The Boston Brawlers were an misbegotten minor league football effort that managed two stage just two games at Harvard Stadium in the fall of 2014 before evaporating. The Brawlers were part of a start-up called the Fall Experimental Football League which suddenly popped up in three cities (Boston, Brooklyn, Omaha) in the summer of 2014 with virtually no advance publicity, sales effort or investors . (A fourth team, the “Florida” Blacktips had no home base and rounded out schedule as a travel-only squad).
The Brawlers’ biggest name was quarterback Tahj Boyd. Boyd, the 2012 ACC Player-of-the-Year at Clemson, was the 6th round draft pick of the New York Jets earlier in 2014. After getting cut in training camp, Boyd latched on with the Brawlers for a couple of games.
The Brawlers played in the league’s debut game on October 8th, 2014, losing 41-18 to the Omaha Mammoths at TD Ameritrade Park in Nebraska. Meanwhile, back in Boston, the Brawlers neglected to do any local promotion, short of an agreement to air a few game broadcasts on NESN, the Red Sox-owned cable network. Boston Globe sportswriter Stan Grossfeld, who covered the team’s second and final appearance at a near-empty Harvard Stadium in November 2014, noted that the team’s pugilistic logo “looks more like V.I. Lenin than John L. Sullivan”.
On November 7, 2014 30 days after the FXFL debuted, league founder Brian Woods announced the cancellation of the league’s final regular season contest and championship game. After the season, many FXFL players complained on social media of unpaid salaries.
Surprisingly, the FXFL returned to play in 2015 with a new business model. Brooklyn returned, but gone were the major/mid-major markets of Boston and Omaha. In their place, the FXFL formed partnerships with minor league baseball operators to handle promotion and operations. The Brawlers were re-purposed as the Mahoning Valley Brawlers, to be operated by the Mahoning Valley Scrappers baseball team in Niles, Ohio.
That’s former Dartmouth All-American Kristin Luckenbill on the cover of the match day program for the Breakers. Luckenbill was a player whose career was severely derailed by the collapse of the previous women’s pro league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, in 2003. The WUSA’s Carolina Courage drafted Luckenbill in 2001 and she quickly earned the starting position, helping the Courage to a Founders Cup title and winning WUSA Goalkeeper-of-the-Year honors in 2002. When the WUSA closed its doors in September 2003, Luckenbill was 24 years old and on the verge of making the U.S. National Team for the first time (she would win Olympic Gold as a reserve for the U.S. at Athens in 2004).
The rest of the 2000’s was a lost decade for women’s players of Luckenbill’s generation. With no pro league in North America, Luckenbill played occasionally for semi-pro clubs in Vermont and Indiana. By the time Women’s Professional Soccer debuted in April 2009, Luckenbill was a month away from turning 30 years old. She won the Boston Breakers starting job in training camp, but struggled with inconsistency throughout the first half of the season while the Breakers as a team underperformed lofty pre-season expectations.
On this evening Luckenbill was outdueled by the current U.S. National Team star goalkeeper, Hope Solo of St. Louis Athletica. Boston outshot St. Louis 17-7 and controlled the run of play, but English international Eniola Aluko scored the game’s only goal, beating Luckenbill in the 43rd minute off an assist fromKendall Fletcher. Final: St. Louis 1 – Boston 0.
The following month Luckenbill lost her starting job to rookie Ali Lipsher of Duke and the veteran was not re-signed by Boston for the 2010 season. Luckenbill appeared in a handful of games for Sky Blue FC in WPS in 2010 before announcing her retirement later that year.
The league got some nice pub for its early-adopter Twitter strategy. But by the time the second season of WPS kicked off in April 2010, it still wasn’t clear what the payoff was going to be. The social strategy was not complemented by an effective marketing mix nationally or at the franchise level. WPS started to become all Twitter, all the time. And despite the eye-popping numbers for @womensprosoccer, the individual WPS franchises and their star players toiled in digital obscurity. All nine clubs had fewer than 5,000 Twitter followers at the start of the 2010 season. The league’s stars had comparable numbers back then – Hope Solo of St. Louis Athletica was near the top with about 4,500 followers. (During the 2011 Women’s World Cup, the USWNT players separated from the pack. WPS club followings stayed stuck in the low four figures while stars like Solo and Alex Morgan surged into the hundreds of thousands).
