Archive for the ‘Women’s Sports’ Category
The San Diego Spirit played three summer seasons from 2001 to 2003 in the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the first attempt to form a fully professional women’s pro league in North America. The Spirit endured two seasons of mediocrity, despite the presence of prominent U.S. National Team stars Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett. Prior to the 2003 season, the club brought in new Head Coach Omid Namazi and overhauled its roster with top young players, resulting in a winning campaign and the first playoff appearance in franchise history. Before the Spirit could build on this foundation, however, the WUSA closed up shop in September 2003 after burning through $100 million in three seasons of operations.
The WUSA announced its formation in early 2000, aiming for an April 2001 debut. The league was organized in a single-entity structure, with $40 million in start-up capital provided by a consortium of Cable TV operators and executives. Each funder received investor-operator rights to one of eight league markets in return for a commitment of $5 million. Cable operator Cox Communications purchased rights to San Diego.
The marketing cornerstones of the WUSA would be the stars of the United States Women’s National Team. The league launched on the backs of the USWNT and their thrilling victory in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Cup final on July 10th, 1999 drew a sell-out crowd of 90,185 to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, making it the largest women’s sporting event in history. The US women defeated China in nerve-wracking fashion on penalty kicks and the tournament made media darlings of American stars Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the team. In May 2000, the WUSA allocated three USWNT stars to each of its eight franchises. San Diego received Fawcett, Foudy and striker Shannon MacMillan, a graduate of nearby Escondido High School. In the international draft, San Diego also picked up Fan Yunjie and Wen Lirong of the Chinese team which had given the Americans all they could handle in the final.
Cox Communications spent $2.5 million to renovate 40-year old Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego for the Spirit. The improvements included 3,600 new seats to bring total capacity to just over 6,000, a new and re-graded natural Bermuda grass surface, upgraded lighting to meet television broadcast standards, and various aesthetic improvements. The renovations turned Torero into a quality venue for professional soccer. Viewed alongside similar efforts in other WUSA cities – such as the Boston Breakers’ $4 million renovation of Boston University’s Nickerson Stadium – the renovations were also symbolic of the new league’s free-spending ways. By the end of 2001, WUSA had expended the $40 million intended to fund operations for its first five seasons.
The 2001 Spirit started slow out of the blocks under Head Coach Carlos Juarez before rallying late in the season to finish in 5th place with a record of 7-7-7. Fawcett missed most of the season due to pregnancy, but returned in August less than two months after giving birth to her third child. MacMillan was a bright spot. Her 12 goals were second best in the WUSA to league Most Valuable Player Tiffeny Milbrett.
The 2002 Spirit started slowly again, which cost Juarez his job in early June 2002. General Manager Kevin Crow, a long-time star for the San Diego Sockers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, assumed coaching duties for the remainder of the season. The Spirit finished in seventh place with a 5-11-5 record.
Off the field, the Spirit paced the WUSA in season ticket sales despite lackluster play. In 2002, the Spirit sold more than 2,000 season tickets, which was the best figure in the eight-team league. The Spirit also benefitted from substantial television advertising drawn against unsold inventory on the Cox cable system.
On the last day of September 2002, the Spirit orchestrated the largest trade in WUSA’s two-year history in order to move up a single spot in the 2003 WUSA college draft. The Spirit shipped three starters – midfielders Shannon Boxx and Sherrill Kester, defender Margaret Tietjen – plus the #2 overall pick in the 2003 WUSA draft to the New York Power in exchange for the #1 overall pick and midfielders Jan Lalow and Wynne McIntosh. The prize for the Spirit on the back end of this trade was Santa Clara University midfielder Aly Wagner, already a fixture on the U.S. National Team with 36 caps as a collegian. Soccer America called Wagner “the most gifted playmaker the United States has produced”.
Wagner got the most press attention, but she was just one component of a youth movement that transformed the Spirit in 2003. 22-year old Scottish striker Julie Fleeting returned for her second season and finished tied for third in the WUSA in scoring with 11 goals. New Coach Omid Namazi used his other two international spots to import the 19-year old Brazilian star Daniela and big Canadian forward Christine Latham, fresh off an All-American career at the University of Nebraska. It would be Latham, not Wagner, that walked away with WUSA Rookie-of-the-Year honors after scoring six goals. The young cohort’s contributions were especially significant after offensive leader Shannon MacMillan was lost to a season-ending ACL tear in May.
