The Atlanta Beat were one of two expansion franchises (along with the Philadelphia Independence) to join the short-lived Women’s Professional Soccer for its second season of action in 2010. The club was a brand revival of Atlanta’s previous women’s pro team, the 2001-2003 Atlanta Beat of the Women’s United Soccer Association. But aside from purchasing the trademark to the defunct club, the “new” Beat possessed no other formal connections to the prior franchise. The ownership, players, stadium and front office staff were all entirely new.
Team owner Fitz Johnson was a charismatic U.S. Army veteran, attorney and former defense contractor. Johnson’s family business was sold to Lockheed Martin in April 2008 for an undisclosed but sizable sum. Like the majority of WPS franchise owners, Johnson had soccer-playing daughters. The club played two seasons before folding along with the rest of WPS in January 2012.
A fellow named Kevin Alexander (@KAlexander03) published a provocative article in Boston Magazine this week. “The Krafts Are the Worst Owners in the League” is an unusual public takedown of the Kraft family in the mainstream New England press. The Krafts are widely lauded in the region for their sparkling stewardship of the NFL’s New England Patriots over the past two decades. But the widespread discontent among New England Revolution fans with the Kraft family’s dispassionate attitude towards Major League Soccer has rarely attracted notice beyond insular supporters’ group message boards.
The entire article is worth a read and I won’t attempt to summarize it other than to say Alexander uses the popular framing device of MLS versions 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 to illustrate the club’s stagnation. He’s certainly not the first to paint the Revs as a franchise still languishing in an MLS 1.0 mindset while the rest of the league keeps lapping them. I like Alexander’s simple framing of these stages, with a couple of additions from his article commenters added in as well:
MLS 1.0 (1996-early aughts)
American football stadiums awkwardly repurposed for soccer
Youth soccer target audience
2002 Contraction of Florida franchises
MLS 2.0 (early aughts – 2008ish)
Attractive soccer specific stadiums in inconvenient suburbs (Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey, etc.)
Rise of supporter’s culture
Resumption of expansion in 2005
MLS 3.0 (2009 – Now)
Soccer-specific stadiums in urban areas on public transit (Houston, Portland)
“Urban hipster” target audience that feeds supporter’s culture
MLS an increasing player on the international transfer market due to the Designated Player Rule
So after that long lead, let’s shift gears now to women’s professional soccer. Today marks five years to the day since Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) launched on March 29th, 2009 with a match between the Los Angeles Sol and the Washington Freedom before 14,832 fans at the Home Depot Center. It was the first women’s pro match in America since 2003.
A lot has changed in the five years since. WPS is dead and gone and so is Fox Soccer Channel for that matter. Marta, the world’s best player and WPS’ flawed tentpole attraction, is back in Sweden. Even the Home Depot Center, with its $11.00 bottles of Bud Light, is now the StubHub Center. But the women’s pro game in America – amazingly, improbably – is in better shape than ever under the auspices of the National Women’s Soccer League, which emerged from the smoking ruins of WPS in late 2012.
For the first time in history, we have an uninterrupted five-year sample size for the women’s soccer, so maybe it’s time to talk about classifying the 1.0 and 2.0 versions and theorize about what 3.0 might look like in the near future.
Here’s my take, with more of a business-side slant. I’d love to hear yours in the comments section:
Women’s Professional Soccer 1.0 (2007- June 2010)
Starts with: 2007 formation of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS)
MLS participation: Arms length (AEG’s one-year commitment in L.A., SUM struggles to sell league-wide sponsorships)
Target Audience: Girls youth soccer players and their families
Secondary Market: Brazilians who want to see Marta, LGBT, Hipsters but there’s no coordinated effort to reach any of them
Venues: A mix of terrible leases (LA, Chicago), awful turf (Boston, Philly) and great potential (Atlanta, St. Louis at the end)
Uh-Oh: WPS execs, many of whom are former players, capitulate to U.S. National Team representative John Langel and to player agents on a series of salary cap rules negotiations, imperiling cost controls that were key selling points to league investors.
WPS launches March 2009 with 14,382 on hand for the inaugural game in Los Angeles
All eligible USWNT players sign contracts in WPS except for Ali Krieger, who plays on loan
Attendance leader and top regular season performer L.A. Sol folds after one season.