Most of the Twitter content was also deathly dull and self-serving. Teams begged on Twitter for Facebook Likes…so that they could turn around and ask their Facebook fans to follow them on Twitter. Funny, inspiring and compelling player tweets were lost in an ocean of cautious cliches about team performance or summaries of take out orders from Panera Bread.
Sometime around the spring of 2010 I tweeted to my @BreakersGM followers that I was looking forward to the next breakthrough – the day that WPS fined or suspended a player for a controversial tweet. Privately, I had two likely suspects in mind. One was the former USWNT midfielder Natasha Kai who appended vaguely profane, self-consciously outrageous hashtags (#BOOM BAM MADA FAKA, #SEXINACUP) to the most mundane of daily activities, such as going to Starbucks or picking up her laundry. The other – edgier and more authentic – was Solo, whose competitive process seemed to require the presence of off-the-field adversaries. Real ones when available, manufactured ones when necessary.
It was an emergency addition to the WPS schedule, added in late May after St. Louis Athletica owner Jeff Cooper defaulted on his payroll and abruptly folded his club in mid-season. The Breakers were scheduled to play Athletica at home on Saturday, June 5th the week after the team shut down. A strong (by WPS standards) pre-sale of around 5,000 tickets went up in smoke and the match was cancelled.
The only available date to plug the hole in the schedule was on a Wednesday night in August against the Beat. The marketing budget was gone. The game didn’t appear on any of our team’s printed marketing collateral, produced months before the season. The Wednesday night date was such a loser, we instructed our sales staff to ignore the game altogether and focus all of their efforts on our remaining weekend dates. We would have drawn better playing on the moon on New Year’s Eve.
It was the smallest crowd in the history of the Breakers – about 1,500 fans. I announced over 3,200 as an act of impotent vengeance at Jeff Cooper for costing us a 5,000+ paid gate for the cancelled Athletica match. Among those few who did show up were 20 or so core members of the Breakers supporters group, the Riptide.
Supporters culture really doesn’t exist for women’s soccer at the club level. It’s a group sales driven business, with most fans attending only one game a year and no opportunity to follow all of a team’s games on TV. Unlike the USWNT fan base, the core audience of WPS (and WUSA before it) was defined by its casualness, with too little passion and too little knowledge of the game and its players to foster much genuine fanaticism. Turning that argument on its head – there’s a strong case that the sport’s investors have shown too little staying power to allow deep bonds and fanaticism to take root.
Small independent groups in a few WPS cities tried to change this. LaClede’s Army in St. Louis, Local 134 in Chicago and the Riptide in Boston created dues-paying memberships, established their own websites, and turned WPS matches into day-long parties, starting with tailgating and ending with organized chanting, signing, drumming and opponent-baiting during the matches.
The Riptide were one of the biggest and loudest of these groups. Most were veterans of the Midnight Riders, the largest supporters group of the New England Revolution in MLS. Like all supporters groups worth their salt, they were independent of the front office, but I met with them once or twice a year to see what they needed. We gave them their own standing section, where they could stand and sing for the whole match without having casual fans ask them to sit down.
For their part, they pledged – without me really even asking – to tone down some of the more profane aspects of MLS supporters culture, in recognition of the fact that much of the Breakers audience was families and young girls. Specifically, they promised that “YSA” would have no place at Breakers games. YSA is supporters short hand for the You Suck, Asshole chant that accompanies opposing goal kicks at some MLS stadia and has become the symbol of an ongoing identity debate within the men’s league.
For all their spirit, the Riptide were small in number – maybe 50 fans in the 8,000 seats we used for Breakers matches. So at the start of the 2009 season, I hired a Brazilian band director named Marcus Santos and his percussion group Afro Brazil to stand behind the Riptide and augment their sound. I wasn’t sure how they’d get along – Afro Brazil could raise a ruckus and easily drown out the Riptide if they pleased. But during the very first match, despite some language barriers between the Riptide and some of Marcus’ drummers, they learned to coordinate Afro Brazil’s beat with the Riptide’s chants.
From that first night they were locked in. The chemistry between the Riptide and Afro Brazil was immediate and powerful. Fans (and broadcasters) perceived them as one unified supporters group and I was careful to always be coy about that fact that we paid Afro Brazil to be there. It felt like a joyous, multi-cultural party of professional musicians and soccer fans that organically broke out in Section 15 every night and it created this cool effect that made every Harvard Stadium crowd feel much bigger than it was.