The 2003 Spirit improved to 8-6-7, good for third place in the WUSA and the franchise’s first and only playoff appearance. Prior to the season, the WUSA selected San Diego to host the 2003 Founder’s Cup at Torero Stadium. All that now stood between the Spirit and hosting the title match was the regular season champion Atlanta Beat. The Spirit travelled to Georgia for the WUSA semi-final on August 17th, 2003. Aly Wagner scored in the 38th minute to put the Spirit up 1-0. The lead held hrough regulation, but Beat forward Conny Pohlers tapped in the equalizer during stoppage time and Charmaine Hooper won it for Atlanta in overtime, ending the Spirit’s season in heart rending fashion.
The playoff semi-final loss proved to be the final Spirit game. Investors pulled the plug on the WUSA on September 15th, 2003. The WUSA folded less than a week before the start of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, providing a sad bookend for a league that was born out of the euphoria of the 1999 tournament.
In June 2004, a reconstituted Spirit – including Fawcett, Foudy and MacMillan – played in a WUSA exhibition doubleheader before an announced crowd of 7,123 at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. The event was part of a pair of WUSA “festivals” (the other was in Minnesota) which showcased the eight former clubs and their stars to potential new sponsors and investors. The events drew little interest and the efforts of the WUSA Reorganization Committee wound down soon afterwards.
In 2007 the new Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) launched as a lower-budget successor league to the WUSA. San Diego Padres owner John Moores was briefly linked to a WPS franchise, but never moved forward. In the late summer of 2008, WPS placed a brief release on its website announcing a San Diego franchise. But the league removed the story days later after and as of late 2011, no further discussions have occurred to bring WPS to San Diego.
The rookie stars of the 2003 Spirit each returned to play in the first season of WPS six summers later in 2009. Daniela signed with St. Louis Athletica and played four matches before her season – and career – was ended by a brutal tackle from Washington Freedom star Abby Wambach. Christine Latham scored two goals for the Boston Breakers in 2009. She was cut in training camp by the Atlanta Beat in 2010. Aly Wagner, now 28 years old and slowed by assorted injuries, signed with the Los Angeles Sol and played in the first WPS Cup final on August 22nd, 2009. It was her final match. She announced her retirement from soccer in January 2010.
San Diego Spirit Sources
Several weeks back, I ran a retrospective on FC Gold Pride, a Women’s Professional Soccer franchise that had a Jekyll & Hyde existence during its brief two-year lifespan. During FCGP’s first season in 2009, the club was barely competitive, finishing dead last with a roster that some WPS observers derisively referred to as “FC Old Pride”.
In early 2010, the club engineered a massive reboot, highlighted by the hotly debated $500,000 acquisition of FIFA World Player of the Year Marta. The 2010 FCGP team won the WPS Cup and can make a strong argument to be considered the most dominant women’s club side ever assembled. But red ink and disinterest sank the club less than two months after its great triumph.
Former FCGP forward Tiffany Weimer contributed an interview, which I hoped to pair with a behind-the-scenes account from FCGP’s former General Manager, Ilisa Kessler. It took a while to connect with Ilisa and the piece ending up running without her participation. Too bad, because when we finally got together she turned out to have some killer stories. I thought the highlights deserved to run here as their own post.
You worked for three seasons for the San Jose CyberRays of the WUSA before that league abruptly folded in 2003, which must have been traumatic. When new owners came into the same market ready to try again with women’s soccer in 2008, how did you feel when they asked you to lead the new organization?
First off I was honored to even be asked. Taking this position was a very difficult decision to make. I knew the history of women’s pro sports in the Bay Area, I lived it, and it always ended the same way – and the emotional rollercoaster was traumatic. I learned this as early as being with the San Jose Lasers (American Basketball League) as an intern. When that folded I was heartbroken. For the Pride, professionally, I was leaving a stable job in broadcast TV and personally I was in a new place in life because I had a family. I also knew besides risk, how much work it was going to be to start a business in less than 6 months. I knew that was going to be taxing, and maybe even impossible. But again, I was honored, and there are not many opportunities to be a General Manger of a pro sports team, and to be in the sport I love, so how could I say no? Most importantly, there are not a lot of opportunities for women to be at the General Manager level in sports, and so taking the role, I looked at it as a very serious responsibility. I hope in the end, I represented women and the sport well.
What was the difference in the reaction of the Bay Area – the media, the soccer community, sponsors – between the arrival of the CyberRays in 2001 and the arrival of FC Gold Pride in 2009?
