ON A PERFECT SUMMER NIGHT for soccer, Harvard Stadium greets two women’s pro teams with unfilled rows of terraced concrete. Kickoff is moments away. The Star-Spangled Banner and starting lineups blast from the public address system, then bounce off all the hard, empty surfaces. In the second half, the home team announces official attendance as 2,714. The meager number doesn’t fill even 10 percent of the 30,323-seat stadium. Instead, with its classic Greek and Roman Circus-inspired architecture, the arena makes the small group of spectators clustered on its north side appear even smaller.
Breakers general manager Lee Billiard relays a few game-night instructions into a walkie-talkie in his English Midlands accent, then says, “You can’t name one other women’s professional team that’s got to go against the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins, the Celtics.” Yes, that is the unenviable, impossible task left to the Breakers, the Boston entry in the National Women’s Soccer League. From their April home opener through their August regular season finale, the Breakers’ schedule annually overlaps with either the training camps, game days, or playoff runs of the city’s beloved men’s professional teams.
In the race for Boston sports fans’ affections and dollars and for media and sponsor attention, the men’s teams enjoy a decades-long headstart. Or, as Billiard says, “it’s a constant battle, and it’s a battle that we’re never going to win. But we can put up a good fight, and we can do better than what we’re doing right now.” As he speaks, a dozen young girls climb the massive stadium stands with moms, dads, and youth soccer coaches in tow, ready for the Breakers-Seattle Reign matchup. It’s a familiar sight, with female preteens and teenagers often the default fan for women’s professional teams.
Knowing the Breakers need to reach beyond the youth soccer market to become a viable pro team, Billiard backed the move to Harvard Stadium for the 2014 season, leaving behind the cozy confines of 2,500-seat Dilboy Stadium in Somerville. While the small venue still works for the Boston Militia, a semi-professional full-contact women’s football team, the Breakers found it cramped. With soccer fans lining up for standing-room-only tickets at Dilboy last season, Billiard hoped for an increase in attendance at Harvard Stadium and believed a breakthrough waited around the corner.
After all, sports-crazed Boston with its Big Papi-sized appetite for professional games would seem a city with fanaticism to spare. But the breakthrough didn’t happen. The team struggled on the field and in the stands. For the 2014 campaign, the 12 Breakers home games drew, on average, 2,437 fans per contest.
Although it’s been 42 years since Title IX required that federally funded schools provide girls and women with equal opportunities to compete in sports, 17 years since the WNBA played its first season, 16 years since women’s ice hockey debuted at the Winter Olympics and the United States won gold and spurred young girls’ interest in the sport, and 15 years since the US women’s national soccer team drew 90,185 fans to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for a women’s World Cup final, widespread interest in women’s professional team sports remains frustratingly elusive. The problems that plague teams in Boston often stymie female leagues nationwide: small operating budgets; lack of exposure; ill-fitting venues; competition from live local men’s games and an ever-increasing variety of nationally televised sports contests; fans stuck on the fact that female athletes aren’t as fast, strong, or physical as their male counterparts.
Absent deep-pocketed investors who can commit for several years, women’s professional teams and leagues find themselves scrambling to survive almost from the moment they launch. With the notable exception of the National Basketball Association-supported WNBA, women’s pro leagues never get a chance to play the kind of long game that could build momentum and diverse fan bases. “Women’s sports are still sort of niche sports,” says Angela Ruggiero, president of the Women’s Sports Foundation based in New York City and a four-time Olympic medalist in women’s ice hockey. “Part of it is visibility. Because most women’s sports don’t get the same coverage compared to men, it’s not the same fan experience, and it’s much harder to get invested. Part of it is that sports fans are still trying to understand and appreciate women’s sports and female athletes.”
Recent headline-makers Mo’Ne Davis, the female 13-year-old Little League World Series pitching phenom, and Becky Hammon, the first full-time paid female NBA assistant coach, drew national attention because their accomplishments came in male-dominated sports arenas. They appealed to wider audiences as novelty acts, momentarily entertaining exceptions to the standard sports narrative.