One night in 2009 I was standing on the field with Mark Kastrud, President of the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse, who also played at Harvard Stadium. He could eyeball-count a crowd as good as anyone. The Riptide/Afro Brazil were roaring along in full rhythmic fury across the stadium.
“There must be 10,000 people here tonight,” Mark said.
The real number was about half that.
There were less than a thousand people in Harvard Stadium when the Beat game kicked off that Wednesday night in August. And it felt like even less because Afro Brazil couldn’t make the date on short notice. Perhaps two dozen Riptide members showed up, standing very much alone in the front two rows of Section 15. The Revolution played a Mexican team in the semi-finals of the SuperLiga tournament at Gillette Stadium that night, and many of our regulars went to that match instead, since they were also Midnight Riders. Harvard Stadium was a morgue that night – dead, empty, lifeless. To use a cliche you could hear a pin drop, let alone a racial epithet screamed.
You can hear the subdued crowd noise on this scouting video, shot from the press box. At the 0:34 second mark, you get a brief glimpse of a lonely group of about 15 chanting fans standing along behind a banner behind the corner flag. These are the Riptide supporters at issue in the story, and you will also see the Redbones hospitality tent referenced below.
But if me and my front office team wrote the game off, the Breakers did anything but. Our English striker Kelly Smith scored on Solo forty seconds into the match to put Boston up 1-0. She added a second goal in the 62nd minute and the Breakers pressured Solo all night, while Breakers keeper Alyssa Naeher held the Beat scoreless.
During the first half, I sat a few rows behind the Riptide with Alyssa Naeher’s dad. At halftime, the teams changed sides. Mr. Naeher followed Alyssa to the other side of the field and I descended down to the hospitality tent behind the goal in front of the Riptide and Section 15. There were a couple of guests who stood out in the tent that night. 2-3 guys who were friends of Hope Solo and were somehow connected to the equipment management or athletic training staff for U.S. Soccer. They were hard to miss, or rather one guy was. I really don’t know if I can do him justice. He had this rural meth cook aesthetic going on that was so contrived and over the top that a few of my staff members surmised he came straight to the game from a costume party. If you were looking for a dude to sell you bad weed in the parking lot of the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds before a Night Ranger concert in 1985, you would make a beeline for this guy’s El Camino.
Anyway, I can’t remember if he and his crew crashed the VIP tent or if we offered them a courtesy upgrade knowing they were guests of a player, but it didn’t matter. We had plenty of Redbones barbecue to go around in light of the tiny crowd and I was happy to see them knocking back $8.00 Budweisers at the cash bar to fatten the evening’s meager concessions take.
Late in the match, with the game sewn up 2-0 for the Breakers, I wandered down to the other end of the field and struck up a conversation with Fitz Johnson, the owner of the Beat. The whistle blew while we were talking and the players began their warm down. After a few minutes, players from both teams started trickling off the field towards autograph alley. Solo walked over, said a few pleasantries to Johnson and gave him a quick hug. He told her “good game” or “keep your head up” or something along those lines, and she casually walked off the field toward the Beat locker room.
My post-game ritual was to lock myself in Harvard’s hockey rink box office with our banker, a police detail, a case of cold beer and the night’s game receipts. As the other Breakers staff members closed out their areas, they would come by for a cold one, to pick at whatever leftover BBQ was to be had from the VIP tent, and to decompress. On a good night, the money count might take two hours. Tonight it took 20 minutes. The number on the bank deposit slip made me nauseous. Pass the beer please.
Half an hour after the game, there were still a handful of Breakers players signing autographs outside. The staff started to trickle in. A PR assistant twiddled with her iPhone and said:
“Wow. Hope Solo is blowing up on Twitter right now.”
“No kidding? What’s she saying?” I asked. This is what she was saying:
“To all the Boston fans and especially the young children that I didn’t sign autographs for I’m sorry. I will not stand for … An organization who can so blatantly disrespect the athletes that come to play. Perhaps the WPS or Boston themselves … Can finally take a stance to the profanity, racism and crude remarks that are made by their so called ‘fan club’ … To the true fans, I hope to catch you at the next game. Thanks for your support and love for the game.
Whoa. The “R” word. The nuclear option. Was this the same person I saw amble off the field less than a half hour ago?