Honestly, I don’t think much changed, at least for the mainstream media and the Bay Area community. For the Pride, the difference was that there were more avenues for us to try and get exposure – particularly with bloggers (who were great to us from the beginning), Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. But, in the end, we talked to the same people over and over. Look at the Big Soccer message boards and the WPS chat on Twitter. It’s the same voices – which are important voices, but not new voices.
I always thought we had a great website, but great doesn’t mean anything if people are not looking at it. We tried, but it was hard to break through in such a busy world. I remember a TV station telling us that they needed “a hook” to cover us for the 2010 WPS Cup championship match. Obviously bringing a championship to the Bay Area – the 1st since the 2002 San Jose Earthquakes, didn’t mean much.
For the soccer community, well, that’s an interesting paradigm. I may be generalizing a bit, but from my experience, I found that a majority of the “soccer community” loves soccer if it is about their kid, or their adult rec game. For them, soccer is recreation, not entertainment. There is a difference. I remember walking soccer fields with <French National Team midfielder> Camille Abily to promote the championship match. Most said, “we can’t make it, my kid has a game” or “I have an adult rec game”. I asked one guy if he wanted to pass with Abily (he was warming up for his match). He just shrugged and kept passing to his teammate. I thought, these people are nothing but weekend warriors. They don’t love soccer. They just love getting exercise and socializing.
Sponsors are hard to determine – I think they were weary on two fronts – those that knew the history of women’s soccer stood by with a wait & see attitude. Is it really worth an investment? And then those that just need to invest in something that will guarantee a return on investment – mostly because the economy has just been so horrible – women’s soccer isn’t that.
What (approximately) was the dollar value of corporate sponsorships that FCGP was able to attract in 2009 and 2010?
We pretty much missed every budget cycle for sponsorship in 2009. We maybe had $30K in cash and about $165K in barter/in-kind. The cash didn’t even pay for the operations of one home game. The hole was so deep from the on-set, it was impossible to dig out of it. 2010 was better. We got in the sales cycle and realized for us cash is king but offsetting operational costs with barter works for us too. We got creative. Our cash went up 857%, and barter up 44%. We had our medical bartered out – that saved us hundreds of thousands a year in medical and worker’s comp claim costs. We got all our port-a-potty’s through a sponsorship deal, saving us over $24K. Even our game program was bartered out – otherwise, we were not going to have one in year 2. Like I said, we got creative.
In 2010, FC Gold Pride acquired Marta, who was the highest paid female soccer player in the world, at a reported $500,000 year. Can you explain how her contract was structured? What was the club on the hook for and how much did sponsors like Amway have to contribute? Or did they provide sponsorship tied into Marta’s presence that partially offset what you paid out in salary?
Marta’s contract was a 3-year guaranteed contract. Meaning someone had to pay her – if not a team, then the league itself. Why there would be a 3-year deal agreed to when the league knew <Los Angeles Sol owner> AEG was only in it for one year, I don’t know….I wasn’t part of that negotiation. I do know how difficult of a negotiator Marta’s agent is, and the league seemed desperate for credibility in the start and felt that we needed the best female player in the world in the league. I also know that a player like Marta needs the US too…especially for competition, media and sponsors. But in the end, she definitely won out.
Amway, has a separate endorsement deal with Marta, and it has nothing to do with the teams. When we acquired Marta, we had to negotiate with Amway to be a sponsor, which was not easy because they were already in the market with the Earthquakes.
“The Marta Effect” as I like to call it, does not exist off the field. Her salary does not justify any new business. It’s not like a Beckham signing where you get incredible ticket sales, sponsorship and jersey sales. The biggest sale of Marta jerseys went to Marta, she bought a slew for family and friends. You can’t do any huge media campaign around her because of her limited English. Reporters are not excited to do an interview with an interpreter, it’s just not the same.
I remember when we picked her up – prior to the Los Angeles Sol dispersal draft day, we created an entire ticket sales plan and staffed heavy in the office – longer hours, etc. to handle the phones. When it was announced she was coming to the Pride, we sat for an entire day staring at each other waiting for the phones to ring. When I came in the next morning, I said, new plan – outgoing phone calls start right now. Let’s hit up season ticket holders who haven’t renewed, large groups, teams, everyone, & let them know who we just signed. At that moment, I thought, crap, she isn’t going to move the dial like we had hoped.