All too often sports inertia takes hold. Fans follow the familiar — the male athletes traditionally championed; the teams that parents and grandparents cheer; the seasonal rituals long established by NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB schedules. And so exposure-rich men’s teams keep getting richer.
BRIMMING WITH OPTIMISM and ideas about how to draw wider audiences to women’s pro games, John Power, the newest investor in the Breakers, says, “The way I like to think of it is we’re the best-kept secret in Boston sports.” It has the ring of a marketing slogan, though not one the Breakers want to hang onto. When the team’s schedule took it away from Harvard Stadium for six weeks this summer, Power, Billiard, and others in the organization brainstormed ways to gain a greater, more diverse following. Power excitedly mentions plans to offer more food options at Harvard Stadium concession stands, going beyond kid-friendly fried dough and chicken fingers into more sophisticated territory. He utters the words “steak tips” with the same certitude as “plastics” was spoken in The Graduate . Says Power, “We really have to introduce ourselves to a huge swath of this amazing sports town, then we can tell them who we are.”
As with many initiatives in women’s pro sports, the Breakers’ push for awareness will likely be ambitious yet cost-conscious. This season, the Breakers had an operating budget of $1.3 million that covered everything from salaries for the team’s players and seven full-time staff members to marketing to stadium security for games. Players make about $15,000 per season. Billiard not only performs all the typical roster-building general manager duties, he also, as he says, wears “many hats,” including writing game programs and making sure sponsorship signage is properly displayed for matches. With the exception of one late-season game shown on ESPN2, the lone broadcast option for Breakers fans this year was live streams on the National Women’s Soccer League’s YouTube channel. For perspective, the Red Sox will pay relief pitcher Junichi Tazawa $1.3 million this season and employ nine full-time staff in the marketing department alone, including a fan clubs specialist. Plus, the team’s parent company, Fenway Sports Group, holds 80 percent ownership of primary game broadcaster the New England Sports Network (Red Sox principal owner John Henry also owns The Boston Globe).
The Boston Blades, part of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, subsist on much less than the Breakers. Blades head coach Digit Murphy, a feisty and often unfiltered talker, sees her hockey team as a startup business with similar financial and marketing challenges. “Because women’s sports are in their infancy in so many ways, you need to come up with creative solutions to mainstream your sport in the public’s eyes,” she says. “Because you have fewer resources, you often find yourself in a position of doing more with less. And that carries over to the athletes as well.”
The Blades’ regular-season contests are uploaded onto YouTube, but not live-streamed. Coaching staffs are paid a combined $15,000 per season. The players, many US and Canadian national team members who represent the best in the world, go without salaries, instead receiving what Murphy calls “an $8,000 to $10,000 benefit” each season. Translation: The players get the benefit of having a place to play; a group of high-level teammates to train alongside; and the cost of travel, ice time, uniforms, equipment, and coaches covered by the league. On the Blades, players without national team stipends hold down regular full-time jobs to earn a living.
To keep the team from slipping too far into the red, Murphy and her players hustle when off the ice, staging fund-raisers, golf outings, and community hockey clinics. In exchange for the clinics, youth hockey programs agree to purchase tickets to upcoming Blades games. The going rate last season: one clinic for a group that buys 20 tickets priced at $7 apiece.
Still, the Blades have virtually zero visibility in the area. Forward Meghan Duggan, a Danvers-raised two-time US Olympian and former women’s national collegiate player of the year, barely knew the team existed until shortly before Boston selected her eighth overall in the 2011 Canadian Women’s Hockey League draft. It doesn’t help that the Blades have no marketing budget, forget about a marketing staff, and played games last season at Merrimack College’s 2,549-seat Lawler Rink in North Andover. Nearly 30 miles removed from Boston and its public transportation network, the Blades drew about 250 fans, mostly young girls, per game last season. Looking for a more convenient location and larger crowds, the Blades will play their 2014-15 schedule at UMass Boston, with their home opener November 15.
