I happen to remember what the weather was like in Los Angeles on July 10, 1999. It was an incredibly hot day, with temperatures soaring well into the 90s in Pasadena. There are probably about 90,000 other people who can back me up on this.
All of us were in the Rose Bowl that day watching the USA women’s national soccer team defeat China on penalty kicks in a game that led to U.S. player Brandi Chastain’s celebrating on the cover of Time Magazine in her sports bra.
The 1999 Women’s World Cup drew the largest crowd ever for a women’s sporting event and I remember thinking that even though it was unbearably hot I would not have missed one single second of it.
There’s no better way to fall in love with a game than to see it in person, played at its very best. Therefore, it was not too surprising that 10 years later I was at the Home Depot Center in May 2009 for the inaugural game of Women’s Professional Soccer, a league that been formed after the demise of the Women’s United Soccer Assn. in September 2003.
I had been in the stadium before, for the 2003 Women’s World Cup, which had seen the changing of the guard from the so-called “91ers” — the women who had played on the original 1991 World Cup team (Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, etc.) — to the next generation of stars.
As I settled into my season seat for the L.A. Sol, I spent last summer watching yet a further evolution in women’s soccer. Sol players Shannon Boxx and Aly Wagner, familiar faces from 2003, joined forces with some of the best international players, particularly Marta, probably the best women’s player in the world, to move the game to its next level.
Last week, I found out that I would have to find another way to get my women’s soccer fix this summer because the Sol was no more.
As a fan I am sad, of course. I loved being at the game — the buzz in the stadium as Han Duan came up with the ball on her foot and Marta tore down the field on a breakaway; Karina LeBlanc’s dependable saves; the excitement of the girls around me as they screamed in approval after a Marta or Camille Abily goal.
But as a supporter of women’s sports, I do not intend this piece as an elegy. My soccer team may be gone, but women’s professional soccer is still going strong, preparing to open its season in April with two new teams to replace the one it lost. Sports is a tough business, and, notwithstanding its organization around national leagues, it is most often a local business, subject to the whims and dictates of a local economy, local ownership and a local fan base.
In the second season of the NBA, four of the original 11 teams folded, with the league scrambling to find a new team to prevent an unbalanced schedule. The early years of the NFL were marked by massive contraction (going from 22 teams in 1926 to 12 financially viable ones in 1927, dropping to 10 in 1928.) I have spent the last three years, since becoming co-owner of the Los Angeles Sparks, learning first hand that women’s professional leagues are subject to all the same pressures. But in addition, unlike the men’s leagues, we also have to constantly justify our continuing viability. It’s as if the argument is that there’s no point in going to a women’s athletic event today unless it is certain it will be there next year or in three years.
I have often joked that in 2027, I expect the headline in the sports section to read: “WNBA Turns 30; Will It Last?”
Those of us involved and on the front lines of women’s professional sports know that we are pushing society to accept us as a given. But we also know that women’s sports usually embody the very things that people value most in sports: accessible players playing for the love of the game, overcoming obstacles to achieve their dreams of being professional athletes, acting as true role models in the game and in the community.
The truth is that if you want the team to be there next year, you need to support them this year.
So, I am sad for the loss of the Sol, but I am happy for the continuing overall growth of women’s pro sports. If I want to see the L.A. Sol back someday, I know I need to continue to support other women’s sports in my hometown. So, I’ll follow the WPS online and on television, but I’ll be at women’s games at local colleges, and, of course, I’ll be courtside all summer long with the L.A. Sparks.
Kathy Goodman and Sparks co-owner Carla Cristofferson led an investment group in December 2006 to buy the WNBA team from the Buss family for about $10 million. She remains an advocate for women’s sports, in general.