Where Women’s Soccer is King

Portland Pilots logo

Perhaps my most powerful experience of soccer fandom, amidst years of following MLS, the English Premier League, and the World Cup, came in a college basketball arena at the University of Portland (UP) in the early winter of 2005.  Along with a thousand locals, I watched a projected ESPN feed from Texas of a national championship game where my little University team (~3500 students) was playing the giants of UCLA (~38000 students).  It had been a dramatic season including national team regulars, local heroes, legendary coaches, and community passion; a playoff game against Notre Dame had sold out in a matter of minutes in a frenzy of community interest, and the local news was packed with attention to each stage of the tournament.

As the championship game began the tension was palpable, only to be broken by a glorious slice of the beautiful game—92 seconds in a passing sequence created space on the opposite side of the field for a free runner to receive and finish with verve.  The crowd exploded and, as if to reward our joy, the goals kept coming.  After 90 minutes it was 4-0 Portland.  The players on the screen were pictures of ecstasy.  The basketball arena was a sea of moist eyes.  The weeks that followed included front page newspaper articles, a downtown parade, a commemorative book written by a local journalist, and the communal feeling sports fans remember for the rest of their lives.  It was, in its own way for our corner of the Pacific Northwest, England in July of 1966, Barcelona winning the European Cup, Didier Deschamps lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in Paris.  On a local level it was that rare moment when soccer in the United States means something.

And, to make it even more rare, the players were all women.

Women’s Soccer Rules

Here’s an audacious claim: The University of Portland is the only place in the world boasting high-level teams for men and women where the single most popular sport is women’s soccer.  Although I’d be pleased if someone could prove that claim false, the NCAA Division I Portland Pilots are unquestionably a rare breed.  The women’s team has been the national attendance leader in college soccer for either men’s or women’s teams for three straight years (2006, 2007, and 2008).  They significantly outdraw both a reasonably successful men’s soccer team and an improving men’s basketball team.  The Pilot women are a Portland soccer phenomenon that generates attention and loyalty of the type that WPS teams, women’s national teams, and other high-level women’s teams around the world both crave and deserve.  So what makes the Pilots outliers?  And what lessons might they offer about promoting women’s soccer, and soccer in the US more generally?

Before addressing those questions I want to acknowledge that my claims of audacious success for women’s soccer at UP are relative.  The average women’s soccer crowd is still only pushing 4,000 fans (in a stadium that seats around 4,800).  Revenue from the program is still relatively small—though I do not know the exact figures, people I talked to suggested that at best the women’s soccer program comes close to breaking even.  But the institution has continued to invest in women’s soccer because it is widely considered a positive contributor to the broader community.  The program’s devoted following includes many people outside of the university and the local soccer world.  Given the limited global attention to women’s soccer as a spectator sport, I’d argue that relative success is still worth considering as a means towards understanding how Americans come to take soccer seriously.

Background of the program

I’ve worked at the University of Portland for five years.  I’ve attended many games of both the men’s and women’s teams—but I’ve had no actual connection to the programs other than having an occasional player as a student in class.  For present purposes I consider myself a sort-of recreational ethnographer who has been collecting amateur observations throughout the years, and recently decided to make a few slightly more formal inquiries (by wilson santiago).  So last week I sat down with some of the fans and promoters of the UP women’s team, and put out a query to the “Pilot Nation” discussion board for opinions from the hardcore fans about what makes the Pilot women outliers in the American soccer world.  Although the general consensus was that the relative success of women’s soccer at Portland is “unquantifiable,” as a social scientist I think with the right interpretive lens everything can be at least effectively organized (if not fully quantified)—and, as with most cultural phenomena, that starts with some history.

Clive Charles

Clive Charles

No matter who you talk to, the Pilots’ success starts with the series of odd circumstances that made former West Ham and Cardiff City defender Clive Charles the “director of soccer” at the University of Portland (a story partially told, with some inaccuracies, in a history of several West Ham players titled East End Heroes, Stateside Kings and in another book by the same author titled The Black Hammers—relevant parts of which have been excerpted by Pilot faithful).  Charles came to Portland to play for the NASL version of the Timbers, and after a few other vagabond soccer travels had come back to town to work with youth soccer programs—initially focusing on a local high school team.