So far this year, the best publicity the Blades received actually came at Fenway Park. On April 24, at a Red Sox-Yankees game that honored New England’s 2014 Winter Olympians, Duggan threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Before she released the ball, Duggan reached behind her ear for an imaginary patch of pine tar. The move mocked Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda, whom umpires ejected from the previous night’s game for doctoring the ball. Her pitch went viral and made national headlines. It was the kind of crossover attention women’s hockey players rarely receive outside the Olympics, getting baseball fans to Google Duggan and making a video of the pitch one of the most popular clips on the MLB website.
At first, Duggan laughs when asked how that moment may have helped promote women’s hockey and the Blades, may have done more than her appearances at camps and clinics combined. Then the captain of the 2014 US Olympic women’s hockey team turns serious. “I would like to think anything I do, anywhere I go, whether I’m coaching or speaking or playing, would encourage interest in women’s hockey,” she says. “If the pitch did that, excellent.”
The Women’s Sports Foundation’s Ruggiero, who played for the Blades as well as in two other now-defunct women’s pro hockey leagues, acknowledges that an inconvenient stadium or lack of regular TV coverage can be a turnoff for fans. “The level of work required to be a fan of female sports is a hurdle that most average fans aren’t willing to jump over,” she says. “If I’m trying to follow a sport, I want to be able to consume that sport at will. With women’s sports, you have to do a lot of digging. You might be watching games that are live-streamed as opposed to broadcast.”
Former NBA commissioner David Stern, meanwhile, can check WNBA television ratings as one measure of the league’s growth. In 2013, national regular season WNBA broadcasts on ESPN2 averaged 231,000 viewers, bettering the 220,000 for men’s Major League Soccer matches on ESPN and ESPN2. To get to this point, the NBA standing behind the WNBA was crucial. “It sure as heck helps to have a big brother to smooth over the rough spots, and we’ve had a lot of rough spots,” says Stern, who oversaw the launch of the WNBA in 1997 and now advises the NBA and several other enterprises from his Fifth Avenue office in New York.
Stern knows the WNBA has traveled a long road with naysayers all along the way. They’re still out there, seizing on every downturn in attendance and viewership. Meanwhile, Stern views the future of women’s pro sports with a mix of optimism and pragmatism. He believes that the ongoing search for sports content by major television networks, the rise of Title IX beneficiaries to high-level business positions, and the opportunities presented by social media all augur well for the women’s side. At the same time, he wonders if a perfect combination of factors, chief among them the full support of the NBA, positioned the WNBA in “the right window, and it’s going to be hard for another women’s league.”
MANY FANS BELIEVE female athletes lack the skill, speed, strength, and overall entertainment value that males display. And women’s pro sports are partly to blame for this perception, as they originally marketed their players more as role models than great athletes. Understandably, it’s hard to sell a product widely perceived as inferior. But it’s not impossible.
Marketing expert David Schmittlein, dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests light beer as a case study. “When light beer was invented, it was terrible,” he says. “If anything, it was for girls, because real beer drinkers didn’t drink light beer. Ironically enough, that changed with football players like John Madden characterizing it not as light but as less filling. . . . The challenge for light beer was to create a distinctive value for the product. That is to some degree the challenge for women’s sports.
“What makes it a different and, in some respects, a better kind of experience than the men? How is it better? I don’t think women’s sports leagues are very diligent about asking that or knowing the answer to that.”
Even if they could identify what makes women’s pro sports superior, Schmittlein recognizes that changing perceptions and building an appetite likely will take generations.
Fans forget how long men’s leagues struggled before they broke through and became billion-dollar enterprises with worldwide followings. Stern points out that the NBA was founded in 1946, played to half-empty arenas for more than a decade, and, until the early 1980s, saw the Finals broadcast on tape delay. “We knew how to cope with disrespect,” jokes Stern. Then he recounts how ever since the WNBA’s first games in 1997, he’s heard about the league’s imminent demise. “The only time we began to take up the ‘cause’ was when the predominantly male media said this thing is a one-year phenomenon, then a three-year phenomenon, then a five-year phenomenon,” says Stern. “We got motivated by that.”
