Athletica Debacle Prompts Soccer Soul Searching

I think I may be a bad person.

Why?

Today a soccer team in the USA folded because of a “funding crisis.”  

I didn’t cry.   Frankly, I barely blinked.

It made me realize that while I care deeply about the success of soccer in the USA, if I’m honest, I care deeply about the success of men’s soccer in the USA.  

I don’t even like the fact that I just wrote that, but I can begrudgingly admit that it is my reality.

You see, the team that folded was the St. Louis Athletica of the Women’s Professional Soccer league.  The team was filled with great players like Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny and Hope Solo, among others.  These are players I’ve cheered during World Cups.

Do I dislike women’s sports?  No, not at all.

Do I admire the courage and skill of the women in the WPS and who play for our National Team?  Absolutely.

But do I think the league can be a success?  Wait, do I even want the league to be a success?  Not really.  In fact, there have been moments where I just wish it would go away.

Ugh, there I go again, having words come out of me that make me uncomfortable in my own skin. 

As a husband of a hockey playing wife and the father of a beautiful little girl who I hope can play whatever the heck she wants, I am ALL FOR equal sporting access, success and excellence.  In theory.

Then why on earth would I want a women’s professional soccer to just “go away” from time to time?

Because despite die-hard fans, improving quality, investments in stadiums and lots of good news and positive signs for the future, men’s professional soccer in America is still a second class citizen that is battling for its right to exist on the national scene.  

MLS is a league that still has trouble getting the kind of attendance it needs in key markets, like mine here in Boston.  The Portuguese Champion Benfica came to play the New England Revolution recently, and there were less than 14,000 fans in attendance.  The situation felt even worse when you realize that 10,000 were clearly there to cheer the opposition.

The New York Red Bulls have a brand-new, and apparently wonderful, stadium and still had less than 14,000 when playing a match against the storied Juvenutus of the Italian Serie A.

Despite New York having beaten Juventus, with similar victories having come across the league in recent weeks against storied clubs like Boca Juniors and (somehow) A.C. Milan, there still is lackluster interest, even from soccer fans who continue to prefer watching foreign leagues on plasma screens than supporting “a league of our own.”

My thesis here is that if men’s professional soccer is surviving only because of generous owners, gradual and excruciatingly careful planning and the hopes of marketers in big companies… then investment in the women’s professional league is both unlikely to succeed and draining resources from where it would have the most likely chance of long term value-add.   Note that we are on the second attempted women’s league during the brief professional existence of MLS, as the WPS replaced the failed WUSA that preceded it.

Do I admire, respect and (occasionally) cheer for the wonderful athletes in the WPS and US Women’s National team?  Sure. 

But I cannot really support their pro-league.  This fact makes me like myself a little less.   But I’m slowly becoming OK with that.

The day we can easily support a thriving men’s professional soccer leauge, please revisit this topic with me, and I may offer a much different view about this. 

Of course, I have promised my daughter a visit to a Boston Breakers game this season… so maybe I will still be won over.   But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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9 thoughts on “Athletica Debacle Prompts Soccer Soul Searching

  1. As much as I too enjoy watching women’s soccer, I have to agree. I saw a guy in the break room today reading the paper and the NE Revolution had an article. I asked him if he was reading about the Rev’s and he looked up at me and laughed.

    One amazing thing I learned when I moved to Boston was how sports crazy this town is. People in other cities may follow one sport or even two. People here seem to get into baseball, football, hockey and Basketball. They are into all 4 and they take the sports very seriously. But there is always a cynical smile that comes to their face when they hear the word “soccer” mentioned.

    The world’s greatest tournament is about to start in South Africa and I can say with a great deal of certainty that there will be no water cooler talk in my office about a single match.

    So again, I must agree with Soccer Soap Box. We need to get the interest in Soccer here in the US. Then we can open it up for equality of the genders.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Our offices must be a bit different, because luckily I do expect some water cooler commentary about the World Cup, but sadly there isn’t much about soccer generally, or the Revolution/Breakers specifically. Without this broad interest, support for WPS strikes me as unlikely, however unfortunate that might be.

  2. This article is unbelievably offensive.

    If I’ve understood correctly (“….investment in the women’s professional league is both unlikely to succeed and draining resources from where it would have the most likely chance of long term value-add”), the author is saying that women’s soccer is a parasite taking resources from men’s soccer. My first reaction is that this is a very paranoid line of thought.

    My second reaction is, who cares if the women do take resources that might have gone to the men? The U.S. women’s national team is ranked #1 in the world by FIFA, and has held that spot for years. The men are #14. WPS teams attract not just the best American players, but also players like Brazil’s Marta and England’s Kelly Smith; the best female players in the world. The list of international superstars playing on MLS teams begins with David Beckham, ends with Thierry Henry, and doesn’t have much in between. I don’t see how anyone can begrudge a women’s soccer league in the United States when it offers world-class gameplay and a far more concentrated talent pool than the MLS.

    I wish the author would question why he cares only about men’s soccer in this country, and that he would also reconsider his reflexive assumption that American men’s soccer should always be prioritized over the far more successful women’s program.