Charismatic and cocksure, when he interviewed for the job as men’s soccer coach at the University of Portland he claimed he could take the team to the “final four” of the national championships within three years.  The interviewers simply laughed.  UP was a small and quiet regional Catholic University with modest ambitions and limited athletic success.  Competing for national championships was not on the radar.  But Clive (he is still largely known around town by first name only), had a certain type of genius and some fortuitous recruits—after his hiring the men’s team made the “final four” in his second year.

The most famous of the early recruits was Kasey Keller, who in 1988 was a long-haired golden boy in at North Thurston High School in nearby Lacey Washington.  As Keller went on to an outstanding four years at UP and then to establish himself as one of the most successful American professionals, other aspiring American starlets followed—including Steve Cherundolo, Conor Casey, Heath Pearce, Kelly Gray, Luis Robles, and Nate Jaqua.  The success of the men’s program also helped inspire the construction of Merlo Field.  A simple but accommodating 4,800 capacity soccer specific stadium, opened in 1990, that on its best days creates an electric atmosphere for the game.  It’s the closest thing American soccer has to the intimate community grounds at the lower-levels of the European game.

In 1989, in a move that seems to have initially been more pragmatic than visionary, Clive added on duties as head coach of the women’s program so that he could earn some extra income and have broader control of soccer programs.  The next year a star female player from one of Clive’s youth club teams, Tiffeny Milbrett, enrolled at UP specifically to play for Clive and the women’s team quickly became a national player.  In 1995 both the men’s and women’s team made the final four, and for a number of years both programs drew a good bit of attention in the American soccer world with the men generally maintaining a slight edge in prestige.  The women were important, but not yet kings.

Villa Drum Squad

Villa Drum Squad

Somewhere along the way another thing happened at Portland that is essential to a truly great soccer experience: the team developed a creative DIY supporters group.  The legend here goes that an advisor to one of the University’s all-male dormitories had fallen in love with soccer.  He also had a particular affinity for the samba rhythms of the south American game.  So a group of students was organized into the “Villa drum squad” (named for the dormitory—Villa Maria Hall), and a true supporters culture was born—the Villa drum squad made drum beats, supporter songs, megaphones, creativity, quirky rituals, and devotion a regular part of the Portland soccer experience (a few years ago ESPN’s Graham Hays featured the Villa drum squad in more depth with one of his chronicles of American college soccer).  Every year a new crop of students were socialized into a Pilot version of European ultras, offering what all great supporters groups offer their clubs: undying support, local character, and guaranteed atmosphere.  Initially the drum squad, like Clive, was focused primarily on the men’s games, but around 2,000 the momentum began to swing towards the women.  To the credit of the Villa drum squad, an all-male group, they made the transition by tacitly acknowledging that good soccer is good soccer—regardless of gender.

Winning was a big part of this transition.  While Clive’s teams were almost always national contenders, neither the men nor the women won a national championship until the 2002 women’s team went on a run for which I am obliged to rely on the cliché “storybook.”  In August of 2000, before coaching the US men’s Olympic team to a fourth place finish in Sydney, Clive was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Though he continued coaching, his health deteriorated.  With a 2002 squad led by Canadian international Christine Sinclair, the women’s team had a good, but not great, regular season culminating in a low seed to the national tournament.  After a bit of luck, including beating top-ranked Stanford in PK’s in the quarterfinals, the Pilots advanced to play league rival Santa Clara in the final.  The game went to overtime, at which point the regular UP goalkeeper suffered a concussion from a boot to the face.  She left the game seeing double—replaced by a freshman who had played 10 minutes all season.  While the Pilot faithful expected the worst, Clive seemed to have no doubt.  A few minutes later Sinclair finished a golden goal, and the New York Times memorialized the experience as a perverse tribute to women’s progress in sports: “Playing with pain is equal opportunity.”  It was the first ever NCAA national championship by a University of Portland team (though the women’s cross-country team had won a 1984 NAIA national championship).  Clive Charles died nine months later, just before the start of the next season.

