Why is women's soccer staying away from America's biggest cities?

<span>Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Everything is awesome for women’s soccer in the United States. You want evidence? The national team are back-to-back World Cup winners, rarely challenged as they swept their way to a fourth title. Star player Megan Rapinoe inspired tweets from Donald Trump during the tournament and was recently voted by coaches and players from around the world as Fifa’s Best, anointing the 34-year-old as the best player on the planet.

After the World Cup win, thousands of fans crowded lower Manhattan to welcome home their soccer heroes with a ticker-tape parade. New York City mayor Bill De Blasio gifted the team the keys to the city. On that day in early July, New York City was the center of women’s soccer … except for one minor detail. America’s biggest city has no top-flight women’s team to call its own.

It’s not alone. In the soccer hotbed of southern California, Los Angeles has no presence in the highest level of women’s professional soccer, either. The two biggest population centers and media markets in the United States aren’t found on the women’s soccer map and no one seems to be able to answer why, when, or even if things will change. The glaring gaps stand as an example of how tenuous professional women’s soccer is in the US beyond the fan chants of “equal pay!”, equity lawsuits against the US Soccer Federation and the hot summer fling every four years.

“What we see during the World Cup is a tremendous amount of attention on the tournament and the women’s national team,” says Alyse LaHue, general manager of Sky Blue FC, the New Jersey-based team that plays in the National Women’s Soccer League, the top level of women’s professional soccer in the US. Back home, though, that attention doesn’t come easy.

Following the World Cup win, most players returned to their NWSL clubs for “homecoming” games where fans could see the stars in action at lower key local games. In August, Carli Lloyd, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh were in action for their teams as Sky Blue hosted the Washington Spirit in an NWSL league game. That match was a rare sell-out at Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field, a one-stand 5,000-capacity venue that serves as Sky Blue’s home ground. After the final whistle, players diligently stayed on the field to sign autographs and take selfies with fans. It was a warm gesture from the players, but it wasn’t like they were in a rush to clean up after the game: Yurcak Field doesn’t have showers in its locker rooms, so players wait until they get home or to a team hotel to change. It was a long way from the World Cup.

LaHue, though, has earned a can-do reputation across the league for her effort in dragging Sky Blue toward professional standards. When she learned Yurcak Field would not – as it usually had – sell alcohol on the night of the club’s biggest game in years, she stocked up her car with beer and gave it away to fans in a parking lot. Never mind the showers. What about beer?

“We typically don’t get that much coverage [at Sky Blue] and for us, we want to be able to tap into the World Cup attention,” LaHue tells the Guardian. “We weren’t expecting a sell out for that game but it was an indicator that people tuned in to the World Cup and followed up [with their local team].”

Still, after 10 years of existence, much of it troubled by poor leadership and management off the field, exactly where Sky Blue FC sees as “local” is a mystery. It plays and trains in New Jersey, itself a strong standalone soccer region, but for New York City fans traveling to Yurcak Field in New Jersey without a car can be a four-hour journey on public transport if you add the 30-minute walk to the stadium. For potential fans from the five boroughs, Rutgers University may as well be Montana. The only shared interest with New Jersey is loathing the Holland Tunnel elicits.

Estelle Johnson
Sky Blue defender Estelle Johnson takes a selfie with young fans after a July match against the Washington Spirit in Piscataway, New Jersey. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Some investors have shown interest in launching a New York City team in the NWSL over recent years but have hit multiple roadblocks. The main issue: Sky Blue FC hold geographic rights to a New Jersey and New York City NWSL team. The exact details of those rights are shrouded in their own mystery: Sky Blue FC could not provide exact details of the clause and, after initially citing scheduling issues, NWSL did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

In 2013, an agreement for MLS team New York Red Bulls to buy Sky Blue FC was set to go through, until a deal collapsed on deadline day over the finer details of Sky Blue FC’s value. Still, the potential for the Red Bulls to take over Sky Blue was demonstrated in August when Red Bull Arena, located far closer to New York City that Yurcak Field, a one-off game NWSL game between Sky Blue and Reign FC, a match where Reign’s Megan Rapinoe was expected to play but didn’t take the field because of injury, drew almost 10,000 fans to the stadium.

(Sky Blue played their final “home” game at Red Bull Arena on Sunday before an announced crowd of 8,314 for an 11am kick off. New York Red Bulls played at the same stadium later in the day. NWSL teams cannot play double headers with MLS teams because MLS takes 30% of ticket price.)

“We have hopes and dreams of being able to play more games at a professional arena, both for the players and the fan experience, but until we play more games at Red Bull Arena it is hard to say [what future plans are],” LaHue says.

