Third Time’s The Charm?

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What went wrong with the WPS? They tried to establish teams in markets where women’s soccer isn’t traditionally watched, such as the United States

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) completed a modest inaugural season in 2013 and is now in full swing for its second. This is the third attempt to sustain a professional women’s soccer league in the US, following both the W-USA (2000-2003) and the WPS(2009-2012). Like most past efforts to kick-start a professional women’s league in the US, the NWSL followed a widely-watched event that the US Women’s national team won: this time the 2012 Olympics, where they won gold. But given the debacles that caused previous failures, there has been a lot of skepticism, contrasted only with cautious optimism, about the NWSL. This spoof report of the WPS’s failure from The Onion hits marks that are so close to the truth that they sting a little: “tried to establish teams in markets where women’s soccer isn’t traditionally watched, such as the United States,” and “many of the best players chose a more lucrative career path, such as unemployment.” When the WPS folded, players had no paying options left in the US, with only the semi-professional W League. Many opted for that just to keep in shape (the Sounders Women were particularly stacked in this period, with Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo all headed to Seattle), or headed abroad to more stable leagues in Norway, Germany, or France. 

The collapse of previous leagues seems to be from problems in marketing and management. Coverage of the W-USA collapse focuses on their financial troubles, starting with almost $100 million and turning it into a huge loss. The WPS tried to avoid the same issues, but was not helped by the 2009 economic crisis. The economic troubles were further complicated by legal troubles, after MagicJack owner Dan Borislow bought the struggling Washington Freedom in 2010 and moved them to Boca Raton. It was ugly, and there’s plenty to read from sportwriters and players alike. 

NWSL is tip-toeing towards the magical four-season mark that evaded the W-USA and WPS, hoping to avoid the same kind of spectacular failure by starting small. The salary cap for non-allocated players $200,000 per team, causing many to take on second jobs. This league is trying to straddle the line between keeping star players from heading to more lucrative fields, and keeping costs sustainable. The solution they’ve come up with is the allocation system: salaries of a few national-team players on each team from the US, Canada, and Mexico are paid by the national federations. The organization is investing for their own future: having a domestic league would help the national team immensely, keeping players closer to home and growing the talent pool by keeping all high-level players in competition for more months out of the year. 

The new league has also showed the beginnings of another partnership that could help the league survive: between the MLS and the NWSL. For 2013 there was only Portland; with the Thorns and Timbers sharing ownership, a stadium, and to some extent, a fanbase. The Thorns were incredibly successful, winning the championship and having the highest attendance numbers by far. For 2014 the league’s first expansion team, the Houston Dash, followed a similar model in joining the Houston Dynamo in BBVA Compass stadium. Their opening match attendance was an encouraging 8,097 and as far as I can see, they have a good support system that will hopefully give the team similar success.

Moving forward for the league as a whole, this season needs consistency: national team players will be missing a number of games which means the teams will rely on their non-allocated players. It also needs a TV deal, which is a tricky thing to navigate: broadcasters are reluctant to take a gamble on a league with a small viewership and TV so key to reaching a larger audience. For the inaugural season, Fox Soccer picked up 6 regular-season games, as well as all 3 of the playoffs, but as of now, there is still no news on a deal for the 2014 season, which started a month ago.  The Thorns have a local deal with CSN, as do the Dash, but for the rest of the league, there’s only YouTube and the promise that all teams are required to provide live-streams in HD this year. The live-streams are still lacking, with poor camera quality and connectivity problems that often leave viewers in the dark for 10-20 minute stretches. But none of this is a problem exclusive to this league, or to women’s soccer: it’s the tired argument that women’s sports aren’t marketable. 