Secondary Audiences: Urban hipsters and MLS brand loyalists.
Venues: No enforced standards. MLS palaces at the top and cheapo high school fields at the bottom.
Uh-Oh: The NWSL’s lack of transparency about its complicated, constantly shifting player personnel policies is exasperating not only to the league’s diehard fans, but to often-confused team executives as well.
The U.S., Canadian & Mexican soccer federations agree to subsidize NWSL franchise payrolls.
The 2012 Portland Thorns turn a sizable operating profit. The first American women’s pro soccer team to do so.
All eight clubs return for the NWSL’s second season in 2014, plus an MLS-owned expansion club, the Houston Dash.
Ends With: ???
So what might women’s pro soccer 3.0 hold, assuming there is one and it marks continued forward momentum, unlike The Troubles of 2011-12? Here’s a few random thoughts…
I don’t think there will be much more Houston-style expansion. The secret sauce of the NWSL is the national federation subsidies of the U.S. and Canadian national team players. Weirdly/brilliantly, the best players are also the cheapest. Since the supply of subsidized stars is fixed and there’s no significant value in media rights, there would seem to be a disincentive for expansion among the existing clubs. In other words, this league doesn’t need to be in the New York, Chicago and L.A. markets for the sake of a T.V. deal as so many past leagues, including WPS, have claimed.
No American women’s pro club has ever been sold, let alone sold for a profit. (Dan Borislow paid $0 to the Hendricks family for the Freedom). Now that Portland has turned the first operating profit in the sport, a profitable franchise sale is the next major economic landmark to chase. Explicitly limiting expansion would help, by reducing the perceived supply of teams. I’d love to see Toronto or Vancouver get an NWSL team. But I’d rather see U.S. Soccer strengthen the league on two fronts by brokering a sale and relocation of Sky Blue, for instance, rather than award another expansion team.
As encouraging as the new NWSL business model is, here’s something that would concern me as an investor: all of the national federation partnerships are reviewed on an annual basis. Mexico already made noise about cancelling their subsidies after year one, which is… whatever. Feel free to take your ball and go home, Mexico. But if Canada or the U.S. ever pulled out, that would present a huge problem. The subsidy program is basically the NWSL’s de facto collective bargaining agreement. Would you buy into a league where the CBA was cancellable every August? Me neither. If the league has another strong year in 2013, it will be interesting to see if franchise owners push for Canada and U.S. Soccer to sign a 3 or 5-year deal. But it’s hard to know where the NWSL ends and U.S. Soccer begins, so maybe this will never happen.
What do you think the next five years will hold for women’s pro soccer in North America? Leave your comments below or on Twitter @AMCrossley.
As I draft this column, I’m sitting in the athletic center at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts administering the final exam for my Sports Promotions & Marketing course (SM 203). I taught two sections of the course as a guest instructor this semester and it was a blast.
The course was focused on creating demand for minor league and developing pro sports, so we came back frequently to my four years as a start-up consultant and later General Manager for the Boston Breakers of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011).
The students’ first graded assignment this semester was a case study about the Breakers’ start-up phase in 2007-08. At that particular time, WPS was trying to analyze the “mistakes of the past” (i.e. the failed Women’s United Soccer Association of 2001-2003) in order to create a sustainable business plan. Today, a new women’s league – the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) – is doing the very same thing. Sadly, the subject of this latest autopsy is WPS itself.
Take a look at the case study and think about how you might answer the eight questions I posed to my students:
After holidays at home with their families, many of my students are off to internships with the American Hockey League, box lacrosse teams, ski resorts and arena management companies during Endicott’s extended six-week winter break.
Unfortunately, none of my students are headed to work for the NWSL, which is ramping up operations this month for a spring 2013 launch after months of behind-the-scenes organizing. It’s too bad, because during the past four months these 42 young men and 7 young women have likely devoted more time to analyzing the history, challenges and opportunities of women’s pro soccer than any other business students in the country.
As they sit here this morning scribbling away in their blue books about variable pricing strategy and permission-based marketing, I think to myself:
If one of these kids was headed off to sell women’s soccer, what else would I share with them?
