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 Philadelphia Independence enjoyed a brief two-season run in Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011), a league that briefly could claim status as the top women’s soccer league in the world before financial problems sunk the league after three seasons of play.
The Independence and WPS’ other 2010 expansion club, the Atlanta Beat, faced a challenging competitive landscape where the entire U.S National Team and dozens of the top international players were already to committed to multi-year contracts with existing WPS clubs. An expansion draft permitted the Beat and the Independence to pick through other team’s leftovers, but there was only one impact player available: U.S. National Team midfielder Lori Lindsey, inexplicably left unprotected by the Washington Freedom. Philly was fortunate to snap Lindsey up with the #1 selection. (Click here to view the 2010 WPS Expansion Draft rules for league executives). Atlanta never overcame the expansion disadvantage and fielded a distant last place club. Philadelphia GM Terry Foley and Head Coach Paul Riley, in contrast, wheeled and dealed extensively, finding terrific value in overlooked and under-utilized players and shrewd international signings throughout the winter of 2009 into 2010.
From the Boston Breakers, Foley acquired two U.S. National Team stalwarts in Heather Mitts and Amy Rodriguez. Mitts was a former member of the WUSA’s Philadelphia Charge and a well-known figure in Philadelphia, owing to her skill, beauty and gossip page relationship with Pat Burrell of the Phillies and, later, her engagement to quarterback A.J. Feeley of the Eagles. For all her marketing potential, Mitts seemed a poor fit with Head Coach Paul Riley and saw her playing time diminish late in the 2010 season.
The opposite was true for Rodriguez, the league’s #1 overall pick in the 2009 WPS Draft out of the University of Southern California who floundered in Boston under former National Team Coach Tony DiCicco. A-Rod scored only one goal in Boston and started fewer than half the team’s matches. But her club career would flourish under Riley in Philadelphia. In 2010, the speedy forward finished third in WPS in goals with 12 and was named a finalist for the league’s Michelle Akers Player-of-the-Year Award.
The Independence also scored internationally with Swedish playmaker Caroline Seger, Canadian National Team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, English forward Lianne Sandersonand bruising Icelandic defender Holmfridur Magnusdottir. The Independence cultivated an intensely physical style of play under Paul Riley and the team was notably strong on defense.
The Independence debuted in Philadelphia on April 11, 2010 playing fellow expansionists the Atlanta Beat to a 0-0 draw at Farrell Stadium on the campus of West Chester University. The crowd of 6,028 was a highlight, but subsequent games drew small crowds even by WPS standards. The Independence finished with the worst attendance in the seven-team league with 2,938 per game in 2010.
On the field, though, the Independence excelled, finishing 3rd in the regular season table with a 10-10-4 record. The Independence saved their best play for the postseason. In the first round, Amy Rodriguez’s overtime goal in the 120th minute lifted Philly past the Washington Freedom before 2,378 in West Chester, PA. Then it was off to Boston for the WPS Super Semi-Final, where the Independence fought back from an early 1-0 deficit to triumph 2-1 in overtime. The game winner came on a header from Danesha Adams, a controversial goal that many Boston fans maintain to this day was a handball (see video below).
The semi-final victory over the Breakers vaulted the Independence into the WPS Cup final against FC Gold Pride, one of the most dominant women’s club sides ever assembled. The final, played on Gold Pride’s home ground in Hayward, California would be Philadelphia’s third win-or-go-home playoff match in eight days, whereas Gold Pride enjoyed a two-week layoff to prepare for the match. The Independence’s fatigue after two overtime matches in a week showed, and Gold Pride made quick work of the Philadelphians 4-0 in the Final.
For the Independence second season, the club moved to Leslie Quick Stadium at Widener University in Chester. The club re-tooled on the field as well. Gone were Heather Mitts and Karina LeBlanc. New arrivals included emerging U.S. National Team midfield star Megan Rapinoe, former USWNT super sub Natasha Kai and Spanish striker Veronica Boquete.
Early season attendance plummeted throughout the league in 2011, due in part to an austerity program championed by Independence owner David Halstead, among others, which eviscerated the league’s national office and saw local administration and marketing cut to a shoe string. Philadelphia’s own financial challenges were revealed when Halstead sold Megan Rapinoe to Dan Borislow’s controversial MagicJack club for a record-setting transfer fee of $100,000 in June 2011. By this point, Borislow and Western New York Flash owner Joe Sahlen were the only WPS owners spending more than the bare minimums required to finish out the season.
The owners got a reprieve of sorts when the U.S. National Team went on an inspiring run through to the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final, drawing huge TV ratings along the way. With most of the USWNT stars still playing in WPS, large crowds turned out in league cities to see Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach upon their return from the World Cup.
