How NWSL teams are elevating the gameday experience for fans

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Marissa Gencarelli is hard at work on a few small griddles inside what looks like a shipping container on the concourse of CPKC Stadium. It is opening day for the first stadium built specifically for a NWSL team, and Gencarelli is preparing for the oncoming rush of fans to order tacos and nachos.

This isn’t standard stadium fare, however — don’t even think about squeezing artificial cheese sauce out of a dispenser for those nachos.

Gencarelli, along with her husband, Mark, co-own Yoli Tortilleria, which in 2023 won the first outstanding bakery distinction from the prestigious James Beard Awards. Yoli is one of 11 local Kansas City restaurants with a gameday presence at CPKC Stadium, which is the home of the Kansas City Current. The stadium food options range from Joe’s Bar-B-Que, a famous area staple, to acai bowls and gluten-free Thai food.

“Especially for the fans that are not necessarily from Kansas City, but the ones that are coming from outside, they can see how rich and diverse Kansas City is,” Gencarelli told ESPN from her office in Yoli’s manufacturing building just outside downtown. “I think that we always get painted as just barbeque, but in our culinary [scene] we are much more.”

CPKC Stadium is an outlier as the only purpose-built NWSL stadium, but the Current’s approach to an elevated food and fan experience is part of a wider trend in the league — and across sports. Concessions are evolving from the basic stadium menus of hot dogs and fried chicken, and fans with more refined palates have plenty of options, now.

Improving stadium experiences is one of NWSL leadership’s biggest priorities right now. NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman explicitly cited strong facilities as a determining factor in the ongoing expansion bid process in a recent conversation with ESPN.

She has repeatedly stressed the need for current teams in the league to find solutions that put them in control of their gameday experiences. Last week, the Chicago Red Stars expressed their discontent that a newly added music festival at their home stadium has them scrambling for a solution to an overlapping home game that is scheduled to air on national TV.

Building a new stadium is the most drastic and expensive of solutions, though. For now, teams across the NWSL have made efforts to improve the gameday experience in different ways. Offering unique food options is among the lower-hanging fruit, but teams are getting creative.

The Orlando Pride, who share INTER&Co Stadium with MLS’ Orlando City, launched an initiative similar to Kansas City’s in 2023 called “Orlando Made.” The concept brought local, well-known food vendors into the stadium to provide familiar, elevated options for fans on gamedays. “Orlando Made” just won a local award as the best hospitality and dining category.

Orlando’s attendance has historically been relatively poor, and while there’s a long way to go, paid attendance is up 64% this year, according to a Pride spokesperson. Having better food options might not attract a fan who otherwise doesn’t care about soccer to show up to the stadium, but the fan experience is also an important part of fan retention.

On opening day at CPKC Stadium, 49-year-old Eric Kennedy was clad in the Current’s new secondary white-and-teal jersey as he admired the pork and pozole he just bought from Room 39, a farm-to-table restaurant that he frequents in Kansas City. He wasn’t sure how they’d make the concept work in the stadium, but the ancho chili braised pork shoulder with corn pozole and chimichurri was on point.

“I love the stadium,” Kennedy told ESPN. “If they provide good, unique foods at a place, I’ll try them out. I’ve been places with the really soggy chicken tenders and I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ I won’t repeat that. But if they do quality stuff, I’ll pay a little extra for quality.”

At the opposite corner of the stadium, 18-year-old Kate Martorana was standing in line with her dad to purchase her second acai bowl before kickoff. Ruby Jean’s Juicery offers bowls and cold pressed juices more likely to be found at a local health food market than in a sports stadium.

Steps away on the concourse, Gencarelli was busy whipping up barbacoa tacos and a vegan alternative along with house-made chips made from heirloom red and white corn to match the team’s colors. (A teal chip to match the Current’s most dominant color would have been challenging, she joked.)

Yoli uses simple, traditional Mexican recipes and approaches — Gencarelli’s roots are in Sonora — and sources everything locally. Surrounding the conveyer belts at the company’s manufacturing center are bags of different colored corn sourced primarily from Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois.

Kansas City has sold out every game thus far at CPKC Stadium, where the official capacity is 11,500. The Current are the off-field NWSL success story of 2024 (they’re also unbeaten through 13 games) and they have opened the eyes of other team’s ownership groups to the tangible, layered benefits of owning a stadium.

“There are, in general, just so many other opportunities to drive revenue, but to drive long-term fandom and branding in a way that that just isn’t possible if you’re renting in someone else’s facilities,” Current co-owner Angie Long said in March.

Most NWSL teams don’t have that luxury, however, so they’ve improved the fan experience in other ways.

NJ/NY Gotham FC is a second tenant at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, which puts certain limits on how much the team’s home stadium truly feels like home. Still, the defending NWSL champions have found ways to enhance the fan experience outside of the game.

Carolyn Tisch Blodgett, Gotham’s lead operating owner, detailed in a recent interview with ESPN how the team has created a fan festival outside of the stadium on game days. The enhancements run the gamut from music and food trucks to face painting. It’s all a step toward creating a community around and affinity for the team that has not historically existed — not in ample volume, anyway.

“A year ago, we were winning the championship, and we arguably had the best product on the field for 90 minutes — and that is essential,” Tisch Blodgett said. “Every great product, marketing story starts with the best product. We had that — we won the championship. What we didn’t have was the three-hour experience around it that made it a really special event to go to and one that you would want to show up to over and over.”

Gotham ranked in the bottom half of the NWSL in attendance last year, with about 6,300 fans per game. There have been signs of growth this year, including an announced crowd of 11,662 for the team’s most recent home game, against Los Angeles-based Angel City FC.

Tisch Blodgett said that Gotham borrowed ideas from Angel City, which has one of the best gameday experience in the NWSL alongside Kansas City.

Angel City’s is uniquely Los Angeles, with all the pomp and circumstance and celebrity one would expect to make a soccer game more like a full night of entertainment. They can achieve that thanks to the modern, high-end feel of BMO Stadium, but even Angel City faces significant challenges with customizing the stadium as a tenant. (The team’s season-opener in March was rescheduled on short notice due to a scheduling conflict.)

There are other, more subtle upgrades being made to stadiums and fan experiences across the league. Orlando’s recent stadium enhancements including upgraded wi-fi and Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology for retail purchases. Gotham has overhauled its technology for gameday merchandise sales, too.

From food to technology — and, of course, soccer — the NWSL’s new wave of owners inherently understand the league’s position as an entertainment product that needs to attract more people.

“We have that experience in the NFL,” Mark Wilf, owner and chairman of Orlando Pride and Orlando City SC told ESPN. “We know what kind of things the fans want and enjoy and experience, so we’re beginning to make that happen in Orlando and I think the fans are beginning to recognize that.”