    • First, thanks for reading and I appreciate the comment. Second, apologies for offending you. That said, you did interpret the general theme correctly. You’ve also hit on why I was conflicted about my position.

      Are the US women more “successful” than the US men? From a results/international-performance standpoint, that would be an unqualified yes. Does the WPS have a higher relative caliber of international talent than MLS? Again, a clear yes.

      I suppose my problem is this, despite those “truths” (and some others that I’m certain we could easily create about the women’s game in the United States) — nobody cares. (OK, not “nobody” exactly… )

      Do I wish there was enough interest/room in the market for a successful women’s soccer league? Sure. Irrespective of my view and interest in the men’s and women’s professional leagues, I would love to live in a world where that would be a no brainer. Of course, in that world WNBA women would be as well known and paid as NBA men. For reasons that neither of us could solve on my little online therapy session (this blog) that isn’t the case.

      But before an allegiance to any league or team, I am a fan of the sport and would like it to make further inroads here in the US. Unlike the WNBA example, where you have a sport that has a demonstrable fan-base willing to pay for tickets and buy merchandise, soccer remains much more second class and it fights for any ground it gains. I remain unconvinced that there’s demand enough for the WPS in a country that hasn’t proven deep interest in any professional soccer. And every league failure will be used as an excuse to proclaim that “soccer just doesn’t work” here in the USA.

      So yes, begrudgingly, I submit that until the sport’s future is beyond a doubt my attention (and thus my “investment”) is mostly diverted toward the men’s game. Since, whether fair or not, that is what reality tells me will make an impact.

  3. Not that I want to debate this, but I am afraid the point might be missed by the article if it is merely seen as being offensive to women. I would argue that the article author and Nclausing have the same end goal in mind, but different means to achieve it.

    What goal is that? Interest in soccer. That is what we want. For the rest of this country to see what every other country in the world sees; what we see. That is world class soccer, both for men and women. But lets face it, we need to take things one step at a time.

    The truth of the matter is to achieve this goal we need money. Money to support the teams. The article is not an attack on women’s soccer, but merely an acknowledgment of reality. Yes the women’s US National team is ranked #1 and we (the 3 of us and a select few of our friends) like watching them play and win. It is great. They are the best in the world. Unfortunately, in this country, where we live, not only do not enough people want to watch them, but they do not want to watch any soccer. There in lies the problem.

    Most Americans did not grow up learning to appreciate soccer. There is not a point scored within every 24 seconds and attention spans are lost. I overheard someone talking tonight about the Celtics game. They said what the score was midway through the first quarter. Who cares? It all comes down to the last 2 minutes of the game. But in soccer, 1 goal in the first 10 minutes of the game could make the entire difference.

    I will say to Nclausing, if you want Women’s soccer to take off in this country, then you need to set the example. Make it something that your family and your friends want to watch and enjoy. Expand that out and keep spreading the word. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I would think we would not want to attack one of our own. We all want the same thing.

    In a perfect world our men and women’s teams would not have to compete for the same limited funds from ticket sales and endorsements. But we do not live in a perfect world. We have an uphill battle to make soccer successful in this country for both men and women, but we need to be realistic in our approach. It may not be ideal, but hopefully we will all get what we want in the end.

  4. Thanks, Bob and GC, for responding so reasonably. I’ve calmed down a bit and I’m ready to do the same!

    GC, I completely agree with you when you say we all want the same thing–We really are all on the same page, wishing soccer were more appreciated in this country. (I’m also with you on basketball. Never understood why people get excited about baskets when they happen several times a minute. Thought it was just me.)

    Bob, I really do appreciate your response. I see that you’re coming from a place of concern about soccer in general. I just wish soccer programs in this country didn’t have to fight each other tooth and nail for limited resources. I wish there were more co-operation. I remember that in the WUSA days, the CyberRays used to have double headers with the Earthquakes. I don’t know how many people stuck around for both games but I know I always did.

    In the end, look at what just happened here: Three people are taking time out of their day to talk about American soccer. That can only be good, right?

    • Fair play all around – you were the most articulate offended person I’ve ever dealt with. 😉

      I knew I was on thin ice when I wrote that, and I’m with you… debate is a good thing for both the men and women’s game. I truly wish a thriving soccer community made this discussion irrelevant… perhaps some day it will.

      For now, let’s hope the men head to South Africa and do half as well as our women do at such tournaments. Our ladies remain the shining example of US international soccer success, they could use some company.

  5. I feel as if I could have written this column, just from the opposite perspective: if I have to choose between a first-rate women’s team and a third-rate men’s team, I’ll take the former any day. My interest in MLS is marginal at best (last year I left before DC United played in the RFK doubleheaders), and the only positive I see about having a men’s team in the Washington Freedom’s area is the possibility of eventually getting a soccer-specific stadium for both teams out of it. There’s no synergy between the two teams and almost no overlap among the fans, at least judging by the lack of DC United fans who arrived early last year to watch the Freedom.

    I guess that makes me a bad person, too, just for different reasons. 😉

    • Touché… being soccer fans, and (I’m guessing bot) Americans, we were destined to be considered bad people either way. At least we are both coming to grips with that.

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