Talk a little about the behind-the-scenes decision to bid on Marta’s contract. What roles did you, your Head Coach Albertin Montoya and the NeSmith family play in that conversation? Was it a consensus? Were any of the veteran players on the team involved in the discussion?
I don’t remember discussing Marta with the veteran players – Albertin may have. I know throughout, Albertin did discuss with certain players the addition of new players – some we didn’t pursue because of their feedback.
The NeSmith’s discussed Marta with both Albertin and me. Of course, best player in the world – who doesn’t want to coach or manage that type of player? But from a pure business standpoint, Brian NeSmith and I discussed how it was not a good business move. We figured she would not increase tickets and sponsorship to justify her salary. We knew we would have to be extremely lucky for that to happen. But, I am sure one reason why the NeSmith’s bought the team in the beginning included the idea of owning a pro team. If you have the means, it’s an amazing opportunity to own a pro team – especially in the sport you are passionate about. And so, once you own a team and you are already pumping a lot of money into it, and coming off a losing season, then, adding the best player in the world to your team could definitely make you enjoy your investment that much more. If you are already losing a few million, what’s another half?
My last conversation with Nancy before the Board meeting that took place where the owners were to decide who could take Marta’s contract, she told me that they were not going to do it. The call after the Board meeting was Nancy saying, well, we’ve got Marta. So just like that, I knew the Pride would be the team that would pick Marta up in the draft <a few days later>. The other teams were going to pass because of cost. It was a bit of a rollercoaster to say the least since Albertin and I had resigned ourselves to moving on & continuing our player acquisitions without Marta.
Can you share a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment from behind the scenes when you wondered what you’d gotten yourself into? Start-up sports leagues are famous for these and I figure you might have one or two such stories.
I have quite a few, most I can’t tell, but here’s a sampling:
One of my first decisions as GM was to approve Pounce’s (our mascot) chest size. The first drawing we got had her at about a D-cup. I asked for B. If I ever needed a title for a book about my experiences at the Pride, it would be “From the B-Cup to the Championship Cup”.
Year 2 opening day. My ops department had a complete meltdown the week leading into it. They were totally unprepared. The night before, around 7pm, we realized most of the stadium wasn’t loaded in and we had a ton of issues – no wireless for one. No wireless means no ticket sales on-site. We were freaking. I had my entire staff stay till about 2am to load the stadium – field boards, signage, food product, you name it, it was all off-site at a different location. The WPS league office showed up game day and didn’t think we were going to be able to open gates for the fans. My brother came to the Bay Area for the game and I called him at 7am to get him to the stadium to help. We asked a woman off the street with her kid to help for free tickets. I had a coach from a rec league go get us corner flags. We moved more barricade that day than I had my entire ops career. It was a nightmare. We made it, but if I didn’t have a background in ops and a staff that was willing to do anything, we probably would have never opened. Fans and the team had no idea – we prevailed.
Puma – they were great for us. Having a national apparel deal is huge for a fledgling league. I remember the CyberRays days – 3 apparel sponsors in 3 years. It was awful and stressful. Even as great as Puma was to the teams, their “lifestyle” designs got in the way of functionality. The skort was a personal fight with them. I refused to have my players wear them – here I was trying to legitimize women as strong, athletic, professional athletes, and they wanted them to play in a skort. Not on my watch.
Then there was a meeting with Puma where they came to our offices and presented their <original> concept for 2011. They started the presentation with photos of 80’s style one-piece jumpers. My heart started pounding and I physically had to restrain myself as I started to realize what was about to happen. They presented us with the “Uni-Kit”, which they pointed out was their “working title”. Nancy NeSmith was in the meeting with me and our VP of Marketing and Sponsorship, John Hooper. We all just about had a meltdown. John and I couldn’t imagine any player wearing a one-piece uniform. We brought up injuries to the midsection (how does the doctor treat?), what if blood gets on their jersey? They have to change the entire uniform? FIFA – do you think they would approve this? But the best was Nancy. She flat out said “how do you expect the women to pee? They have to completely undress to pee? No way”. I just laughed. It was by far one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had in women’s soccer.
The Michigan Travelers were a blink-and-you-missed them entry in the International Women’s Professional Softball Association (IWPSA) during the league’s inaugural season in the summer of 1976. The IWPSA was the brainstorm of the tennis star and women’s sports pioneer Billie Jean King, the dominant female softball pitcher of the era Joan Joyce, and the serial sports promoter Dennis Murphy. The league reportedly grew out of a casual conversation between King and Joyce at an ABC Superstars competition. King brought in Murphy, who had been an executive in the upstart American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association and who had helped King launch the co-ed World Team Tennis in 1973.