“That’s crazy. I just saw her. Walked right up to Fitz Johnson, gave him a hug and didn’t say a word.”
At first I was perplexed. I’d been near the Riptide all night. First sitting in their section for the first half, then down in the VIP tent right in front of them. I radioed John Cunningham, the Breakers Operations Director and a respected ops guy used by FIFA for tournament work around the globe. During games John sat at the fourth official’s table, right next to the visitors bench. The Beat bench was about 15-20 yards from the Riptide section and on this night, both the bench and the fourth official’s table were within easy earshot of the only 20 people singing and chanting in the nearly empty stadium
John just started laughing in disbelief. “Are you serious? I didn’t hear anything besides the usual Riptide stuff. You know, telling her she sucked and chanting “Brianna would have made those saves” at her.
I asked Leslie Osborne, the Breakers Captain, to ask around the locker room. The Breakers dominated play that night and spent most of the evening in the attacking half. Whatever Hope heard or experienced during the second half may well have been heard or experienced by some of the 7-8 Breakers who spent most of that half lining up shots at her. Leslie was stupefied.
“Just ask,” I said.
Nothing, Leslie reported 20 minutes later, other than a few “Hope being Hope” comments from the peanut gallery.
By the time I got home after midnight, I was moving from puzzled to pissed. Because it began to dawn on me that determining the “truth” of this situation was neither possible nor material to what was now happening. Hope Solo Racism. There were two ways those words could play out and neither was about any kind of objective truth. Both were simply exercises in public relations followed to their natural and inevitable conclusions.
The first scenario was that Solo would wake up the next morning with a cooler head and admit through a team spokesman that she used a poor choice of words to express her frustration with the match. And we would basically say “No problem, these things happen.” I sent an email to my buddy Shawn, the GM of the Beat, requesting a formal retraction and copied Fitz Johnson. I also forwarded the email to the league office, requesting a fine and suspension to Solo for material damage to the Breakers reputation and business if the retraction was not forthcoming. I wasn’t optimistic.
The second scenario was bad. In this scenario, Hope doubled down in the morning and stuck to her story. At that point, the Beat organization would have no choice but to back their star. That’s the code. And the Breakers would have no choice but to issue some sort of carefully worded statement about abhorring racism in all its forms, thus implicitly admitting something must have happened. Our only option would be to say we were very concerned and would take steps to make sure this – whatever this was – would never happen again.
As the saying goes, you can’t prove a negative. Tom Cruise will always be gay, Barrack Obama will always be Kenyan and Mitt Romney will always be a tax cheat. Denying you Tweeted a photo of your penis always means you Tweeted a photo of your penis.
Hope doubled down. I got an email from Shawn the next day with Hope’s specific allegations. They were quite detailed. (One of my great WPS regrets is that my computer crashed three days before I left the Breakers in September 2011 and I lost this archival material). Hope claimed the epithets were aimed primarily at the Beat’s Japanese player Mami Yamaguchi, who subbed out 16 minutes into the second half, which was the half when Solo defended the goal in front of the Riptide. There were a few rather specific and nasty lines attributed to voices from Section 15, including people screaming that Yamaguchi should move back to Japan and go to work in a rice factory.
In addition, there were some racially insensitive remarks allegedly directed at Kia McNeill, a top flight Atlanta defender with local ties as a Boston College grad.
There were also few things that were undoubtedly true and that I heard myself, such as bullet points about our fans yelling “You Suck” at Hope. That struck me as an oddly wimpy complaint for a player who has played in highly charged stadium atmospheres in world class venues all over the globe (let alone the atmosphere in college soccer), but I can’t fault her for being thorough, I suppose. The strangest accusation was that Hope was pelted with coins from the stands, which would have been easy to detect both during the game and in the post-game clean up of the field. There was simply nothing to support the projectile claim.
She also had some affidavits from two “fans” supporting her claims. Her fans, to be specific. Night Ranger guy and his buddies. There were also a couple of far more carefully worded comments from – if I recall correctly – Kia McNeill and reserve GK Brett Maron stating that they may have heard some insensitive language coming from the stands. Yamaguchi herself was curiously absent.
Oh well. The point wasn’t whether it was all true anymore anyway. The point was Hope was wedded to her story and there was little left but to conduct an investigation and then collaborate with the Beat on the messaging.
