fb-pixelNWSL Boston plan to renovate White Stadium will limit student access Skip to main content
High schools

Plan for professional soccer at White Stadium sharply reduces access for Boston high school football

Professional women’s soccer team coming to Boston
WATCH: Reporter Michael Silverman breaks the news that Boston is going to be home to a new professional women’s soccer team after going five years without one.

Since 1949, White Stadium has served as the hub of football for the Boston Public Schools. But when the refurbished stadium opens in 2026 as the home of the city’s new franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League, those days will be over.

City officials say football will be prohibited at the stadium during the professional soccer season, which in 2024 is scheduled to run from March 16 until Nov. 3, followed by playoffs at the home fields of higher seeds through Nov. 17, and a championship game at a neutral site on Nov. 23.

Most high school games have already been played by November.

Advertisement



“I feel homeless,” said Rocco Zizza, the longtime coach of Boston Latin Academy’s football team, which has called White Stadium home for decades. “It’s really disheartening because it’s tough to have a football program when you don’t have a set place to practice and play.”

Fans head into a game at White Stadium last month.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

What’s best for Boston, White Stadium, and BPS athletes may not be as detrimental to its football teams as some fear, said Dion Irish, the city’s chief of operations. He predicted that the redeveloped stadium will be an “amazing opportunity for all our kids,” including football players, when it’s not being used by the new soccer team.

“This will actually elevate high school football in Boston because we’ve never really had a venue like this for the end-of-season games that are really the marquee games,” Irish said.

In perhaps the city’s most impactful investment in its chronically underfunded school athletic system in generations, Mayor Michelle Wu has pledged to renovate the long-neglected and decaying stadium in Franklin Park in partnership with the NWSL expansion team’s ownership group. The city’s cost could approach $50 million, depending on the final design plans, according to Wu’s office.

Advertisement



The NWSL ownership group, Boston Unity Soccer Partners, has pledged an additional $30 million to help redevelop the stadium as the first venue in the nation to house both a major league sports team and a public school system’s athletics programs in a facility owned by a school district.

White Stadium is used for a number of events in the area beyond high school sports, including the BAA Half Marathon.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Thousands of student-athletes in the Boston Public Schools are expected to benefit. Boys’ and girls’ teams each fall will play soccer on natural grass maintained to a professional league’s standards, and a new eight-lane track could restore the stadium as a regional jewel of high school track and field and cross-country events.

But the news is less rosy for the city’s 10 high school football teams. No football game or practice will be permitted during the NWSL season in order to preserve the grass field, Irish said. The field will be available for high school soccer matches as well as track and field events during much of the women’s soccer season.

Boston Unity Soccer Partners cited the project’s broader benefits.

“We are excited to develop a world-class sports facility in the heart of Boston that serves as a worthy home pitch for BPS student-athletes and our club while enhancing the vibrancy and activation of Franklin Park,” the group said in a statement. “We will continue to work closely with the City of Boston, the Boston Public Schools, and the surrounding neighborhoods in the ongoing, comprehensive engagement process for the revitalization of White Stadium.”

Advertisement



Linda Henry, chief executive officer of the Globe, is an investor in Boston Unity Soccer Partners.

Irish, who played football for Dorchester High School (now TechBoston) in the 1980s, said the upgraded stadium will be available for games late in the regular high school season, playoff matchups, and Thanksgiving contests.

White Stadium also is home to Boston Latin School’s football team, as well as a regular venue for some other high school football programs in the city.

Those teams will need new homes in 2024 and 2025 while White Stadium is being renovated, and most of each subsequent season. The professional soccer team anticipates playing about 20 games a year at White Stadium, whose seating will be expanded to 11,000 from 10,000 to satisfy league standards.

“When you get into these public-private partnerships, the people footing the bill get a lot of say in how things work,” said Ray Butler, Boston Latin School’s football coach. “But it could be a great opportunity for us to see what else is out there that could work for the foreseeable future. I know this: We’ll find a way.”

Pop Warner players walk off the field at Clifford Park in Roxbury, which is being renovated.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

Irish said one alternative may be Clifford Park in Roxbury, which is due to reopen in 2026 after a projected $6 million overhaul. The city’s commitment to renewing the site, a short distance from the controversial homeless encampment near Mass. and Cass, followed complaints of drug use and other criminal activities at the park.

“We’re still working on logistics, but there will be enough fields for everyone to have a good place to play during construction” at White Stadium, Irish said.

Advertisement



No one disputes the dilapidated condition of White Stadium, both the structure and field. Zizza and Butler, who also played there in the 1980s for Latin Academy, said the field and adjacent practice area has at times become unusable due to quagmires caused by autumn rains and poor drainage.

“There’s nothing wrong with trying to make things better,” Butler said. “As long as we keep trying to do the best we can with the resources we have, we’ll be OK.”

Zizza has also coached the Latin Academy softball team for more than 20 years. He noted that Boston Unity Soccer’s core ownership group is composed of women who are investing in a women’s team that is expected to inspire young female student-athletes.

“It’s kind of ironic because I’ve spent my career coaching football and softball, and I put as much effort into coaching girls as I do coaching guys,” Zizza said. “I understand they’re trying to empower women’s sports. No one is for that more than me, but at what expense? For the football teams, this is kind of a kick in the butt.”

A rendering of the proposal presented by Boston Unity Soccer Partners to revitalize White Stadium and the area around it.Courtesy

In its heyday, White Stadium drew overflow crowds, with as many as 16 high school teams playing there each week from 1949 through the 1960s. Several initiatives aimed at expanding the stadium failed in later years, before its condition began to rapidly decline.

A breakthrough appeared possible after a Globe series in 2009 exposed the city’s substandard support for BPS athletics. Mayor Thomas Menino weighed investing $45 million to refurbish the stadium in partnership with Suffolk Construction owner John Fish, who responded to the Globe series by contributing millions of dollars to improve BPS athletics and pledged $5 million to upgrade the stadium. But the plan faltered.

Advertisement



Now comes Wu’s partnership with Boston Unity Soccer, which has proposed renovating the stadium’s west grandstand, upgrading the adjacent Grove area, and installing roofs over each grandstand. The city is expected to refurbish the east grandstand, build new offices for the BPS athletic department, and construct new training facilities and locker rooms.

“None of us ever had access to something like BPS students are going to have access to when the White Stadium project is completed,” Irish said.

Yet it remains to be seen how many BPS football teams will remain viable. Due to declining enrollment and participation, only seven BPS schools fielded varsity football teams this year: BLA, BLS, Brighton, East Boston, English, O’Bryant, and TechBoston. Other schools have closed or consolidated, and three once-formidable programs — Charlestown, Madison Park, and South Boston — managed to field only junior varsity teams this year.

To Zizza, the loss of football at White Stadium for the next two years and most of each subsequent season will widen the competitive gap between BPS schools and suburban opponents with first-rate, easily accessible fields.

“It’s just another obstacle in trying to build a program that can compete with schools outside the city,” he said.

To Butler, Latin School has a history of overcoming facility challenges. Latin, which practices in the Fens, has had multiple homes throughout its history, including Daly Field in Brighton.

“We can’t control any of this stuff,” Butler said. “I’m going to keep a positive attitude, and maybe we can come out of this better.”

TechBoston is one of only seven BPS schools to field football teams this past season.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Read more about the NWSL


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.