The Transformation of a Soccer Club, and the Ways We Value Women’s Sports

Nearly three years ago, in New Jersey, late in a National Women’s Soccer League game between Sky Blue F.C. and the Chicago Red Stars, the Red Stars’ striker Sam Kerr flew past the defense, gathered the ball, and unleashed a shot into the low left corner of the goal—her third […]

Nearly three years ago, in New Jersey, late in a National Women’s Soccer League game between Sky Blue F.C. and the Chicago Red Stars, the Red Stars’ striker Sam Kerr flew past the defense, gathered the ball, and unleashed a shot into the low left corner of the goal—her third score of the day. But, instead of celebrating the hat trick, she hung her head. Kerr had been traded from Sky Blue to the Red Stars the previous winter; after the game, she said that she’d felt no pleasure in returning to Yurcak Field, at Rutgers University, and beating her former teammates. She nodded toward the opposing bench and said that she wished she could have taken the others with her when she left. “I’m just going to say the girls deserve better,” she added, “and leave it at that.”

Within two weeks of Kerr’s cryptic remarks, two soccer blogs, the Equalizer and Once a Metro, separately posted reports revealing that Sky Blue had no working toilets or showers in its training facilities. After practices, players would take ice baths in trash cans. Some players had used plastic bags and cardboard to cover broken windows in the housing that was provided by the team. Other players lived with host families who expected them to babysit their kids or made unsettling comments. Travel conditions were abysmal. Medical bills went unpaid.

It wasn’t a secret that the women who play professional sports often perform in unprofessional conditions, but the image of the Sky Blue star Carli Lloyd—who, in 2015, led the U.S. to the World Cup title, and has twice been named the world’s best player—having to climb into a trash can got some attention. Sky Blue’s management, scrambling, parked an old R.V. near the practice fields so that players would have access to a working toilet. It also applied for a waiver to the limit on the league’s paltry housing allowance—a reminder that, though the team’s conditions were extreme, they were not unique. The league’s minimum salary that season was fifteen thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars; the maximum salary was forty-four thousand. The U.S. Soccer Federation supported the league, and the twenty-two women on the national team were getting compensated in the low six figures, including what they were paid for national games. The Canadian federation helped cover salaries for its national-team players. Most everyone else had to find a second job, if not a third.

Sky Blue’s ownership group included Phil and Tammy Murphy, the Governor and First Lady of New Jersey, who bought a two-thirds stake in the team when it was founded, and held on to it when its league, Women’s Professional Soccer, folded after three seasons, in 2012. Sky Blue then joined the N.W.S.L. when the league launched, later that year. By 2016, according to tax returns, the Murphys had personally lost more than five million dollars on the club. They were not much involved in the day-to-day running of the team, and they were not expecting “a quick financial windfall,” Tammy Murphy told me. They wanted to show their daughter that women could play professional soccer just as men could, and they accepted the losses that came with fielding a team in a league that was not making a profit.

When the soccer blogs published their exposés, some observers pointed out that paying poverty-level wages and providing employees with porta-potties rather than working toilets was a curious way of showing support for women. Still, it wasn’t hard to see how the situation had turned grim. In 2016, the Western New York Flash won the N.W.S.L. championship—and promptly relocated and rebranded. Two years later, another team, the Boston Breakers, disbanded. Speaking with Once a Metro, the Sky Blue goalkeeper Caroline Stanley said, “I was told once by an older player not to say anything, because we don’t have a leg to stand on, because we’re not a winning team, and that we need to just be happy to have a team, a league, or they’ll take it away.”

That kind of precarity had been the dominant story line in women’s team sports for years. The National Women’s Hockey League unexpectedly cut player salaries nearly in half, in 2016, with the minimum lowered to five thousand dollars. Many top players quit. Professional softball players were making even less. The W.N.B.A. is a relative success story, but, in its twenty-five-year history, eleven teams have folded or been relocated, and many of its players make more money overseas than they do in this country. The first U.S. women’s professional soccer league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, went broke after three seasons, which is about how long W.P.S. survived, too. The N.W.S.L. had outlasted its predecessors, but its future often seemed tenuous.

The standard line was that Americans just didn’t want to watch women play professional sports. That narrative had become self-reinforcing. Rachel Allison, a professor of sociology who researches women’s soccer, sat in on meetings between W.P.S. execs and potential corporate sponsors. Attendance was low, media coverage rare, and the sponsors suggested that there wasn’t enough interest to sustain a league. “It wasn’t so much that they, as individuals or even groups, espoused overtly sexist ideas,” Allison told me. But, though framing their choices as business decisions, they seemed to share a fear “that other people”—consumers, the marketplace—“were sexist.”

What got overlooked again and again was that the major men’s leagues did not begin minting money overnight—they took the long runway of the twentieth century to establish themselves. Ten of the N.F.L.’s original fourteen teams are defunct. In the N.B.A., teams folded or teetered near collapse for decades; in the seventies, ratings for N.B.A. games on CBS were so low that affiliates sometimes refused to show them. Twenty years ago, Major League Soccer was in such a dire situation that the commissioner started to discuss filing for bankruptcy. “When the men were in the same position as us, investment was made first, then the revenues came in,” Margaret Purce, whom Sky Blue traded for last year, and who also plays for the U.S. national team, told me. She pointed not only to higher salaries but also to sponsorships, massive gaps in media-rights fees, and taxpayer-funded stadiums: between 2000 and 2016, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, forty-five stadiums collectively received more than three billion dollars in tax breaks. All of these stadiums were, of course, for men’s sports.