The first thing I would suggest to a young person learning the ropes with an NWSL club is to read Joanna Lohman’s recent blog “How To Market Our New Women’s Professional League. Joanna was a player for the Washington Freedom and Philadelphia Independence in WPS. She is perhaps the most articulate and insightful player voice when it comes to the marketing of the sport. Updating an eternal debate in women’s soccer circles, Joanna talks about the dream of a thriving Supporters culture versus the disappointing reality of a group sales-driven target audience of distracted youth soccer families. Should teams:
Keep targeting a proven audience that is demonstrably incapable of sustaining a pro league? OR
Cultivate a totally-awesome-sounding-but-possibly-mythical tribe of urban, childless, pan-ethnic, hipster fanatics?
Joanna believes the NWSL has to make a bold all-in bet on fostering Supporters culture or else be doomed to failure. I’m like 90% on board with Joanna’s direction, but I don’t entirely agree with her conclusion. She’s created a false dilemma. Teams don’t have to choose between these two approaches. In fact, they need to have both. Neither audience is sufficient on its own. Your stadium environment has to be inviting and thrilling to everyone.
Where I agree with Joanna is that too many inexperienced team operators confuse the idea of creating an environment “for everyone” with creating a “family environment”. After all, families are adults + kids, right? That’s everyone! Not so fast. Because “Family Environment” is a too often a euphemism for a Children’s Environment. And an atmosphere that bears more resemblance to Chuck E. Cheese than Old Trafford is bound to alienate passionate adult soccer fans.
Kids loved the Boston Breakers, but we probably did less for them than any other team in WPS, except MagicJack. I believe that kids need to have the following experiences:
A team to cheer for and believe in
An opportunity to meet one of their heroes, even if they’re too shy to say a word
A shirtful of autographs at the end of the night
A fun, safe place to play before the game, with rides, contests and activities
They need these things because they may go home disappointed if they’re missing. On the other hand, here’s what I believe they don’t need:
One Direction, Biebs, and Carly Rae Jepsen on the stadium sound system
P.A. announcers commanding them to MAKE SOME NOISE! every ten minutes. Or ever, actually.
An intern who can’t dance in a smelly mascot suit listlessly waving at them.
Halftime youth soccer games that thrill 40 parents in the crowd and bore the piss out of everyone else
Do kids like all the things on this second list? Of course they do. But will they miss them if they’re not there? No. And these elements tend to annoy more sophisticated soccer fans. You know – the ones who buy season tickets, and blog, and watch your blurry webcasts, and shell out for $8.00 beers and $80.00 authentic jerseys? The ones you always say you wish you had more of? Yeah, them.
At the Breakers from 2009 to 2011, every element of game production was designed for the enjoyment of adult soccer lovers. This included everything from the Afro-Brazil samba band, to the professional entertainers at halftime, to the creation of a permanent Pillars of Excellence installation to honor retired Breakers stars such as Maren Meinert, Angela Hucles, and Kristine Lilly. We even excluded youth groups from sitting in our most desirable midfield seating sections.
That was just our philosophy. I’m sure it had its flaws as well. You have to develop your own. Whatever that is, I suggest you memorialize it in careful detail, like we did for our sales & marketing staff:
So now our hypothetical NWSL staffer has considered the case study, read Joanna Lohman’s manifesto, downloaded a proper ticket sales manual, and perhaps even started to think about his or her own personal values about marketing. (Whether your boss agrees is a different matter, but part of being an intern is deciding how you will do things differently when your day comes).
What else would I put in my imaginary care package for this young man or woman? Here’s two things:
A copy of Jon Spoelstra’s Ice To The Eskimos: How To Sell A Product Nobody Really Wants. This is an industry bible, along with Spoelstra’s earlier Marketing Outrageously. Spoelstra was the President of the New Jersey Nets during the Dark Ages of the Derrick Coleman era. He has plenty of great advice for low-budget/no-budget minor league operators as well. All of our Breakers account execs read this book. Get it on Kindle for $9.99.