The league office more or less told me: Welcome to our world. Figure this out with Shawn. We don’t have a role here right now, and they were right. He said. She said.
The Riptide, meanwhile, were in agony. Because here is one thing you have to understand about club supporters. They HATE you when you come into their house wearing the colors of another club. But they LOVE you when you wear the colors of your country and, to a person, the Riptide membership were USWNT superfans who revered Hope Solo as the National Team goalkeeper.
The Riptide were also rude, crude, immature, loud, obnoxious, not as funny as they thought a lot of the time, whiny when calls didn’t go their way, occasionally poor winners and often poor losers. In other words, they were what fans are allowed and encouraged to be in just about every male sport.
One other thing about the Riptide which they never got any credit for in all this nonsense. They have considerable ability and track record to be self-policing. As promised to me in 2009, You Suck Asshole never reared its head at a Breakers game and the leaders of the Riptide, on at least one occasion, shushed a newbie who tried to get it going. Together with Afro Brazil, the supporters of Section 15 were pretty small in number. But as a group they were multi-racial and multi-lingual. They featured a considerable number of passionate female fans, along with males. There were openly gay members. There was an Asian man in the group. The notion that this specific group would allow fans within their small ranks to spew hate speech at Asian player (or any other nationality) throughout a match was simply beyond belief.
At this point Hope Solo leaves our story. She lit the match and walked away from the ensuing conflagration, never clarifying her Tweets or mentioning it again for two years until her memoir came out this week.
So what’s happens next is that Shawn and I get on the phone. Now that I have Hope’s list of allegations, I promise to undertake an internal investigation, attempting – imperfectly – to leave aside my own proximity and personal recollections to the best of my ability. It took a couple of days. I interviewed the Riptide fans in attendance, police detail officers assigned to the match and the 3rd party food service workers in the hospitality tent and Section 15 areas, who worked for outside concessions companies. I called on various season ticket holders in the adjacent sections and game day volunteers at the field and seating levels.
I can’t say I found nothing. As mentioned above, some of Hope’s tamer claims (people saying she sucked) were true – like every night at a Breakers game. In interviewing the police details, I learned of an incident in the hospitality tent after I left the area late in the match. A couple of young men – “appearing intoxicated” – moved over to the wall in front of Section 15 and began acosting the Riptide. The detail officer in the tent felt it was getting a bit chippy and moved them out of the area. These were Hope’s pals – the Night Ranger rides again.
The most compelling revelation involved Kia McNeill. McNeill is the lone intersection where the two sides of this story come together, but through very different lenses. McNeill, as I mentioned, went to Boston College. She had a great reputation in WPS as a hard-nosed defender and had the yellow and red card accumulations to prove it. She is also black and she also had family at the game that night, apparently only a section or two over from the Riptide.
At some point, presumably in the second half when Solo was on the Riptide end, McNeill committed a hard foul. Several Riptide fans yelled out, calling McNeill a “thug” and a “convict”. A couple of Riptide members matter-of-factly recalled this to me and then rattled off various statistics and anecdotes about McNeill’s red & yellow card history – hence the “convict” tag – that only a truly obsessive, sports talk radio junkie kind of fan would know about. And WPS really didn’t have that kind of fans….except for these guys.
I’d heard a report that McNeill’s family heard comments to this effect at the game and were unhappy about it. Whether it was because they perceived it as despicable racial stereotyping – black person = convict – or just that it was negative trash talk directed at their daughter, I don’t know. I asked Jackie, a soft-spoken 24-year old graduate student at Brown University and the President of the Riptide, if it occurred to her that fans calling McNeill a “thug” might appear to be racially insensitive.
“I suppose I could see that now, if you didn’t know us,” she replied. “But we also call Holmfridur Magnusdottir of the Philadelphia Independence a thug.”
Magnusdottir is from Iceland.
I can see where McNeill’s teammates would be concerned for her, because the typical atmosphere of a WPS match was so laid back due to the lack of game knowledge of the average fan. On the other hand, I don’t think any NFL fan calling Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison – an African-American and one of the league’s most physical and heavily penalized players – a thug would cause equal concern and consternation. It’s a tricky thing. Personally, I think it was an insensitive thing to say. At the same time, I think the Riptide fans are casualties of a very antiquated notion of how a women’s sports fan is expected and allowed to behave.