Having a long memory can make the future prospects of women’s pro sports look better. But unlike the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB, women’s leagues may not have the decades necessary to develop and establish compelling, profitable identities. Already, women’s pro leagues have left behind an alphabet soup of past incarnations. The WBL, ABL, WUSA, WPS, NWHL. So it’s understandable if some women’s teams favor survival mode over long-term planning.
Plus, these days of saturation — where fans find an endless variety of sports entertainment options and expect to follow their favorite teams any time, anywhere on a variety of platforms — are not the easiest environment for a startup. The 20-year “slow build” that Brian Burke, the president of hockey operations for the Calgary Flames and a Canadian Women’s Hockey League board member, envisions for women’s pro hockey may be too slow to work for women’s leagues that are playing from behind.
Consider this snapshot of the distance to cover: After every home game at Harvard Stadium, Breakers midfielder Joanna Lohman signed autographs for young girls. Her short, highlighted blond hair gave her a distinctive look. Still, before she put pen to paper, they often asked her, “What’s your name? What’s your position?” She had just played in front of the same girls. “I love having them there, and I love that they want my autograph,” says Lohman, who was waived by the Breakers earlier this month, “but there’s not that diehard interest that you want in your fan base.” She understands that the girls and their parents lead busy lives filled with millions of distractions and other sports. So, she adds, that’s all the more reason to recruit twenty- and thirtysomethings, who grew up with soccer and might have a more developed understanding of the game, and other groups like the lesbian community. In May, the WNBA announced plans to directly target LGBTQ fans, becoming the first professional league to openly court that demographic.
But whatever the demographic, women’s professional teams need more devoted fans like Steph Yang, who took time away from studying for the Massachusetts bar exam to produce Breakers postgame podcasts. When the Breakers played in the first nationally televised match on the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League schedule, a mid-July contest less than a month before the end of the regular season, she attended a viewing party at a restaurant in Harvard Square. During the game, Yang, who played soccer for MIT, sat on the edge of her seat, sometimes it seemed trying to will the ball into the net. She knew the strengths, weaknesses, and season-long stats of the starters on both teams. With each Breakers goal, she rose to her feet and hollered at the TV screen along with the six other superfans at the party.
“For every 10 girls, maybe there’s one girl who is genuinely inspired,” says 29-year-old Yang, who leads the Breakers’ roughly 10-member supporters group called the Armada. “But it’s not a sustainable market. If you bring your kids to one game a season, are they going to grow up to be season ticket holders? The kids are there for the experience. For them, it’s not about the deeper emotional connection that an adult can have to a team.”
WHEN THE WNBA relocated the Orlando Miracle to Uncasville, Connecticut, a rural outpost where the Mohegan Sun Casino dominates riverside real estate, it was a curious move. Would fans travel to games 45 miles from the nearest city? Could a women’s pro team fill the casino’s 9,323-seat basketball arena and create a sustainable, passionate fan base? As it turned out, yes, yes, and yes. Renamed the Connecticut Sun, the team played its first home game on May 24, 2003, before a sellout crowd and a national television audience. The team reached the WNBA Finals in 2004 and 2005. Then, in 2010, the Sun became the first profitable WNBA franchise. Today, six of 12 WNBA organizations are cash-flow positive.
Uncasville proved the right place with the right team, a yin to Boston’s sports yang. The Sun is the sole top-level professional franchise in Connecticut, facing limited competition from minor league teams, not the NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB. That results in more coverage, from mentions on local, nightly newscasts to articles on the front pages of area newspapers. Sun vice president and general manager Chris Sienko says the team’s visibility “makes us legitimate in the eyes of the sports fans.”
Equally important, Connecticut knows and loves its women’s basketball, thanks to the nine-time national champion University of Connecticut Huskies. “There’s an educated fan base here, and there’s an acknowledgment that women can play this sport very well,” says Sun head coach Anne Donovan, who’s guided teams in five different WNBA markets.