The phone numbers of Los Angeles Galaxy Senior Manager of Ticket Sales and Service Heather Pease and Columbus Crew Director of Ticket Sales Brett Zalaski. Consummate sales people who sold a very challenging product in WPS and used their success to make the leap to great jobs in Major League Soccer. If you’re an NWSL executive and you haven’t been on the phone to pick the brains of WoSo sales leaders like Heather and Brett yet, you are missing a huge opportunity.
NWSL Odds & Ends
Here’s ten impressions and crystal ball predictions for the NWSL after this week’s league announcements:
Thorns F.C. draws the best numbers since WUSA. That means better than the 6,298 per game claimed by Los Angeles Sol in 2009.
The Breakers will sell out the entire season at Somerville’s Dilboy Stadium for a second consecutive year.
The appointment of Cheryl Bailey gives the NWSL a top-flight administrator to make the trains run on time.
I don’t buy FC Kansas City President Brian Budzinski’s claim that his club is drawing “huge interest” from senior National Team players, unless he means Mexicans and Canadians. Only two USWNT players were willing to go to St. Louis in WPS allocation in 2008, just one of whom is still active. FCKC’s unknown head coach won’t help compensate for a general lack of enthusiasm about playing in Missouri.
More than 50% of USWNT players will select Portland or Seattle as their preferred destination in allocation.
Sydney Leroux headlines a list of surprising allocations, sent to Kansas City, Boston or Western New York when her lack of seniority keeps her out of a coveted Pacific Northwest allocation spot.
The Boston Breakers will have the largest contingent of non-North American imports, due to the club’s long-standing ties to Australian players.
Here’s hoping that 2014 sees a place for Charlie Naimo and Paul Riley in America’s top league.
After Year One is in the books, the national federations will demand more control in return for their subsidies. In particular, the federations won’t tolerate sending players to franchises with under-qualified, unorthodox or revolving door coaches.
I no longer buy into the cliche “if it fails this time, it’s never coming back”. There are now and will continue to be plenty of people willing to invest in the women’s game, particularly as the price has come down. The problem is that up until now, it’s been more attractive for new money to let everything die off and start all over again than it has been to buy existing clubs and take on their problems.
This was the last public image of Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011). At this time last year, WPS was in a state of massive organ failure: largely insolvent, under-staffed by those demoralized few who ignored the evacuation orders, slogging through internecine warfare with a rogue owner and forced to prove it even deserved re-sanctioning by the United States Soccer Federation.
Improbably – and perhaps irresponsibly – the league roused itself at the NSCAA convention in January 2012 to hold its fourth and final college entry draft. Budding USWNT star Sydney Leroux (left) was the #1 overall pick of the Atlanta Beat. Some unknown person snapped this picture of her for the Beat website, inadvertently becoming the last person to ever attempt to market WPS. Two weeks later the league bled out and it was all over. Leroux will never wear that Beat jersey, nor will anyone else.
2012 was a lost year for the women’s game in America in terms of a pro league. The loss of WPS was ameliorated for most fans by the USWNT’s Gold Medal triumph in London. 2012 was a great year for women’s soccer in America even without a pro league. But the success of the American women in London also sparked a renewed appreciation in certain influential offices (i.e. Sunil Gulati‘s) of why we need a viable women’s pro league.
The U.S. has now won back-to-back Olympic Golds in 2008 and 2012. Many of the key figures in those victories – Angela Hucles, Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe – may never have even made the National Team without the platform of the WUSA or WPS to showcase their talents. This isn’t about a pro league sitting atop the “developmental pyramid”. Get real. The USWNT and the Brazilian, Canadian, Swedish and Japanese National teams are the top of the Pyramid. Those are the Major Leagues in this sport. The purpose of a North American pro league is to be the equivalent of triple-A baseball, providing a proving grounds and a showcase to develop talent for international competition. Rather than sit back doing nothing and charge exorbitant sanctioning dues to the brave investors willing to invest in professional women’s soccer here, the USSF ought to be f*&*#ng thrilled that a bunch of rich guys want to heavily subsidize the USSF’s effort to bring home World Cup and Olympic championships.