The Independence were even better in 2011. The club’s 11-4-3 record was second only to the expansion Western New York Flash (13-2-3), who were basically the previous year’s champions, FC Gold Pride, re-constituted on the East Coast. Paul Riley won WPS Coach-of-the-Year honors for the second year in a row and newcomer Veronica Boquete won WPS’ Michelle Akers Player-of-the-Year award, despite appearing in only 11 matches.
The Independence hosted MagicJack in the WPS Super Semi-Final on August 20, 2011. The game was played at the beautiful new 18,500-seat PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer. It was the first home match the Independence ever played on a proper soccer pitch. (Both Farrell Stadium and Quick Stadium were turf fields with stitched-in American football markings). Ironically this coming out party at Philadelphia’s best soccer facility would also be the final home game the club ever played. A modest crowd of 5,410 turned out for the match, despite the presence of Abby Wambach and other newly famous U.S. World Cup stars on the MagicJack team. The Independence disposed of MagicJack 2-0 on goals by Natasha Kai and Amy Rodriguez to advance to their second WPS Cup Final in as many seasons.
One of the largest crowds in WPS history – 10,361 fans – turned out at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, New York for the Final on August 27, 2011. Unlike the year before, the Independence were rested and ready to bring their best game against the Western New York Flash. The Flash had many of the top players from FC Gold Pride, the club that beat Philly to win the Cup a year earlier and then quickly went out of business. In the 64th minute, Christine Sinclair put the Flash up 1-0 on a cross from Candace Chapman. Both players were FC Gold Pride refugees. Three minutes away from a loss in the 87th minute, Amy Rodriguez blasted home the equalizer to send the game into overtime knotted at 1-1. Neither team scored during the 30-minute extra session. The championship would be decided on penalty kicks.
One interesting note on the PK’s. Riley left the notoriously inconsistent Rodriguez off his list of five shooters, despite the fact that she was the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Riley’s line-up was Lianne Sanderson, Danesha Adams, Leigh Ann Robinson, Boqueteand Spanish international Laura Del Rio. The first four shooters scored for Philly. The first five scored for Western New York. Del Rio had the chance to send the PK’s into a second round, but Flash goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris made tremendous save to end Philly’s season and deliver the WPS Cup to Western New York.
This proved to be the final game WPS ever played. After a tumultuous offseason of legal battles with MagicJack owner Dan Borislow and an embarrassing public audit by U.S. Soccer to determine whether WPS still met the minimum standards to be sanctioned as a 1st division league, WPS folded up shop on January 30, 2012. Several franchises dropped into a lower-level semi-pro league – the WPSL Elite – to continue playing, but Halstead opted to shut down his Philadelphia club.
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.
Social media was always central to the marketing plan of Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011). Initially in 2008 and early 2009, the league misfired on a clunky and unlamented platform called Ning, but by late 2009, Twitter was the new big thing for WPS. The league rapidly built up a then-noteworthy network of 250,000 followers (more than MLS at the time).
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 getting her laundry. The other – edgier and more authentic – was Solo, whose competitive process seemed to require the presence of off-the-field adversaries, either real or manufactured.
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. 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 thing going on that was so contrived and over the top that a few of my staff members suspected he came straight to the game from a costume party. If you were looking for a guy 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 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. There were two ways this 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 very 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 are also rude, crude, immature, loud, obnoxious, not as funny as they think a lot of the time, whiny when calls don’t go their way, occasionally poor winners and often poor losers. In other words, they are 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 kerfuffle. 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 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. 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.
I’ve been on a long and fruitless search for game programs from the defunct Atlanta Beat (2010-2011) of Women’s Professional Soccer. I was a former executive in WPS for four years and I’ve been trying to cobble together an extensive archive of the league’s old materials before they get lost to the sands of time.
It appears the Beat never actually produced any match day programs, with the exception of a nice little booklet that they put out for the 2010 WPS All-Star Game at KSU Soccer Stadium in 2010. So special thanks to longtime women’s soccer collector (and Beat fan) Steven Bruno for sending along these double-sided roster cards that were apparently distributed free to Atlanta fans during the 2010 season in lieu of programs.
This particular match was an August 1, 2010 tilt between the Beat and FC Gold Pride, who were from the Bay Area of California. The match was played in broiling 90-degree heat and broadcast live on Fox Soccer Channel, which was somewhat unfortunate as it ended in a 0-0 draw. WPS had a problem with low scoring matches in 2010 and I always winced when we had a scoreless draw on national TV. I’m not a soccer purist myself – I have trouble appreciating such matches – so maybe this is just a personal bias from a neanderthal American sports fan. Having said that, Beat goalkeeper Hope Solo did make some spectacular saves in this game, as did her goalposts and crossbar. That was enough to keep the lowly, last place Beat in this game against the eventual league champions from California.
