Part Three in the Series: How Major League Women’s Soccer Can Work in the U.S.
It was the home opener for Women’s Professional Soccer’s newest club, and what would become the league’s next and final champion, the Western New York Flash.
The roster for the home side included FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, Marta, Canada’s best, Christine Sinclair, Sweden’s best, Caroline Seger, and the hottest new member of the U.S. Women’s National Team, Alex Morgan.
The game was being televised live on Fox Soccer Channel. The stadium was the nearly new, 12,000-seat, newly renamed for the WNY Flash owner, “Sahlen’s Stadium.”
The stadium has beautiful luxury boxes, great sight lines all around and is definitely major-league-caliber. Perhaps the major-league feel of the physical venue made the cheap photocopied program that much more glaring by contrast.
In the end, the Western New York Flash would be one of only two WPS clubs to survive their league’s unceremonious dissolution. Although the attendance of the home opener was in the low-2,000s, this team would go on to set three attendance records, as well as stadium records, in the second half of the 2011 season, after the bump from the World Cup.
All things considered, the team was major league in its roster, in its practice facilities at Sahlen’s Sports Park in the Buffalo suburb of Elma and in this great new stadium in Rochester.
The ownership had spent millions on this team. So why did they skimp on the programs?
The club that became the league’s poison pill, magicJack, moved from Washington and was renamed from the Freedom to the owner’s brand name had only the roster to claim as major league.
The rest of the team's operations were classic bush league. They played in a college stadium that did not meet minimum WPS specs, refused to display sponsors signage, didn’t even employ a trainer and, from the fan perspective, along with sitting in stadium which could have been a large high school stadium in terms of the amenities, there were also cheap-looking programs.
Over the three years of WPS history, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles played in major-league venues. Washington/magicJack, Boston, NY/NJ and FC Gold Pride of the Bay Area played in college venues. St. Louis played in a private park that looked more like a park in the literal sense than in the Fenway sense.
It is not known which clubs other than those mentioned above used quality paper and graphics for their programs.
In the previous section, we discussed why cities with major sports already are not the best settings for the launching of a women’s major soccer league. Despite some of them having major-league amenities, their clubs still folded. In the case of Boston, they succeeded despite using Harvard Stadium (although it was almost major league in feel, unlike the high-school-looking field in Florida, hosting magicJack).
We also noted that WNY succeeded despite having a shoddy-looking program.
But here’s the point. Even in a smaller city, the formula for success requires the look and feel of a major league sports experience not only on the field but in the venue, in the programs, in every aspect of the fan experience. As the famous cotton commercial goes: “the touch, the feel…”
What will make major league women’s soccer successful in cities like Topeka is that it will be a source of pride, a unique opportunity to see and be a part of a major league sport with world-class talent whose brand is associated with your city.
In cities without any major league or major college sports, this will be the one thing that gives them respect and recognition. It will put them on the map. Even those who are not soccer fans, or even sports fans, will come because they will be experiencing the qualitative upgrade of their city from bush league to major league (an analysis of how the psychology of this works is another article sometime, maybe, but for now trust me, a student of sociology and psychology, that I’m right).
But, if the draw is “major league,” then every aspect, especially the small details, must be what the fans would expect from major league, what they have found when they have attended major sporting events in other towns.
Believe it or not, that is what they look for first.
When the fan walks into the stadium, they look for concessions, displays, graphics, video screens and all the rest to look just like they always look in other major-league venues. When they pick up a program, they expect it to have world-class graphics, first-class writing and to be printed on top-quality, high-gloss paper. They expect a team mascot in an elaborate costume. They expect a high-end, high-definition scoreboard. They expect the ushers and team staff to be dressed to a certain standard and to behave to a certain standard. They expect the introduction of players and the singing of the anthems to be first-class, and they expect the stadium announcer to set the mood.
The fan will encounter all of these amenities and attributes before kickoff. Before the first ball is played, the fans will feel whether or not this is major league.
If it doesn’t feel major league, it will be easy for them to discount the quality of the play on the field—all except for the soccer purists, and the history of two failed leagues tells us that a league won’t survive on soccer purists.
On the other hand, if everything feels and looks major league before kickoff, the fans will quickly buy into the product on the field. And with the best women's soccer players in the world, the product will speak for itself.
Therefore, it should be a condition for the cities selected to join the new league to build or rehab a stadium in their community that has the physical touch and feel and look of the majors. These stadiums should hold between 12,000 (like Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester) to 20,000. The smaller scale should make them affordable for the city or the county or a public private partnership, or perhaps may open the door for a company like Sahlen’s to subsidize or fully fund a stadium to meet the specs.
It may not be popular nowadays for the government to build new stadiums in major-league cities where they just built a stadium for the same team 20 or 30 years ago, but in a smaller city facing the prospect of a major-league upgrade, such a project would be much easier to sell.
Next: Building and Maintaining a Fan Base
Missed part one? Here’s the link:
And part two?