Now there’s a third pro league in the works and this time – for the first time – U.S. Soccer is reportedly taking a lead role and planning to subsidize the participation of USWNT players, much the way that NHL and Major League Baseball clubs pay the salaries of their prospects in hockey and baseball’s developmental leagues. As the peerless women’s soccer journalist Jeff Kassouf reported this week, progress has been agonizingly slow and a series of “big announcements next week” have come and gone with silence. Women’s soccer die hards are concerned – as they should be – that Thanksgiving is nearly upon us and we don’t yet have a league in place. The time to sell tickets, close sponsorship deals and forge community inroads is ebbing away.
After reading Jeff’s article (linked above), I came up with five plausible theories about the persistent delays. Perhaps I should clarify. Five plausible buttotally speculative and uninformed theories about the lack of action. Then I reached out to a few veteran players and other sources close to the league to test my theories. Each of them asked not to be identified by name, but provided helpful insights. But before I share their comments, here were my initial scenarios on the lack of progress:
There is a split between league owners who want to push forward for 2013 and a group that wants to hold off until 2014. (This is what derailed the planned 2008 launch of WPS).
The key questions of USWNT player participation are unresolved: How much will they be paid? Will players have a voice in choosing the cities they play in, as they did in WUSA and WPS? Without USWNT commitment prospective owners might question why they should commit to the expense of an air travel league without marketable talent.
The league cannot be announced yet because of legal wrangling with the USL (W-League) or the WPSL who are upset over losing franchises to the new league.
The “herding cats” theory. The investors of the new league are not rich enough to give this substantial attention. They all have core businesses that require most of their day-to-day attention. Therefore, getting them together and on the same page for any type of coordinated announcements or commitments is extremely difficult
“Dan Borislow“. (I don’t even know that that means, but I guarantee someone out there assumes this is a sticking point.)
So…I have to say that after talking to several reliable contacts, I came away rather encouraged by their responses, which were pretty consistent:
Everyone is committed to a 2013 launch. There could be as few as eight but as many as twelve teams. Eight seems most likely – more on why in a second.
The USWNT players – or at least a critical mass of them – are committed, which is crucially important to the league’s relevance. It appears that the mechanism for allocation is not yet in place.
Early on it looked like the USL might manage the league and/or take an equity position in ownership. This didn’t pan out and now U.S. Soccer has become the dominant player/de facto Commissioner’s office. USL will not be involved, but there seem to be no over-hanging legal issues holding things up with migrating franchises.
The “herding cats” theory is the one that seems to hold some water. U.S. Soccer is vetting the franchise applications and set an early October deadline for interested parties to submit business plans. Not just skeletal W-League-style plans for fielding a soccer team, but actual business plans for balancing revenues and expenses while maintaining acceptable standards of professionalism. Although numerous parties were interested, few met the early October deadline and U.S. Soccer was compelled to extend the timeline, contributing to the delay in meaningful news. Although there are now enough applications to select as many as a dozen franchises, one source expects Gulati will only approve eight for the first season.
Dan Borislow. – “Haha. No, he’s not remotely an issue at all. He’s not interested or involved,” one source said.
The reported expense budgets in this league are still going to be around $500,000 – $700,000 per year. Franchises will be responsible for the salaries of non-USWNT players, but U.S. Soccer will reportedly pay the salaries of the USWNT players. One player said she expected “strong” participation from the Canadian National Team as well, although who would be responsible for paying the Canadians is not clear.
All in all, the behind-the-scenes news seems encouraging. My more dysfunctional theories were consistently shot down by those in the know. Of larger concern is the tight window that new teams will have to sell tickets and sponsorships. Established clubs like the Chicago Red Stars and Boston Breakers should be okay regardless. Even in a worst case scenario of dropping back to WPSL Elite, they have established fan bases that will support the teams at certain scalable levels. More challenging will be the brand new teams that need to forge relationships and launch organizations with only four or five months of ramp up.
UPDATE! (11.15.2012) – Charles Boehm at SoccerWire.com reports that the eight 2013 franchises will be: Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC (New Jersey), and Western New York Flash – all formerly of WPS – along with new teams in Kansas City, Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C. It’s possible but unconfirmed that the D.C. franchise will be a revival of the old Washington Freedom brand.
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.