The emotion of it all was the stuff that sports legends are made of, and the tragedy of Clive dying too young was affecting.  But, interestingly, attendance at women’s games those years was still relatively modest—they went from an average of around 1,700 in 2002 to an average of around 1,900 in 2003.  The community seemed uncertain as to whether Clive’s former lieutenants Garrett Smith and Bill Irwin (also a former player for Cardiff City) could grow the program.  The 2003 season was also good but not great, and fans might have continued to simply hold steady if not for a funny thing: Merlo Field got lights.

In 2004, despite some community concerns that night games would cause noise and congestion, the UP soccer teams fulfilled one of Clive’s dreams: to turn mundane afternoon games into festive nighttime occasions.  Though both the men’s and women’s teams had some of the main event games, the women’s program maintained its status as a national power while the men suffered from the increased opportunities for its best players to leave early for sustainable professional careers (players such as Conor Casey and Steve Cherundolo only played two years at UP—just long enough to ensure they were physically ready for Europe).  Friday nights watching the Pilots quickly became a grand occasion for women’s soccer.

Portland Pilots

As Portland Sports Information Director Jason Brough (an athletic department staffer responsible for media to do with all the University teams) told me, no matter how hard they try to explain the energy of those games to people from other places, the atmosphere UP can create for women’s soccer is something you have to experience to believe.  With 4,000-5,000 fans tightly packed and directly on top of the field, a raucous and creative student section, a stylish version of soccer emphasizing possession and dynamic movement off the ball, and elite international players also known in the community as good students and good people (including, over the course of recent years, Sinclair, Stephanie Cox (née Lopez), Megan Rapinoe, Angie Woznuk, and Sophie Schmidt), the atmosphere is addictive.  As one particularly articulate former player explains:

Where men can pursue professional soccer careers and make big money the vast majority of women are playing out the pinnacle of their careers on Merlo. They exude this when they play, they enjoy the moments, celebrate every goal, step on to the field every time as if it was the national championship final, they appreciate and recognize the phenomenal fans at Merlo.

After another magical run to that 2005 national championship, Portland soccer fans were hooked—attendance jumped to an average near 4,000 and the women’s team has been the top draw in American college soccer every year since (in recent years the men’s attendance leader has been UC Santa Barbara—but they’ve averaged several hundred fewer fans than the Pilot women).

I should note here that I do not use the above addiction metaphors loosely; the majesty of a truly great match combined with an energy of an enamored crowd is, anywhere in the world, something like a high.  Whether at Old Trafford, Azteca, the Bombonera, the Camp Nou, or Merlo Field, the actual rush is that rare and fleeting moment when all the good things about soccer coalesce: the elegance of the game, the intensity of competition, the pride of affiliation, the aesthetics of athletic excellence, the subtlety of sophisticated tactics, the transcendent feeling of taking part in something larger than one’s self.  That moment, in my experience, happens only rarely—once or twice a season in a good year.  In fact, there are plenty of UP women’s games that offer only the average entertainment and mediocre crowds.  But the highs are frequent enough to keep people coming back for more, to show up during the slog of a mid-season mismatch or the agony of losing to a lesser opponent through sheer bad luck.

The UP women’s soccer fans I asked said something similar about their experiences, emphasizing the ephemeral feelings that serve as the highlights of their fandom.  As one explained:

The closest thing I can relate this ‘feeling’ to is the spirit that surrounded the Grateful Dead in the late ’60’s and ‘70’s (when I grew up). The Grateful Dead were certainly not the most successful rock band in that era, nor did they get the most press, and they certainly weren’t the most talented group of musicians. However, they commanded a fierce and loyal following primarily because of what they stood for – family, community and watching out for others. I think that same phenomena surrounds UP’s women’s soccer team.

A list of ingredients

In my mind what makes the Pilot women an American soccer success story, and really what makes soccer work anywhere, is something like what happens on the food channel when chefs put together a great meal: they work with a set of ingredients that matter more in how they go together than in their particular individual contributions.  Here, in an approximate order of importance, are the “ingredients” that I think matter:

Winning: Being successful on the field matters.  One of the most basic academic theories of sports fandom depends upon what is called the BIRG effect (Basking In Reflected Glory).  People like to identify with winners.  The fact that the Pilot women are very good and have won the only two national championships in UP history matters.  But winning alone is not enough.  Far and away the most dominant women’s soccer program in the United States in the University of North Carolina—and though they’ve had some very good years for attendance, during their most recent run to yet another national championship they only averaged 1,600 fans a game (with free admission—though UP tickets are not overwhelmingly expensive, they do go for an average of $12 a pop and the program has sold over 1,000 season tickets a year for recent seasons).