In the end, Shawn and I collaborated on a joint statement that went up on the WPS website. In it, I acknowledged that insensitive comments appear to have been issued from the stands (re: McNeill, in my mind, not Yamaguchi) and pledging that we would bring on additional security to monitor fan behavior. The Riptide howled and fumed that we had betrayed them. Understandable. I felt bad for them.
I asked Shawn for a quote from Hope stating that she regretted using Twitter to raise the issue publicly before addressing her concerns through proper channels. Shawn told me that was a non-starter – Hope wouldn’t say a word. This was everyone else’s mess to clean up now. Instead the Beat organization itself would say that it was regrettable that Twitter was used as the means of communication for such a serious matter.
I sighed. “Shawn, I hope you understand that we feel like the party that has been attacked here, and yet we are the ones extending much further towards you than you are towards us in solving this thing.”
“I get that,” he said and that was fine with me. He was my friend and was in a lousy situation too.
The statement was intended to be the carefully negotiated final word, but neither of us stuck to it. We couldn’t help playing to our constituencies, tiny as they may have been. A single mercurial superstar in Shawn’s case and a couple of dozen season ticket holders in mine.
A couple of days later Shawn gave interviews to a Georgia newspaper and to the blogger Jeff Kassouf stating that racial epithets had been directed at Yamaguchi (something I categorically rejected) and “giving props” to Solo for standing up for her teammates. I punched back with a new statement basically saying Hope was full of it, while staying within the rhetorical straitjacket of accepting responsibility so as not to be accused of denial.
Shawn and I hugged it out (metaphorically) the next day, which was made easier by the realization that nobody cared anymore.
Solo signed the next season with Dan Borislow and MagicJack, the only guy still throwing around big bucks contracts in WPS’ third and final season. The Breakers immigration attorney gave me a recommendation to a court reporting service he liked and I planned to hire a stenographer to sit in Section 15 and prepare a transcript of all cheers, chants and songs for Hope’s return engagement. But she never played in Boston again due to National Team duties and a subsequent injury.
Kelly Smith’s memoir Footballer: My Story is out today from Bantam Press and available in hardcover and Kindle format on Amazon. The book promises a look at the storied career of England’s greatest female footballer, as well as some of the personal battles Smith has fought through over the years.
The program at left is from a sparsely attended (3,128) Wednesday evening match against FC Gold Pride (San Jose, CA) at Harvard Stadium on June 17, 2009. Smith entered the match in the 63rd minute as a substitute, assisting on the equalizer by Jennifer Nobis in the 77th minute to pull out a 1-1 draw for Boston. Smith was a two-time All-Star for us in Boston in 2009 and 2010.
As General Manager of the Breakers during the club’s final two seasons, I didn’t get to know Kelly well. I respected the way she carried herself and her intense competitiveness but we rarely spoke. As tenacious and vocal as she is on the pitch, she is reserved and shy off the field and, for my part, I rarely socialized with our players since my job often involved being the bearer of bad news.
One of the least pleasant aspects of my job was an acrimonious six-month negotiation with Kelly’s agent Steve Kutner to substantially reduce her salary prior to the 2011 season. The Breakers (and much of the league) were in the midst of draconian across the board budget cuts. Kelly was among the top 2-3 highest paid players in WPS every season and remained in that elite group in 2011, but that also made her contract a target in an austerity process where we had already sliced out a lot of muscle (including our entire front office staff, save for one).
For her part, Kelly was coming off her strongest season in Boston, after scoring 11 goals in 2010 and leading the Breakers to the within one game of the WPS Cup championship match. She couldn’t have done more to justify her contract on the field, but in this particular sport at this particular time, that wasn’t enough. We never spoke about it – there’s really nothing you can say to justify or sugarcoat taking away what you’ve promised to someone when they’ve done everything you’ve asked.
One funny story comes to mind about Kelly’s Jekyll & Hyde personas on and off the field. (And I’ll admit now that I wasn’t there. This was relayed by our ops manager at the time). The Breakers went to Florida for pre-season camp in 2011 and played a scrimmage against MagicJack, the infamous club owned by MagicJack honcho Dan Borislow. MJ had a neutered head coach named Mike Lyons at that time. Borislow, by all accounts, really managed the club, dictating formations and personnel decisions. Lyons spent the moments before the match crouched on the ground hurriedly taping his players ankles, since the MJ organization regarded the athletic training profession with the same level of disdain that Scientologists reserve for psychiatry. During the match Borislow prowled the sidelines shouting out instructions to his players.
