Washington Freedom vs. Chicago Red Stars
April 11, 2009
I remember this April weekend in 2009 very well. It was the third weekend of play during the inaugural season of Women’s Professional Soccer. Four of the league’s seven franchises had already played their home openers and two more would open on Saturday evening, April 11th. My Boston Breakers club debuted against St. Louis Athletica at Harvard Stadium and the Washington Freedom faced the Chicago Red Stars at the SoccerPlex in Germantown, Maryland.
In those early days of WPS, the league office convened a conference call every Wednesday afternoon to report on ticket sales for the upcoming weekend. Remarkably, WPS didn’t employ anyone at the national office level who had a background in ticket sales and crowd building. The call was moderated each week by a well-intentioned attorney who freely admitted he knew nothing about the subject at hand. The calls quickly devolved into excuses about weather and boring summations of the street team activities of various clubs scrambling to hand out flyers in the final 72 hours before kickoff.
At that time there was little appreciation of the fact that the box office fate of these events had been sealed months earlier – during the critical off season campaigns for season ticket and group sales. WPS’ stated attendance goal for the inaugural season was 4,000 to 6,000 paid tickets per game. The clubs that neglected or botched the fundamentals of advance ticket sales during the winter now faced anemic pre-sales of 1,500 to 2,000 fans per match. When spring arrived they became slaves of the Weather Gods – entirely dependent on the fickle fortunes of walk-up attendance to meet the league’s targets.
On this particular week in early April 2009, the big cause of indigestion inside WPS was the Washington Freedom home opener. The Freedom featured the brilliant American striker Abby Wambach, who was expected to be one of the league’s two top gate attractions, along with the Brazilian superstar Marta of the Los Angeles Sol. The Freedom played in the 5,000-seat Maryland SoccerPlex, whose limited seating capacity provided the perception of scarcity and urgency to buy that typically fuels healthy advance sale efforts. But 72 hours before kickoff, the Freedom had only around 2,500 tickets sold for their big debut. A bad number would reflect poorly on Wambach’s drawing card status.
But Wambach wasn’t the problem (in fact, she would prove a massive draw for WPS following the 2011 World Cup). The problem lay in the Freedom front office, where the family that owned the Freedom initially appointed their longtime accountant to run the organization. The other WPS clubs were split in their approach towards organizational leadership. Some appointed “soccer guys”, such as New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC, whose Head Coach Ian Sawyers also led the organization as General Manager. Others appointed “business development guys”, such as Chicago Red Stars CEO Peter Wilt, who orchestrated the successful launch of Chicago’s Major League Soccer franchise a decade earlier. The Freedom went in a third direction and fell on their face. The accountant was relieved of his position five days before the start of the 2009 season and replaced by Mark Washo, a long-time Major League Soccer executive who specialized in ticket and sponsorship sales. But by then it was too late to save the home opener.
Worse yet, the Freedom-Chicago Red Stars match was scheduled to be the national game-of-the-week on Fox Soccer Channel. If the tiny stadium was half empty, fans all over the country would notice it every time a goalkeeper punted the ball and the cameras panned up.
The Freedom got lucky. The weather was great and the team drew strong last-minute and walk-up sales of well over 1,000 tickets during the final days and hours before kickoff. It looked fine on TV. WPS officials huddled on the sideline during the second half and made an adjustment to the league policies governing attendance calculations. That’s a polite way to say they just made it up. The official attendance number was jacked by 1,000 or so to get the number up over 5,000 (5,028 officially).
Back in Boston, I grumbled. The bogus Freedom gate number temporarily bumped our club to last place in the league attendance rankings! Our walk-up crowd for the Breakers home opener on the same night was fewer than 100 fans due to a driving sleet-and-rain storm. We drew a legit 4,804 and more than two thirds of the those tickets were purchased over a month in advance. On the other hand, we had to admit that we put ourselves in position to be embarrassed that way by not doing a better job with our own advance sales.
After Mark Washo settled in at the Freedom, the team’s ticket sales fortunes improved considerably. Washo assembled the largest and most experienced sales staff in the league, bringing in young account executives and department heads from the NBA and the NHL. During the league’s second season in 2010, the Freedom posted the highest ticket sales growth in WPS. Washo also spearheaded league-wide collaboration and training of sales staffs in late 2009 and 2010. However, Freedom ownership pulled out of WPS after the 2010 season over frustration with the direction of the league. The loss of the Freedom and the Chicago Red Stars (a well-run ship who shifted to the semi-pro WPSL) in late 2010, was a real “death of hope” moment for the league and was the moment when the tide of professionalism in WPS crested and began to roll back. There was no more serious internal discussion of revenue growth in WPS after 2010 as all attention turned towards cost cutting.
Thank you to former Washington Freedom Supporters Group member Kevin Parker (@StarCityFan on Twitter) for providing the rare game program from this match at the top of this post. That’s Freedom midfielder Allie Long on the cover. Kevin provided a complete set of 2009 and 2010 Freedom match programs to FWiL, which you can find in our WPS program archive here.