The soccer appropriate stadium: One of the most obvious lessons of the early years of MLS was that making soccer work in the US requires stadiums that allow for a great soccer atmosphere.  That will never happen on a regular basis at gigantic American football stadiums, and it will be rare at multi-purpose stadiums where running tracks or baseball configurations separate fans from the action.  Merlo Field at UP has no luxury amenities and it will not win any awards for contemporary design.  But it does do a great job of placing reasonably sized rows of fans on top of the game on three sides of the pitch, with the fourth side appropriately lined by large pine trees that create a Pacific Northwest sense of outdoor intimacy.  The capacity of 4,800 is too small for a few big games and certain playoff contests, but for most games it seats just enough people to balance a sense of community with a sense of exclusivity.

The creative DIY supporters culture: As noted above, the Pilots have the undying support of an energetic and creative supporters group.  The Villa drum squad is a smaller and more contained version of that other excellent supporters group in town: the Timbers Army.  At their best DIY groups draw on authentic local character to creatively and artistically tribute their teams.  At other college sports events, including many basketball games at UP, the support tends to be less about creativity and more about aggression—when Gonzaga basketball comes to town fans on both sides often slip into the type of base and crude contempt that makes me worry about human nature.  But for Pilot soccer support is an art: the songs, rhythms, body paint, chants, and even the heckling is often enough a form of aesthetic expression rather than raw xenophobia.  At times with both the Villa drum squad and the Timbers Army it is not entirely clear how much attention they are actually paying to the soccer.  But their devotion and energy makes the experience exponentially better for those of us that are.

Portland Pilots

Savvy marketing: For soccer in the US to succeed it needs organic DIY supporters culture, but as Benjamin Kumming observed in his insightful comparison of the Timbers and the Sounders, soccer success also requires some intentional and inorganic promotion.  Just as the Sounders (at a much larger scale) used savvy marketing to capitalize on a vibrant local soccer culture, the University of Portland has intentionally built on the success of the Pilot women by devoting resources and personnel to women’s soccer.  There is a recognition at UP that women’s soccer alone will not be enough to enhance the broad profile of the University, but several years ago the powers-that-be did make an intentional decision to make both women’s soccer and men’s basketball as their feature programs.  That has translated into efforts such as a gigantic billboard placed at a prominent highway interchange during the 2007 season picturing the established players from the Pilots in uniform with the tag-line: “REAL FUTBOL”—a friendly jibe at the other primary sports obsession during the Fall in the Pacific Northwest: American college football.

Real Futbol

The market niche: The Pilot women fill a nice niche as the most prominent women’s team in a town that likes to consider itself a progressive (and thus generally in favor of women’s sports) soccer town.  Of course, the Pilots have to split some of that soccer crowd with the Portland Timbers.  But for the most part the Timbers crowd and the Pilot women’s crowd seem complimentary rather than competitive.  The Timbers draw proportionally more young urban professionals and hardcore soccer fans, while the Pilot women draw proportionally more UP students (obviously), families, and soccer fans interested in local human interest stories (this distinction is facilitated by the simple fact that the Timbers sell beer; lots of beer).  Though it is hard to say for sure, I’d speculate that the Timbers and the Pilot women split the lesbian crowd that women’s sports promoters sometimes target, and each has other idiosyncratic demographics: one Pilot fan and UP alum reports, for example, that the Pilot women have a following among the town’s homeless population: “many of our street friends follow the women’s soccer team closely, and they notice and pick out students wandering around downtown wearing Pilots gear. One really lovely older gentleman who suffers from intense schizophrenia once wrote the entire history of the program on a napkin for me.”