Yet there was a demonstrably huge audience for women’s soccer. In 2011, twenty million people in the United States watched the national team lose to Japan on penalty kicks in the Women’s World Cup final. Four years later, more than twenty-five million people in the U.S. watched the rematch, the country’s largest audience ever for an English-language broadcast of a soccer game—it was eight million more than had watched the English-language broadcast of the men’s final the previous year. And yet, when those same players put on their Sky Blue and Seattle Reign jerseys, they seemed, somehow, to disappear.

Partly, it was a problem of visibility. In the latest report from a longitudinal study of women’s sports coverage on network affiliates and on “SportsCenter,” which draws on data from 2019, the researchers found that only around five per cent of the airtime went to women’s sports. When the World Cup coverage was removed from the data, the figure dropped to between three and four per cent—even though the periods under review also included the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament, Wimbledon, the W.N.B.A. season, and the N.W.S.L. season. The paper’s lead author, Cheryl Cooky, who has been part of the project since 1999, told me that she had the same reaction to the 2019 data that she’d had in 2009 and 2014—“I’m surprised that I’m surprised,” she said. She should have known better, she thought, than to believe that things had changed. Julie Foudy, a star of the 1999 Women’s World Cup team, told me that a degree of fatalism could settle in about the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports. “You just get tired of rattling the cage,” she said. “This is the conversation we always have. ‘Are we crazy? Why is this not a story?’ ”

In their paper, Cooky and her colleagues suggested that nationalism drove the U.S. team’s popularity—and also the surge of excitement around American women in the Olympics every four years. American audiences liked American dominance, in other words, but when women were seen simply as professional athletes, and not avatars of nationalism, more sexist attitudes reasserted themselves. There may be some truth in that. But, in the past few years, organizations such as the Sports Innovation Lab, in Boston, have started to collect social-media data to measure fan engagement, and have found that fans interact with women’s sports teams and athletes in ways that aren’t captured by metrics like Nielsen ratings but that still represent financial opportunities. “The connective tissue has to be economic,” Thayer Lavielle, the executive vice-president of the Collective, the powerful Wasserman agency’s in-house think tank studying the consumer behavior of female sports fans, told me. “Whining about inequality has clearly not worked for the past millennia. So how do we create a financial story that shows it makes sense to do this?”

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, women across the sports world started connecting their efforts to a broader discussion of the devaluation of women’s work. Many of these figures had built loyal followings on social media, and they began telling a different story from the one suggested by mainstream media. “Bet on women,” the W.N.B.A.’s players’ association president, Nneka Ogwumike, wrote, in the fall of 2018, in an announcement that the league’s players had opted out of their collective-bargaining agreement, in order to push for better pay and travel conditions. The phrase has the ring of a social-justice slogan—and, sure enough, it started appearing on T-shirts. But she meant it literally: if you invest, and have patience, there will be returns.

The stories about poor conditions at Sky Blue F.C. were embarrassing for the franchise, but they had the benefit of catching Tammy Murphy’s attention. If the club was going to survive, she realized, she would have to get involved, and the owners would have to invest in the team dramatically. Before the start of the 2019 season, the general manager, Tony Novo, resigned. Alyse LaHue, who had worked for the W.N.B.A.’s Seattle Storm after several years with the Chicago Red Stars, and had recently been brought to Sky Blue in a consulting role, became the interim G.M.

LaHue set about overhauling the club. Front-office personnel and coaches who had been working part time were hired full time. LaHue found a new training facility, which featured a wellness center with ice baths and a hydro room. She met with members of the team, listened to their concerns, and registered their anger. She took a similar approach with the staff and even with fans—when a ticket holder phoned with a complaint, LaHue took the call. Rutgers lost its liquor license midseason, after the team had promoted a beer garden at an upcoming game. LaHue went to a store and filled four carts for a free-beer tailgate. (“For liability reasons, I can’t confirm that happened,” LaHue told me, laughing.)

Yurcak Field can only seat five thousand fans, in metal bleachers that line one side of the stadium. Getting there from New York City requires a car or a two-hour bus ride. Murphy and LaHue had their eyes on Red Bull Arena, a soccer-specific stadium in Harrison with seating for twenty-five thousand fans, plus a translucent polyurethane roof over the seating area, not to mention showers in the locker room. The arena, which is home to the New York Red Bulls, of M.L.S., had cost around two hundred million dollars to build; the city of Harrison had chipped in forty million dollars to buy and clean the land. (The Red Bulls subsequently argued that the team was exempt from paying the city any taxes, but a judge ruled otherwise.) It was another reminder of the different economic realities for men’s and women’s soccer clubs: the Red Bulls were losing millions of dollars a year and becoming a glorified incubator for the energy-drink corporation’s soccer teams in Europe—and yet the valuation of the team was skyrocketing, to around three hundred million dollars.

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