Earlier this month, the Office of Student Involvement (OSI) offered Wellesley students the chance to buy tickets to a Boston Red Sox game for a discounted price. The OSI has done so for the past two semesters. On campus, students often talk about ‘the Wellesley bubble’ and the need to break outside of it . For interested students, the Red Sox tickets provided easy access to an entertaining Saturday afternoon outside the bubble, immersed in Boston sports culture. And with five professional major league teams based in the city, Boston has no shortage of athletic entertainment — except when it comes to female athletes.
While the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and even the New England Revolution—Boston’s Major League Soccer (MLS) team—have robust franchises and cult-like fan followings, women’s professional teams often struggle to survive, and far too often they are forced to shut down, as was the case for the women’s soccer team, the Boston Breakers. The Breakers were a member of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) before the team folded in January 2018. Despite having a long list of accomplished female athletes on the roster throughout the team’s 10 year history, including Sydney Leroux, who would go on to represent the United States in the 2015 FIFA World Cup, and Kristine Lilly, a two-time World Cup champion, the team folded due to a lack of investors.
Unfortunately, it is not surprising that women’s teams face undue burdens when trying to break into an industry that is already saturated with well-established male franchises. However, despite all the difficulties that women’s leagues face, the Breakers had managed to reinvent themselves time and time again as leagues folded and new ones came along to take their place. The original Breakers team was established in 2000 as a part of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). The team president at the time, Joe Cummings, created a “name the team” contest, which Laura DeDonato, a youth soccer player from Easton, Massachusetts, won with her submission, “Boston Breakers.” WUSA folded only three years later, but the Breakers came back in 2007 as part of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). After WPS folded in 2012, the team then joined the newly-established Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL Elite) and when this group folded only a year later, the Breakers joined the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).Through 18 years and four different leagues, the team managed to maintain its relevance within the little-known world of U.S. professional women’s soccer. Many factors have been blamed for the team’s ultimate demise, including a poor business model, lack of marketing and a limited fan base. While there is no doubt that all of these factors contributed, the bottom line is that in order for women’s sports teams to become viable, self-sustaining franchises, there has to be a shift in sports culture.
Despite unbelievably high levels of athletic talent in professional women’s sports, most teams still fail to attract mainstream attention or a proportionate fan base. Most women’s soccer games are attended primarily by young female athletes and their parents. This can be partially attributed to the fact that the players are marketed as role models for young women. Though these women do serve as great role models, this should not be their only title. These women are also powerful athletes worthy of praise for their athletic accomplishments, independent of their gender.
In order to promote women’s soccer, some have suggested establishing closer ties between men’s and women’s clubs in the same area, so that fans can see that both sides are worthy of respect and dedication. This strategy has proved to be very successful in Portland, Oregon for the Thorns women’s team because it has elevated the team’s status and viewership. Though this strategy may work in the short run to raise general awareness about the quality of women’s athletics, it also makes the success of the women’s teams directly dependent on the success of their male counterparts. Ask any true soccer fan and they will tell you that the men and women’s teams have very different styles of play. They will also tell you that instead of making one team more or less interesting than the other, these differences actually make it worthwhile to watch both. Women’s teams should be celebrated for their unique, skillful and intense style of play, and they should be celebrated independently of their team’s relationship to the men’s team. The more people we can get to recognize that, the better chance these teams have of drawing a serious audience, maintaining feasibility as a franchise and continuing to inspire young female athletes in the long run.
Here at Wellesley, we are in a unique position of supporting female athletes. Instead of buying tickets for Red Sox games, the OSI should purchase tickets to teams like Boston Pride, the local women’s ice hockey team, and we should encourage other colleges in the area to do the same. Women’s teams have incredible athletic talent that rivals that of their male counterparts, and tickets to their games often cost a fraction of the price, which means that even more students would be able to participate. In the long run, female athletes need more respect from the public, which can be gained through better business and marketing models. But right now, these teams need the support that their athletic skills warrant, and Wellesley, an institution that champions women’s empowerment, should strive to provide it.