One other note about the Beat and Kennesaw State University Soccer Stadium. The $16.5 million facility was gorgeous and was often touted by WPS as the first soccer-specific stadium built for women’s soccer. The stadium held around 8,400 fans and the Beat averaged around half that amount, according to their announced figures. Whenever the team was on Fox Soccer Channel, the place looked dead, because the cameras always faced the empty side of the bowl. But the setting was really unmatched as far as WPS went. It’s a shame the team folded in 2012, as the stadium is now rumored for conversion to an American football field after just a very brief run as one of the premier women’s sports facilities in the United States.
Here’s the side of KSU Soccer Stadium that you could never see on TV, in an artist’s rendering:
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.
First of all, thanks to Maire Ryan, former member of the club’s Laclede’s Army supporters group, for contributing this rare scorecard from the final days of the Athletica franchise. Unfortunately, this May 8th, 2010 2-1 victory against the Philadelphia Independence at Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri turned out to be the penultimate match in Athletica’s short, chaotic history.
The team played one more match at home on May 16th, before presumed club owner Jeff Cooper informed WPS officials that he could no longer make payroll and operate his team. The news was startling and the reason was an even bigger stunner: Cooper claimed he no longer owned the team. It seems the St. Louis mesothelioma litigator quietly sold controlling interest in Athletica to Sanjay and Keemal Vaid, a pair of British commodities traders and Subway sandwich shop owners, in December 2009. Cooper never informed the league of the change in ownership and continued to serve as his team’s front man and spokesman as he had since founding the club in 2007. The story gets much stranger and is still shrouded in mystery two years later, but it would serve little purpose to delve further here, when you can just read the terrific forensic autopsy of Athletica, Cooper and the Vaid Brothers conducted by the blogger Fake Sigi back in 2010.
Athletica shut down on May 27th and all of its players were rendered free agents. Most of the top players signed with WPS’ remaining seven franchises. Lindsay Tarpley headed to Boston and her U.S. Women’s National Team teammate Shannon Boxx went to FC Gold Pride, where she helped that Bay Area-based club win the 2010 WPS Cup. Most of Athletica’s other stars signed with the last place Atlanta Beat, including Solo, St. Louis native Lori Chalupny, English National Team striker Eniola Aluko and stalwart defender Tina Ellertson. WPS fans jokingly referred to the upgraded Beat side as “Atlantica” for the rest of the 2010 season. For many of Athletica’s rookies and role players, there was nothing to laugh about. Unable to generate interest and hook on with other clubs, their professional soccer careers simply came to abrupt end.
Athletica was the second WPS franchise to go down, after the Los Angeles Sol folded during the league’s first offseason in January of 2010. But the midseason collapse of a member club was far more damaging for the fledgling league’s credibility and confidence. I asked Chicago Red Stars managing partner Arnim Whisler to reflect on the impact on his club, which was aggressively courting new investors at the time Athletica folded:
“You know, I think the departure of the Los Angeles Sol was survivable because we all knew AEG (Sol owner Anschutz Entertainment Group) was in it for one year only. We sincerely thought we had other investors that would quickly step into that franchise and market, though we needed a bit more time,” recalled Whisler.
“When St. Louis went down mid-season — with absolutely NO warning – it shook the foundations of what we had all built. It was technically survivable because we had independently owned franchises but it completely changed the willingness of investors to finalize investments that were long discussed — and not just in Chicago. It rippled through the league and shut down some discussions that other franchises were having with investors and gave pause to some of the expansion candidates and potential sponsors to wait one more year to see how it all shook out.”
“It just really put a lot of stress on the rest of league too,” says Whisler. “After the Sol folded, and then Athletica, we had to all step up on a pro-rata basis to fill the funding gaps of lost contributors — from 1/9th, to 1/8th to 1/7th. And then within a matter of months more clubs followed and it was 1/6th, 1/5th etc.
“Ultimately we all have to admit that the model wasn’t sustainable as constructed in the beginning — what many don’t know is how aggressively we were moving to a new cost structure and each year taking further steps to stabilize — but with no new investors and a continued loss of teams it became increasingly difficult. There were many issues — some governance, some financial, some legal that added pressure but keeping that franchise intact would have reduced the strain on all.”
After Athletica’s collapse, Whisler’s Red Stars never did secure the additional investors needed to stay in WPS. They withdrew from the league seven months later in December 2010. But rather than fold as other WPS franchises did, the Red Stars dropped down to the semi-pro Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) where they continue to play in 2012 alongside two more recent WPS refugees, the Boston Breakers and the Western New York Flash. Those two clubs entered the WPSL after WPS folded on January 30, 2012.
“I want to emphasize though that there is still a deep and resilient reserve of owners and supporters for Elite womens soccer in the US,” said Whisler. “Chicago Red Stars retooled and are happy in the WPSL. Boston and Western New York and numerous others are part of this discussion and will show that once we redesign a bit, the commitment remains to get this sport set up in a sustainable way.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.