One ESPN writer claimed the lack of fantasy league contributed to the W not a very convincing argument for failure, given that men’s sports managed to get by just fine before fantasy leagues were invented. Nonetheless, if it’s any help, the NWSL has had a fantasy league since its inception. I think there is some value to it, as it gives fans a reason to watch other teams’ games beyond their own. I also think that online interaction does a lot to help the growth of a fan base outside of the W-USA and WPS’ tradition of targeting yound soccer-playing girls: they might be passionate and willing to buy posters of their idols, but an adult fanbase is crucial. Adults who have disposable income, who can buy season tickets, and who are educated fans. I have seen a growth of this kind of support through the growing popularity of social media. Each team and almost every single player has twitter, as well as supporter’s groups, that help connect fans and build their passion for the teams. The group I follow, Seattle Reign’s “Royal Guard” has an agreement with a bar in Seattle where they will meet up to drink/socialize before home games, and have convinced them to put the livestream on a big screen for away games. This is the kind of long-term, socially-based support that is crucial to the survival of this league. I remain cautiously optimistic: it seems that most of the previous mistakes are on the forefront of the minds that run the NWSL, and though there are growing pains, I think this slow and steady growth can turn into something lasting. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The United States is not a rugby country. Not right now, at least. That’s reserved for places like England, Wales, South Africa, and New Zealand, where the All-Blacks are so much a part of the nation’s identity and spirit of community that there is a movement to replace the colonial flag with their fern. The efforts of rugby promoters in the U.S. could be likened to playing catch-up, running after the nations with higher percentages of rugby fanatics. At the invention of rugby, as the rough-and-tumble game that schoolboys played with mutable rules on running, kicking, and throwing began to split into soccer, American football, and rugby, it was much like the situation across the pond. But as rugby spread and took hold in other places visited or colonized by English ruggers, the U.S. was taken by storm in a football frenzy. When 15-a-side rugby union was briefly included in the Olympics (1900, 1908, 1920, 1924), the U.S. won the last two gold medals.

Most of the representatives of the US in these games were from college teams in California. Colleges were not only the start of rugby in the U.S., they were also its last bastion and the site of its renaissance in the 60s and 70s. A lot of these college players, like the Olympic generation, went on to the national team: the men’s Eagles started in ’76. College “old boys” were often also founding members of adult-level clubs, with a high concentration of the oldest ones still centered around college towns. Women’s college and club rugby also started around campuses in the 70s, facing more obstacles to recruiting women to play a sport seen as “rough” and “manly.” Women’s teams also struggled to gain recognition and support from national and international governing bodies: the first American international women’s squad to play abroad was and invitational team in 1985, and weren’t officially “Eagles” until two years later. In 1991, the first Women’s World Cup was held in Wales and included 12 squads The first women’s World Cup, which the USA won, was in 1991 though none of the teams from that year were supported: the IRB didn’t recognize it as a World Cup that year, nor the next incarnation in 1994. It wasn’t until until 1998 that the tournament was sanctioned by the international governing body.

Adult club rugby in the U.S. is very unique among the American sports landscape. After college, it seems that the sporting opportunities take a huge nosedive for driven athletes in team sports who don’t go on to some sort of professional career.  But club rugby is distinct from most adult recreational leagues: at the “premier” and Division I levels, especially, the games are incredibly tough, and players travel all over the country for games. The level of passion and commitment from players: with their time, money, sweat, and blood, is truly unique. For clubs, the social aspect definitely drives team spirit and travel, especially at seasonal tournaments that often have a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” code, but there are also attempts to professionalize. Even from the national players’ pool, very few players have professional contracts, but increasing numbers are heading to France, England, and Japan to lose their day jobs. The talks surrounding professional rugby in the U.S. have mainly started with modest goals: adding one or two teams to an Americas or Pacific-based league, or partnering with the NFL.  I think with the growing popularity of rugby, and college teams increasingly reaching the varsity level (at least 15 currently), professional men’s rugby in the US could become a reality in the next 10 to 15 years. This might also be accelerated by the concussion debate surrounding football: though rugby players don’t any protective gear (except mouthguards) the concussion level isn’t nearly as high. 