Smith played a rough game, leading the Breakers in fouls committed in each year of WPS, save for 2011 when she missed half of the season for the World Cup. Midway through the scrimmage, she collided with a MagicJack player, sending her opponent to the turf like a rag doll. Borislow, vocal all day in the quiet environs of a crowd-less scrimmage , got up on the sideline and made some aggressive noise about the foul. Annoyed, our English superstar turned to WPS’ newest investor/savior and concisely explained the boundaries between bankrolling a team and being part of one:
“SHUT THE F*!# UP!”
With that, Kelly turned her attention back to the game. Impossible to imagine off the field, totally in character on it, even during a scrimmage.
It was Heather Mitts Bobble Head Doll Night when the Boston Breakers took on Sky Blue FC of New Jersey at Harvard Stadium on July 25th, 2009. The glamorous U.S. National Team defender was more or less the face of the Breakers during the inaugural season of Women’s Professional Soccer that summer and she generated a considerable amount of free publicity for the club in the New England media.
Heather was unusual, in that we knew we probably wouldn’t have her for long. When the league began to ramp up in 2008, an “allocation” process was held to distribute the two dozen or so members of the U.S. National Team to the league’s seven franchises. Unlike international players and graduating collegians – who would both enter a traditional draft – the U.S. National Teamers were allocated to their WPS clubs through a matching mechanism. Each franchise named three USWNT players it wanted, ranked in order of priority, to the league office. Each player submitted three cities, ranked in order of desirability. The league office then made its best efforts to match team and player desires.
There was something of an art to this – it wasn’t as simple as naming the highest rated players on your team’s board. For example, one might reasonably assume that all seven clubs would rank Abby Wambach, the great scoring star of the American team, at or near the top of their list. But teams had an idea of where certain players wanted to play. In Boston, we knew Wambach wasn’t interested in coming here and therefore left her off our list of three entirely, rather than waste a request. Meanwhile, USWNT legend Kristine Lilly lived in suburban Boston and let it be known she wouldn’t play anywhere else. Breakers President Joe Cummings and I debated how to handle Kristine’s situation. I felt that we should leave her off the Breakers “want list” entirely…knowing we would get her regardless. Then we could elevate another priority player on our board to a higher ranking and that might be enough to edge out a rival club. But it was Joe’s call, not mine. He went back with Kristine a long ways and felt it was more respectful to include her on our list of three. It was the classy decision, as one can always expect from Joe Cummings. We agreed to rank her third, however, since getting her was a foregone conclusion. For similar reasons, we also listed Angela Hucles on our list at #2. Angela also lived in Boston and we knew she would designate the Breakers as her first choice.
That left the decision of what to do with our #1 request. I felt that the Breakers needed star power to launch the team…meaning a player who could create buzz that transcended the sport, not simply a top performer. I felt there were three players on the USWNT who had that quality – Wambach (who we weren’t going to get), the brilliant but controversial goalkeeper Hope Solo, and Heather Mitts. As a promoter, my first instinct was Solo, but there was little support for her elsewhere in the organization. That left Heather and she was in a different category than Wambach or Solo, who were arguably in their peak years. Heather was 30 years old and still a starter for the USWNT in 2008. But some observers questioned that status and asserted that her best seasons probably were behind her. For this reason, I saw a real opportunity for the Breakers if we anointed her with our #1 selection. I believed that many other teams wanted Mitts but that few would rank her #1 on their list. Breakers Head Coach Tony DiCicco called Heather and she seemed receptive to coming to Boston. I didn’t think we needed to be #1 on her list, but I felt that if she just ranked us in her top three and we put her #1, we’d get her. And that is exactly what happened.
I was thrilled that we landed Heather Mitts. But from a competitive standpoint, there were a couple of challenges. First, at the time of the USWNT allocation, we were already looking to sign Kelly Smith and Alex Scott from the English club Arsenal Ladies (both ended up being perennial WPS All-Stars for Boston). Heather and Alex played the same position, so someone would have to play out of position in 2009. Second, it was common knowledge that a Philadelphia expansion franchise was expected for the second season of WPS in 2010. Heather lived in Philadelphia and was engaged to then-Philadelphia Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley. Most USWNT players signed three-year deals after allocation, but with Heather we agreed on a one-year deal. The USWNT allocation process was intended to help clubs build competitive foundations that would last several seasons. But it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Heather would be one-and-done in Boston and then head back to Philly in 2010 as a free agent.
