynn Family Stadium and Slugger Field before it reflects how the sport of soccer can bring together people from all different walks of life under one banner.
“It does my heart good to go to the games and see a huge diversity of fans and to know that it’s the sport, that’s what we have in common,” said Winter. “When the games start happening, it’s like an old school reunion. You see everyone you’ve known in soccer. When you’ve been involved in helping the sport develop, helping the statewide effort, you just get to know people through youth soccer, basically when you’re a parent, and it’s so fun. You see people you haven’t seen in a while and it just feels good for Louisville to be able to support that kind of effort, that we can come together to support that team.”
“Coming to the diversity we see now in the stands, in the team, it’s been really satisfying to see that there’s progression in diversity,” added Moseme. “What I always love is when I see the fans, it’s like people are represented from all walks of life in this team, and in friendship as well.
“Then you talk about the women’s team that Louisville has embraced and welcoming that, I think that this is just the beginning. I do feel like when we see this happen, our young people in Louisville, the youth of all walks of life and culture, races, religion, social status, this team is going to really inspire the young generation to see this is what it’s all about, that women can be supported the same way the men are.”
The design of the scarf is bold. So is its message.
“It was one of those ideas that was floating around, waiting for its time,” said Wilkinson, “but as soon as it got brought up the board was like, ‘this is something we really like the idea of, and we want to do.’”
Teaming with the USL Black Players Alliance, LouCity Ladies’ most recent fundraiser was one that hit close to home for both groups. The killing of Louisville resident Breonna Taylor by three officers of the Louisville Metro Police Department served as one of the major focal points of protests that rose up around Louisville and the rest of the United States during 2020. In the wake of those protests, the USL Black Players Alliance was formed by players across the Championship and League One.
When Wilkinson approached the USLBPA in January to discuss the idea of hosting a collaborative fundraiser that would benefit local Louisville organizations in need, the plan quickly came together.
“I mean, one thing with our group, we’re not afraid to be a bit bold and a little bit mouthy. We like to let our opinions be known, whether or not they’re popular,” said Dettlinger. “[The Black Lives Matter movement] is something that speaks loudly to a lot of our group, so we wanted to be able to more to celebrate it and speak out about it.
“One thing that is within our power is to raise awareness and funds, so we were so excited when Michele brought the idea to the table of doing a collaboration and then when the USL Black Players Alliance was on board and George Davis was really interested and suggested the charities.”
Teaming up with Diehard Scarves, the custom design was created and ready for launch on February 1, the first day of Black History Month. The details include the names of some local Louisville residents such as Taylor colored in red, indicating their deaths at the hands of police brutality.
The response from fans – both local and from further afield – was strongly behind the message it sends.
“So many supporters were like, ‘this is amazing,’ ‘I’m so glad we’re doing this, we’re giving a voice to this,’” said Mathews. “I think all along it’s been one of those things where we’re not super-popular, but a lot of people know us, they know the Louisville City Ladies, they know we’re doing the work. Using our voice to support the Black players and let them know that we’re there, we’re here, we’re listening to you and we’re trying to help you get a voice was huge.”
The scarves are getting set to be shipped to those who played their preorders over the past month soon, while the funds raised will go to Louisville Urban League and the Center for Neighborhoods.
Soon, you’ll see them raised aloft at Lynn Family Stadium, and likely other venues around the country.
“We were so excited to see it become bigger and become a more powerful statement, and the scarf itself is beautiful,” said Dettlinger. “I can’t wait to see that being held up within our stadium.”
The LouCity Ladies now number in the hundreds.
In the middle of it all, however, remains Wilkinson, whose ability to pull ideas together and maintain the path ahead continues to draw admiration from others.
“She’s the perfect leader,” said Winter. “Especially for a start-up like this where she’s the energy, the spirit, the inspiration, but she’s never the sole leader. She never needs to be the one making the decisions. She informs us, she facilitates communications, when you’re in any type of volunteer group like that, you need that type of person who personifies the spirit of what you’re trying to get done, and that’s Michele. Get involved, bring your energy, and make new friends.”
From the tailgates with friends, to forming a group that could bring the club and community closer together, the work remains affirming for Wilkinson.
“I’m proud of everything we do,” she said. “I’m like a mom, everything we get involved in I get weepy thinking about all the things we’ve done, I’m like a big, sappy mom, ‘oh, everyone’s so wonderful.’”
It’s the path she and her fellow founders had envisioned. In a unique city with its own vibrant culture of food, music and sport, the LouCity Ladies have carved out their own niche as part of a community that is only just getting started.
“It just became so ingrained in our culture now,” said Mathews. “Getting that stadium – the gorgeous, gorgeous stadium – was where it really brought it home. Soccer is important to us, it means things for our city, and it’s helping players come in, it’s helping jobs, it’s helping the city grow, so I think just having that aspect of it has really cemented the culture for our city.”
“We want Louisville to be known as a city you want to come to,” added Dettlinger. “We’re friendly, we want everybody to be there and have a good time.”
After a year that brought limitations on public interaction, and the impact that could be achieved with it, the bright future that is starting to appear on the horizon is ready to be met by action.
“I don’t think there’s a limit to what the LouCity Ladies can do,” said Wilkinson. “Locally, globally, we’re going to take over the world eventually.”