Despite being billed as a brutal sport for knuckle-draggers with a high pain threshold, rugby has actually been designed to be safer for the head than football. 

Many attribute this to the different tackling techniques, and rugby’s safety-first emphasis could provide an alternative to football that still has big hits and big adrenaline. 

On the women’s side, to my knowledge, there’s nothing even close to a professional rugby league anywhere in the world.  The majority of women’s national teams still struggle to get the attention and funding they need. The highest level in the US is the WPL/Women’s Premier League, which isn’t professional (as far as I know, no players are paid). It has two conferences of four teams each, playing a limited 6-week season. The next tier of the club game is Division I (which includes both men’s and women’s clubs), with incredibly disparate teams playing in leagues that can span across several states. A recent article by the coach of ORSU, one of Portland’s club teams, highlights some of the biggest problems facing club rugby, and especially the women’s side, at the moment. The distance and districting are among the main issues: ORSU (who plays their home games less than half an hour from our campus), is one of the highest-level teams in the Northwest: just this past weekend, they beat one of Seattle’s DI teams by more than 80 points, securing a spot to Nationals. These blowouts don’t do much to develop the team’s skills: it’s hard to build to anything if the players aren’t challenged on a consistent basis. 

“There is no stepping stone to the National Team, no LAU (local area union) or Territorial competitions where good players can get a taste of higher level rugby to help build their skills and strengthen their motivation.” 

Some reform is needed, and to improve and develop American rugby at all levels: youth, college, and adult. One possible direction that I personally support comes from the Demand Rugby proposal that followed this article, which would see clubs split into a 2-tiered system with chances for promotion, and regional all-star camps. Currently, both the men’s and women’s national teams are teaching rugby to elite athletes from other sports, going again and again to crossover scouting and development. This doesn’t seem sustainable or reasonable, when there are thousands of ruggers who’ve played for years already and are looking for a challenge.

The other thing I think American rugby should do is take advantage of its newness. With women’s sports, problems in funding, or popularity stem largely from a historical imbalance: in countries where men were playing a sport for 100 years before women could pick up the ball, there’s a lot of catching up to do. It’s undeniable that rugby in the US has this issue as well, but it’s the difference of a decade or two, instead of a century. Especially with such a large number of players still only learning the sport at the college level, the gap is fairly small: it’s crucial that as rugby develops here, we don’t let it widen. Considering all of this, it is an exciting time to be involved in rugby in the United States. The passion of American ruggers to grow the game continues to surprise me day to day, with a sense of community that is truly unique. There’s a million possibilities, and I can’t wait to see what comes of them. 

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Speaking “Out,” But Not Heard?

There has been an huge uptick in the number of articles discussing gay athletes in the past few years: Robbie Rogers announced his retirement and came out simultaneously, before returning to play with the LA Galaxy and effectively becoming the first openly gay player in the MLS, and Tom Daley, the bisexual British diver, Jason Collins came out between NBA seasons, while a free agent, and after a short delay was signed on a short-term contract to with the Nets in Brooklyn, where he became the first NBA player (and the first of any athlete in the “Big 4” American sports) to step on the court after coming out, instead of the other way around. 

With the public announcements made by each of these men, every article seemed to dedicate significant column space to a question asked by every sports pundit and blogger in the U.S.: when will the NFL have an openly gay player? Professional football, a bastion of reinforcing ideals of masculinity, exploded simply over reported “rumors” that a player might come out. But the question seems to have been answered by Michael Sam, a 2014 Mizzou grad and an SEC standout taking part in the upcoming draft. Though there is speculation that his coming out badly damaged his draft “stock,” with a tired excuse: the locker room.

“There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that,” the assistant coach said. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It’s going to be a big distraction. That’s the reality. It shouldn’t be, but it will be.”       –An unnamed NFL Assistant Coach.

This “fear” is so pervasive that Jack Burkman, a Republican lobbyist, attempted to “legislate”  separate locker rooms for any openly gay football players.  (Mainly a publicity stunt, but still horrifying). 