I should be clear that our coaching staff rated Heather very highly as a player. We wouldn’t have pursued her if they didn’t. And in my view as a promoter and salesperson, her tremendous PR value outweighed whatever marginal uptick in competitive ability might have come with the realistic alternatives, such as a Shannon Boxx or a Cat Whitehill. Also, Heather’s off-the-field value to Boston would be largely immune to uncontrollable factors, such as an injury or an off-year.
Heather proved very popular with the Boston fan base and the local media. She appeared on the cover of the Improper Bostonian‘s fitness issue and on numerous top-rated radio programs and TV morning shows. Alone among our players, the newspaper gossip and celebrity columns took an interest in Heather’s personal life which exposed the team to an entirely new audience. The criticism here – and it’s justifiable and I recognize that it disappoints many fans – is that much of this interest was based on Heather’s looks. Many outlets chose to run accompanying photos from Heather’s years-old Maxim Magazine photo shoot, rather than pictures of her actually playing soccer. This is undeniable. On the other hand, there were many strikingly beautiful – and yet totally anonymous – players in WPS. Heather’s status as an Olympic gold medalist, articulate broadcaster, willing promoter, and fiancee of an NFL player all factored into her high profile as well.
Anyway, wherever the initial media interest came from – soccer or sex appeal – it usually opened the door for opportunities for Heather and her teammates to promote the Boston Breakers and WPS. Usually. There was one appearance that was more or less a disaster. In June 2009, Mitts was booked onto The Dennis & Callahan Show on WEEI, which was the top sports talk radio station in New England at the time. The show is historically anti-soccer, let alone women’s soccer, and the hosts posted a poll during the week leading up to the interview as to whether they should conduct it, or delegate it to their sidekicks. When Heather arrived, the hosts walked out of the studio to take a coffee break rather than do the interview. The interview was conducted instead by Jon Meterparel, who is friendly to soccer and has called MLS games for the station in the past. However, shortly into the segment ex-Red Sox hurler Curt Schilling, a frequent caller to the show, dialed in randomly and expounded on his views of the world for the next 10 minutes, gobbling up most of the segment while Heather sat quietly in the studio. The segment and its week-long build-up ultimately generated far more airtime for the usual anti-soccer and anti-female bashing than it did for the Breakers.
Heather and her fiancee’s celebrity status also attracted unwanted attention. Feeley had a stalker back in Philadelphia who later turned out to be a neighbor in their condo complex. The woman was very troubled and occasionally emailed the email@example.com account insisting that she was engaged to A.J. Feeley and demanding that we turn Heather over to the authorities. At one point we posted pictures to the Breakers Facebook page showing Heather and A.J. together at Fenway Park. The woman emailed the next day complaining that she had been at the ballgame with A.J. and that someone photoshopped her out of the pictures and replaced her with Heather. The woman was ultimately arrested about a month into the WPS season.
But we ended the year on a happy note. Unofficially, July 25th was “Heather Mitts Night” at Harvard Stadium. She was on the cover of the game program and we gave away Heather Mitts Bobble Heads to the first 1,000 fans through the gates. Harvard Stadium is a century-old concrete bowl with few modern amenities or attractions inside the gates, so most Breakers fans would stay outside tailgating until moments before kickoff. On this night, nearly 800 fans lined up an hourly early to make sure they got a bobble head.
As for the doll, Heather did not care for it much. As usual with these things, we went through multiple design revisions with the vendor, but this time we never quite got it right. They had particular trouble correcting the caterpillar-like eyebrows. One Breakers player suggested the doll actually looked much more like Kelly Smith (who, I should clarify, does not have caterpillar-like eyebrows either) and this comment greatly annoyed our All-Star British striker.
On the field, this match turned out to be a very dull 0-0 draw. Two weeks later, the Breakers were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the regular season. Heather Mitts departed her Kendall Square apartment shortly thereafter and, as expected, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Independence in September 2009. The Breakers, meanwhile, finished second in WPS ticket revenue in 2009, thanks in no small part to Heather’s role in promoting the club.