While Red Bulls left Sky Blue at the altar, MLS rivals New York City FC privately flirt with the idea of a women’s team. City Football Group, which owns NYCFC, fields several professional women’s teams: Manchester City in England’s Women’s Super League and Melbourne City in Australia’s W-League. A pro team in New York City appears to be a natural fit but a City Football Group executive – speaking on background – said, geographical rights aside, the organization has to first find a permanent home for its MLS team before it considers launching another professional team. It is still searching for an alternative to playing home games at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

“We are committed to women’s football and there would be a lot of interest in doing it when we are ready to do it properly,” the CFG official said. “But there is nothing close to happening any time soon.”

Barring a robust legal challenge from an investor wanting to challenge Sky Blue’s rights to New York City, it’s also doubtful whether NWSL has any interest in adding a team in New York City – or even the northeast. One investor, keen on launching a team in nearby Connecticut, planned for a start-up to play at Dillon Stadium in Hartford, a venue that has hosted concerts by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Kiss in the 1960s and 70s, as well as rugby and women’s soccer internationals more recently. The investor shelved its plans, believing the NWSL was more interested in new teams in the midwest and south than the northeast.

Also missing from the map: California. Women’s pro soccer has a history on the west coast. Los Angeles Sol played one season in the ill-fated Women’s Professional Soccer in 2009. The team – boasting Brazilian Marta, Japanese icon Aya Miyama and US star Shannon Boxx – swept all opponents aside while playing in front of good-sized crowds. It drew 15,000 to its opening game at the Home Depot Center – home to MLS team LA Galaxy – and maintained crowds of around 6,000 to 7,000 for home games (ironically, it lost the championship game 1-0 that season … to Sky Blue).

The team’s owner was sports and entertainment behemoth AEG, which pledged to launch the team with the intention to sell after one year. It promptly shut Sol down when a new buyer could not be found. Part of the struggle: the team paid a reported $75,000 to AEG for renting Home Depot Center for home games – effectively AEG paying itself – and a reported three-year guaranteed $500,000 per season deal for Marta.

Carli Lloyd
South Jersey native and World Cup hero Carli Lloyd remains the biggest draw for Sky Blue FC. Photograph: Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

LA Galaxy have affiliated women’s teams based in Orange County and San Diego playing in amateur and semi-professional leagues, while ambitious MLS newcomers Los Angeles FC have added a women’s team to their to-do list. LAFC counts US soccer icon Mia Hamm as a co-owner and held talks with FC Barcelona about a potential partnership. Yet, like their NYCFC, LAFC are also tackling the challenge of being relatively new to MLS.

“It’s obviously a top priority of ours and of me personally,” Hamm said earlier this year. “We had early discussions last year about partnering with [FC Barcelona], but that didn’t go in the direction that we thought because we were building such a brand here and that’s important for us to do. When we make that commitment [to a women’s team], we want to make sure we can go all in and do it right just like we’ve done with the men’s team.”

The caution is real. As one executive explained, the NWSL needs to have stability before investment is considered. In January, prior to the World Cup, A&E Networks pulled out its 25% stake in the league. Staff were cut. Today, calls to the league’s office ring out or are diverted to a voicemail box for CEO Amanda Duffy. Press ‘star’ to learn that voice mailbox is full.

“All new teams want to take the time and do due diligence,” added one MLS executive.

Back in New Jersey, Alyse LaHue is busy with her mission to turn Sky Blue into a true professional team. She understands the work needed to transform the club and recognizes the team needs a new home and the NWSL has its own work to do.

“I’d like to continue to see more organization on a league wide level,” she says. “We are starting to collaborate more and talk about big picture items like broadcast partners, media rights and sponsorship.

“Nine teams isn’t the number we need to be at for the league, but at the same time I appreciate the cautionary approach. From a stability standpoint, it is important to make sure we are vetting potential partners who are coming in. We have seen a tremendous amount of interest for new teams to come into the league. I think 12 teams is where we want to be and I think that is going to happen in the next few years. There has been enough interest.”

As well as locating a stadium closer to New York City that has locker rooms with showers, LaHue’s other agenda item is to find additional investors for Sky Blue FC. The current ownership, which includes New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, has been convinced it needs to double down on its investment and be prepared to lose around $3m per season. Extra pockets are required even if that number is tiny compared to estimates from other NWSL executives that $10m is needed to run a team in the New York City area. Whether any new investor has the resources or influence to pitch Sky Blue as a stand-alone New York City team remain to be seen.

“We’re looking for a new home for 2020 and I always believed that being closer to New York City would be helpful for us,” LaHue sats. “We don’t need to move into a stadium and straight away get 15,000 people but, at the same time, we can attract fans from New York City and New Jersey. There is no other team in this region. We even have fans that come up from Philadelphia.”

Also in play: local politics.

“With one of our owners being the governor of New Jersey, I think our preference for a location is probably obvious,” LaHue says. “To be fair, the owners want to see this team excel and grow and they realize the options in New Jersey are limited right now. The preference is to stay in New Jersey but they are realistic.”

Outside the national team, there’s no ticker-tape parade for women’s professional soccer in the United States just yet. There are many easy questions but few, if any, easy answers.