Sam’s response, from a February 25 tweet, was concise, and important: “Jack Burkman is going to need a Delorian, not some bogus bill, if he wants to prevent gay athletes from being in the locker room.” He’s right— there have been at least seven “out” gay men who played professional football. “Out” has to remain in quotes for that number, though, because some were forced out: Kwame Harris, when his fight an ex-boyfriend ended in assault charges, and Jerry Smith, only publicly known as gay after his death. In the same vein as Sam’s tweet, Megan Rapinoe wrote a cheekily-titled op-ed in The Advocate, “Your Team Can’t Handle a Gay Player? Then Your Team Sucks.” She raises another important point: in professional athletics, players should be professional enough to respect their teammates (and opponents), regardless of their sexuality. And former NFL player Troy Vincent also said that he played with “at least 6” men who might not have made a media-blitz open announcement, but were openly gay in the very territory disputed by Burkman and his cohorts: the locker room. Furthermore, despite statements like that of the assistant coach who said other guys “couldn’t deal with it,” Vincent says there were “no problem[s]. From my days in Miami until I ended in Washington, they were just my teammates.”

Apart from professionalism, the space that allows gay or bisexual athletes to come out is created by a sense of safety. It is incredible that these men: Michael, Robbie, Tom, & co. are feeling safe enough to come out. Things are changing, but slowly. I think the most lasting and important level of intervention is to change attitudes at youth levels, for players and especially for coaches. In “Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports,” Michael Messner addresses the rampant homophobia in boys’ and men’s athletics, emphasizing that from a young age, sports are one of the myriad ways young boys are socialized to do anything to avoid being called “a p*ssy” or “a f*g.” These small words have a huge impact: coaches need to be held responsible for stopping homophobic and misogynistic language on the field and in the locker room, both from the mouths of their players and their selves.

I think that the discussion surrounding gay, bisexual, and queer athletes is absolutely essential: progress is being made, and the media attention is (mostly) positive. But what is conspicuously missing from this attention is any discussion of lesbian and bisexual female athletes. This silence itself has been noted in articles like:

But they are largely ignored, or mentioned only in passing. Why is this? Much of it hangs on the idea that “nobody cares,” based on the smaller audience for women’s sports in general, or that stereotypes of both female athletes and of lesbians lead to assumptions that there is great overlap between the two.

Brittney Griner made a public announcement that she was gay just before the WNBA draft last year, and many major news outlets covered the topic, but it was not a revelation nor a prolonged discussion: a New York Times article captured this reception in just a headline: “Female Star Comes Out as Gay, and Sports World Shrugs.” Megan Rapinoe, one of the most recognizable faces on the current US women’s soccer team came out loudly as well just before the 2012 Olympics, where her team went on to win the gold. It was big news for readers of Out Magazine, which published her official interview, and for fans of the team, but reception elsewhere was lukewarm: Deadspin’s response was titled ” ‘I’m Gay’ Says Megan Rapinoe. “That’s Nice,” Says Everyone. 

The “nobody cares” attitude doesn’t just come from the media: Abby Wambach, a star of the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) was considered the biggest “open secret” in women’s soccer, and known to be dating teammate Sarah Huffman for years. When the two married in 2013, the media took it as an official “coming out,” though Wambach herself shrugged it off: “I can’t speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days that you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did. I always felt comfortable with who I am the the decisions I made.” It is progress that Wambach felt this way, and I definitely understand not wanting to make a splash with some sort of public, official announcement, but it’s also important to recognize the openness of Wambach and Huffman’s wedding on the modern athlete’s largest platform: social media. The couple might not have shared details with the media, but they did with their friends and thousands of fans, which is still important and was well-received by followers. 