The role model thing: Through an odd amalgam of marketing, the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and the demographics of US soccer, when Americans think of elite women’s soccer players they think of role models.  There are interesting problems with this association—as evidenced by the recent blogosphere discussion of whether women’s soccer can succeed if it is considered as much a social cause as a business endeavor.  While I’ll leave that discussion (for now) to others, in my informal surveying of Pilots fans there is no question that the character of the Portland players and their ability to serve as approachable and real role models comes up regularly as an essential part of the team’s success.  The Pilot women’s players have a reputation on campus as serious students with high ambitions, and do much community work on their own initiative.  As just a single example of how much this means to the fans, one Pilot Nation contributor (whose avatar consists of a picture of Megan Rapinoe wearing a fan’s homemade Pilot purple shirt stating boldly: “Megan is my IDOL” – no last names necessary):

With all the pressures and worries facing girls today, and the need for self-esteem, the girls I know thrive on the attention they get back from the Pilots. I’ve never seen anything like it from any other team, anywhere. Autographs, souvenirs, having a star player recognize them or chat online with them or even coach them — all these factors build an emotional bond that goes beyond data or won-loss record. It’s not just a beautiful game, it’s a beautiful place to be the dad of a daughter.

Being taken seriously by males: For better or worse, most hardcore sports fans are still males.  This often creates a dilemma for promoters of women’s soccer: the classic example is the popularity of the 1999 US Women’s World Cup winners whose breakthrough popularity among men and the male dominated sports media may have been partially driven by the happenstance that many of the players fit with conventional cultural norms of physical attractiveness.  But if women’s soccer is to be taken seriously it must be about much more than looks; FIFA President Sepp Blatter was roundly and justly criticized when he claimed that the women’s game would really benefit from “tighter uniforms.”  Though fans of the Pilot women may notice the physical attractiveness of the players, I have been generally impressed with how little that issue seems to come up among adult fans.  Likewise, among youth fans there are often as many boy youth players at Pilot women’s games as girl youth players—it was a U-10 boys team that recently won an auction to get to train with the Pilot women, and the pictures I saw of 9 year old boys ecstatic to be warming-up with their (female) soccer heroes seemed to me a striking tribute to gender progress.  Honestly, I have yet to figure out how the Pilot women are able to get a nearly unquestioning respect as athletes rather than as objects when too many other female athletes do not—but they do.

Playing attractive (and comprehensible) soccer: The Pilot coaches, from Clive to present, have put a priority on playing an attacking, dynamic, possession oriented version of the beautiful game—a women’s soccer version of Arsene Wenger’s “Champagne football.”  The women’s version, however, has an added benefit for the casual American fan—it takes place at a slower pace.  Many Pilot fans told me that the more controlled pace is a benefit to both youth players and fans without a deep history in the game.  In those cases the pace of the women’s game, its more tactical and less physical dimensions, allows for a satisfying comprehension.  It also means that lesser teams cannot get by on sheer hustle and effort, making for many goal-fests with 5-0 score lines.  For better or worse, to the casual fan lots of goals means lots of fun.

The lessons?

There are some other factors that go into the relative success of the Pilot women, and one might easily draw the conclusion that the peculiarities of the situation at Portland is not replicable.  But I would suggest that while the women’s soccer story at UP is indeed unique, all good stories still have a moral.  For me, the moral here is that the success of women’s soccer depends on striking that delicate balance between allowing space for that which is globally compelling about the beautiful game to co-evolve with the local strengths of people, institutions, and communities.  I suspect that a league such as the WPS will never succeed by depending on catchy branding, fashion forward thinking, or short-term business models alone; those things matter, but only as part of historical narratives, competitive highs, community connections, and long-term character.  The kinds of things that, at their core, have no gender.

Still, after all this analysis, I feel obliged to admit what now seems like a dirty secret: in many ways I personally continue to enjoy watching men’s soccer more than women’s soccer.  Having enough of an experienced eye to appreciate a faster pace and more even contests, when the Pilot women jump out to a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes against an inferior opponent I find many of the games anti-climatic.  But there is no question at Merlo Field which games have the better energy and atmosphere, which team creates the more compelling stories, nor which team is more likely to moisten my eyes: at Portland women’s soccer is king.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon. Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa. He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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