Red Stars Woo the City of Broad Shoulders

John HowellAnalyst IApril 21, 2009

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 24:  Nikki Krzysik (L) and Carli Lloyd unveil the Chicago Red Stripes team uniforms during a fashion show to unveil the new uniforms for the Women's Professional Soccer League February 24, 2009 in New York City, New York.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

As much as Chicago is a sports town and a soccer town, it isn't necessarily a women's sports town. The Chicago Bulls passed on the option to sponsor a WNBA team, citing market research indicators that the public wouldn't support it. Although an independently owned Chicago Sky is preparing for their fourth WNBA season, attendance continues to underwhelm.

One hopes the Sky's slow start has more to say about the local appetite for watching indoor sports in the summer than its taste for women's sports, but we'll find out soon enough, as the WPS Chicago Red Stars begin a new era in Chicago sports.

Perhaps the best thing about being a part of the debut of a major league women's sport for a fan, is a benefit derived from the sport's initial second class status. Those who purchased Red Stars inaugural season tickets, have had unprecedented access to players, front office personnel, and numerous perks normally reserved for owners or members of the press at the professional level. 

For fans who did get involved early, the excitement as the team moved toward opening day equaled that of a child counting the days before Christmas. They hung on every press release, every email, every signing. They did their research on each player as soon as the jersey was issued. They flocked to the stadium on a cold Saturday morning in March to pick their season seats, then loading up on team gear and player autographs. They followed the team's first two outings on the road with a personal sense of investment in the outcome as if they themselves were owners or players. And then finally, the home opener.

April 19 in Chicago wasn't the opening day anyone would have ordered. It was cold and there was a steady rain. A Disney Radio pregame festival complete with music, face painting, balloon art had to go under cover. The sales department had opened up extra seats due to a near sellout in the designated area at Toyota Park, but few of those extra seats were occupied. And—the home team was held scoreless by opponent FC Sky Blue. But...

It was still a great day. Despite the rain, the crowd came out in force, wearing team colors, bubbling with enthusiasm. The north side of the stadium was nearly full, with an announced attendance of nearly 6,000.

There were dollar hot dogs.

Despite their inability to score, the Red Stars defense reciprocated the opponents efforts to save a 0-0 tie.

At the end of the day the home team is undefeated and have allowed only one goal. Keeper Caroline Johnson of Sweden has established herself already as the class of the league. The defensive unit has been stellar overall.

On the offensive end, Lindsay Tarpley has scored twice. Megan Rapinoe has emerged as a factor on both sides of the field, making plays, stopping opponent's plays, infusing the entire side with her seemingly limitless energy. Her efforts earned her "Player of the Game" honors from opening day fans. 

Now, three games into the WPS inaugural season, the Red Stars have established themselves, as expected, as a force to be reckoned with. Offense has been under-performing so far, but the defense has stood up. Despite scoring only two goals in three games, the team's dominance on the offensive end of the field thus far, with the exception of the Washington game, when the team was shorthanded, shows promise. There is no question that this team will come to play every game, every minute of every game and will finish strong.

The question is, where does Chicago stand on the issue of women's sports? Ironically the Red Stars not only have to compete with Chicago's other soccer team for fan support but with Chicago's other women's pro team, as the WNBA season overlaps with the WPS for all but the first month.

It's a big town. There's more than enough fans and funds to go around. And in a recession, the Red Stars are clearly the best Major League value in the city that works. Hopefully the lure of a bargain will reveal what proves to be a value at any price.