In her official coming-out interview, Megan Rapinoe also addressed the way that the lack of attention paid to women’s sports can be freeing: “In women’s sports, you don’t really have to hide your whole life being gay. Whether you’re out or not, you can live very openly. Before I came out in 2012, I didn’t necessarily feel like I had to hide all of the time,” because while female athletes can be recognizable celebrities, they’re generally not superstars with the same frequency that the most skilled male athletes are. With the spotlight stronger on male athletes, and their heterosexuality so bound to ideas of prowess and power, the need to hide is much more overwhelming. The second half of Rapinoe’s sentence is just as important, though: “but when you are in the media — even to a small extent — and you’re not out, you do have to hide part of yourself.” She also called it “a weight off [her] shoulders” to come out, and that she felt her playing had also improved as a result.

Though media pressure to remain closeted is much lower for female non-straight athletes, that doesn’t mean it’s easy:  You Can Play, an advocacy group for LGBT athletes, has said it’s harder to find straight female athletes to speak out in support for them than to find straight male athletes. “because they’ve spent their entire careers fighting the perception that they’re a lesbian.” Stereotypes and fear hurt female athletes, too. And they’re entirely too pervasive: in their coverage of Rapinoe’s coming out, Deadspin said “we’re no longer shocked when our muscular, short-haired female athletes announce they’re gay.” I mean, really? In this decade, we’re still using hair length as a gauge for sexuality? What a tired stereotype.

On the professional level, Brittney Griner was not predicted to lose any draft advantage for coming out beforehand, like Michael Sam. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t pressured into the closet: though Griner had been open with her friends and family about her sexuality since high school, and even mentioned it to her coach at Baylor before committing to the school, she was told to keep quiet. According to this article, her coach said it would “hurt recruiting” for the Christian college if the public knew she was gay.

“It was a recruiting thing,” Griner said during an interview with ESPN The Magazine and espnW. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”

The tension created by this rule had an effect on Griner, who said she became increasingly unhappy with it over time, and despite a successful four years as a Baylor athlete, she told  USA Today that she doesn’t want to be a spokesperson for that college, because while she’s been ‘accepted’ as a pro player, it “still doesn’t erase all the pain I felt there.” 

So clearly, it’s not true that “nobody cares,” because female athletes are presented with several reasons to stay closeted, and each queer woman who defies those pressures is doing something not only for herself, but for all queer people and all athletes. They have the ability to define what it means to be a female athlete, and what it means to be a bisexual or lesbian woman in the public eye. This impact goes beyond the players’ own lives: those who defy stereotypes (or fulfill them and ask to be seen as complete and valid people as well), have one less thing to stress about when they are able to be open, and they can be role models.

Gay fans clearly care too: Lori Lindsey, another teammate of Rapinoe and Wambach, gave her “official coming out interview” not to a sports magazine or blog, nor to a general “Gay News/LGBT Rights” outlet like The Advocate or Out, but to Autostraddle, a news & culture website for queer women.

As I said, the most important level for change is with youth teams: that means changing “locker room culture” from the beginning and also having gay athletes as positive role models. I think for every young person, especially gay, lesbian, or bisexual kids, it is inherently unfair to say that “nobody cares” about female athletes coming out. Megan Rapinoe’s Influence Goes Way Beyond Soccer, according to American Soccer Now: she “is transcending sport.” I’d have to agree wholeheartedly, and say that the same goes for all athletes that come out. What it comes down to is belonging- when athletes can come out and still be the same part of their team, and part of their sport: without retiring, without losing endorsements, then the world can see that they truly belong. Belonging is at the core of so much of sports culture, as underlined in Andrews’ piece on visible participation in the homogenous middle-class as filtered through the lens of participation in sports. This is how so many people think of themselves: though their participation in the sports world, on the field and on the couch. When athletes come out, care, fans care, queer people of every age and variety care, young people care. Just as the increasing ease of coming out in general will help things for athletes, I think that having athletes who are out, proud, and respected by their teammates and by the media, is progress, and something to be both celebrated and encouraged.

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