If you happen to be walking along the Ocean City Boardwalk between Fifth and Sixth streets one evening this summer, you might want to crane your neck away from the ocean.
Down on the field at Carey Stadium behind Ocean City High School, the Ocean City Barons men's soccer team just might be the entertainment bargain your family has been looking for.
The Barons are a Premier Development League club and are a member of the United Soccer Leagues. The players do not have professional status. With this arrangement, elite men's college players are allowed to be on the roster without losing their NCAA eligibility.
Combine that high quality of play with reasonable ticket prices of $6 per adult and $4 per child, and you have a winning combination of soccer by the seaside.
"Ocean City has a great family atmosphere," Neil Holloway, a native of England who serves as the coach and general manager of the Barons, told me. "We try to attract fans to the game by doing unique things like halftime shootouts and throwing balls into the crowd whenever we score goals. We're part of a resort community and we like to show people a good time, whether they're on vacation or are one of the locals coming out to watch the match."
The Barons host the Albany (N.Y.) Admirals 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 23. The team is coming off a 2-2 tie last Saturday night against the host Delaware Dynasty. In that game, the Barons trailed 2-0 before Ocean City High School alumnus Rich Baker scored twice to rally the visitors. The Barons enter Friday's game with a record of 3 wins, 1 loss and 4 ties.
But Barons games are about more than just soccer. There is a full-service concession stand and souvenir station, and area youth teams play games on the field prior to kickoff. Youngsters in the crowd also are picked to be ballboys during the actual Barons game.
For the May 13 game against the Williamsburg (Va.) Legacy, the Mainland United local youth club out of Linwood brought more than 100 players and parents to the match to watch a coed game of Under-8s and Under-9s on the Carey Stadium field.
"It was a great experience for the young players," said Linwood resident Carole Weidman, the president of Mainland United. "They were excited to play on such a big field in front of their family and friends, and then they were able to stick around and get a glimpse of what high-level soccer looks like by watching the Barons play."
Formed in 1996 as the South Jersey Barons, the men's team was rebranded the Ocean City Barons prior to the 2005 season. The umbrella organization, which is based in Winslow Township and is made up of women's and youth clubs, still uses the South Jersey name.
The Ocean City Barons are now run by club president John Granese of Ocean City and vice president Russ McPaul of Washington Township.
Granese, a native of Italy and a huge fan of Italian club Inter Milan, is the Barons' biggest supporter.
"I've played soccer all my life," Granese said. "I've been a coach in Ocean City and have organized adult leagues. This is a great organization. I live here, and Russ (McPaul) has a summer home here. We want this team to be part of the community."
To that end, the Barons have lined up a significant number of sponsors. More than 30 on-field advertising signs line the field at each home game. That kind of local support makes a big difference to the squad.
"For two years, the team was without a permanent home venue and the franchise did not have a community to identify itself with," Holloway said. "We are very excited to have formed a relationship with Ocean City and to be called the Ocean City Barons."
That bond with the community was on full display on a Monday night in early May at Girasole restaurant in Atlantic City. Owner Gino Iovino, a sponsor of the team, opened his eatery to the team and its local backers to celebrate the kickoff of the 2006 season.
As Holloway reeled off a litany of the team's accomplishments, the applause coming from the more than 200 in attendance was genuine. These weren't corporate suits but real fans who will take their children to the games. It's that kind of committed, involved fan base that makes Barons games a great night out for kids and parents alike.