When asked if Boston was ever considered for a WNBA team, Stern says, “We’ve never had strong expressions of interest.” He figures only an uber-successful local women’s college program in the mold of UConn could create demand.
The Sun finished the 2014 season averaging 5,980 fans per game with what Sienko calls “a nice mixture of all walks of life and all age levels.” The team’s data indicate that women account for 55 percent of attendance. The two largest segments are seniors and families, each comprising around 30 percent of the crowd. The only place where the franchise feels the effect of its location is with slow group sales.
“Year in and year out, we always have different objectives,” says Sienko. “Can we garner more of a fan base with X? Do you market differently? Ultimately, what we’ve found is you can’t market differently because you’re talking about the best female athletes in the world at what they do. We try to sell sports to the sports fan.”
But the Sun wouldn’t be selling anything without NBA leadership recognizing that a women’s league made business sense. In the early ’90s, the league had empty arenas it wanted to fill in the summer and regional sports networks it wanted to provide with fresh programming. As a marketing strategy, the NBA also thought putting professional basketball in front of fans year-round would help its league grow. Enter the WNBA. According to Stern, at the time, the new league’s name was intended as “a statement about how much we were dedicated to its success.” Through good and bad years, expansion, contraction, and relocation, the players and coaches felt the depth of the NBA’s commitment. Says Donovan, the Sun head coach, “I thank God every night for David Stern.”
Now, individual teams in other sports are trying the NBA’s “big brother” approach. And it could be the key to building and sustaining women’s pro leagues.
The Major League Soccer team in Portland, Oregon, the Timbers, owns the city’s National Women’s Soccer League team, the Thorns. The clubs share management and employees who work on strategies for both teams, pulling off what Timbers/Thorns president of business operations Mike Golub describes as “an amazingly successful collaboration.” That’s not just talk. The Thorns averaged 13,362 fans per game this season. Much like the Sun, the Thorns benefit from a city with a rich tradition of women’s college soccer in the University of Portland, a two-time national champion. Additionally, during the summer, no other local major league professional sports teams compete besides the Thorns and Timbers.
In Calgary, Alberta, Brian Burke has big ideas for the Inferno, the women’s pro hockey team in town. While the Flames and Inferno are independent operations, the Flames’ president of hockey operations and women’s hockey fan throws out a long list of possible joint events: Doubleheaders that feature both teams. Back-to-back practices that put the Inferno on the ice in front of Flames reporters. Autograph sessions with Flames players between periods of Inferno games. For Burke, who has six sisters and four daughters, it’s part sound business strategy and part personal.
“Girls hockey registrations are up,” says Burke, “so it’s a growth sector for us. It’s half of the public we’re trying to reach. And it’s not right that these women don’t have the same opportunities that men have. I’m offended by that.”
A few years ago, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League leadership approached the Bruins about financially supporting the Blades. Recalling that entreaty, Bruins president Cam Neely notes that the team then “felt our financial resources were best directed toward youth hockey.” Neely adds that, at this time, the Bruins “have not made any decisions” about involvement with the Blades and their marketing efforts. New England Revolution president Brian Bilello says that the organization has talked with the Breakers about future collaborations like a doubleheader at Gillette Stadium, but there are no concrete plans.
AT MOSTLY EMPTY Harvard Stadium, two men arrive in business suits and make for the concession stands. It’s shortly after kickoff of the Breakers-Reign game. Old colleagues Jim Gordon and Ed McCarthy both have daughters who played soccer, but this night they come without family. Demographically speaking, they are outliers, yet a vision of where the Breakers fan base could go. The 51-year-old McCarthy had watched an exhibition game near his home and came away sold on the product. Near the stadium for work meetings, McCarthy wanted to see the Breakers again and invited Gordon. “If you enjoy soccer, then women’s soccer is pure soccer,” says the 64-year-old Gordon, explaining why, with marketing catch-phrase economy, he came. And with that, they head into the stands, McCarthy carrying a bottle of Bud Light.