The IWPSA debuted on May 28th, 1976 with ten franchises scattered nationwide. Besides Michigan, the league included the Buffalo Breskis, Chicago Ravens, Connecticut Falcons, Pennsylvania Liberties, Phoenix Bird, San Diego Sandpipers, San Jose Sunbirds, Santa Ana Lionettes, and Southern California Gems. Each club played 60 doubleheaders for a total of 120 games between May and September.
IWPSA double-headers consisted on seven innings per game. Single games, when played, would be nine innings. Teams were allowed to carry between 15 and 20 players on the active roster. Pitchers were not allowed to appear as pitchers in consecutive games.
The Travelers played their lone season at Memorial Park in East Detroit. They finished in 5th place (last) in the IWPSA’s Eastern Division with a 42-77 record.
The Connecticut Falcons defeated the San Jose Sunbirds for the first league championship. All ten franchises managed to complete the 1976 season, but several folded soon after and did not return for 1977, including the Michigan Travelers.
The IWPSA itself lasted four seasons, shutting down after the 1979 campaign.
“Women’s Pro Softball Gets Official Welcome”, The Meriden (CT) Journal, April 7, 1976
FC Gold Pride was a short-lived franchise in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), which played at multiple locations in the Bay Area of California over two seasons from 2009 to 2010. Although the club never caught on with Bay Area soccer fans or corporate sponsors, the club did engineer a stunning worst-to-first turnaround from its debut season in 2009 to its swan song in 2010. FC Gold Pride’s 2010 WPS Cup championship side is widely considered to be one of the finest women’s club teams ever assembled. However, the club folded little more than a month after winning the Cup.
FC Gold Pride came into existence on September 3, 2008 as a last minute franchise for the inaugural season of WPS, which planned to kickoff in March 2009. The other six WPS franchises had each been in place for more than a year when the league introduced the FC Gold Pride club, owned by tech entrepeneur Brian NeSmith and his wife Nancy. In fact, WPS had already awarded two expansion clubs for the 2010 season by the time the NeSmiths signed on for 2009.
WPS needed the Bay Area club to replace its moribund Dallas franchise, the league’s seventh club which existed on paper only. The purported Dallas investors had made zero progress securing a stadium lease and had neglected to hire a coach or front office staff by the late summer of 2008. With FC Gold Pride’s entry, Dallas was quietly removed from league plans. WPS could now move on to the process of allocation – the distribution of U.S. Women’s National Team players to each of the seven founding franchises. The USWNT had just defeated the powerhouse Brazilians for Olympic gold in Beijing on August 21st, 2008. WPS would allocate three of the U.S. gold medalists to each club, who would serve as the marketing tent poles for each local franchise.
In allocation, each of the two dozen or so eligible USWNT players would choose and rank their top three WPS cities to play in. The seven WPS clubs would submit a wish list of the three USWNT players they wished to bring into market. Commissioner Tonya Antonucci and her league staff would serve as matchmakers, aligning the player and team preferences as closely as possible. In a preliminary ballot, not a single USWNT player listed Dallas among their three choices. With the entrance of Bay Area into the league, the players received new ballots and the results shifted dramatically.
Sixteen players – nearly two-thirds of the pool – ranked Bay Area on their list of preferred cities, making the two-week old franchise the most popular destination in the league. This included the Americans’ greatest star, Abby Wambach, who ranked FC Gold Pride as her top choice. Wambach had started her pro career in the previous pro league, the WUSA, in 2002 and 2003 with the Washington Freedom, owned by John Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel. Alone among WUSA investors, Hendricks kept his team alive after that league folded in 2003. From 2004-2008, Henricks funded a low-budget version of the Freedom, which played an amateur schedule without its former stars such as Wambach and Mia Hamm. That legacy gave Hendricks great credibility as the dean of WPS owners and he insisted on the return of his erstwhile superstar. Wambach got her second choice and was allocated to Washington. In the allocation event on September 16, 2008, FC Gold Pride received three players with local ties: defender Rachel Buehler and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart of Stanford and midfielder Leslie Osborne of Santa Clara University.
As Head Coach, the NeSmith’s quickly appointed Albertin Montoya, a former college assistant at Stanford and Santa Clara. The club did not undertake a comprehensive coaching search and Montoya had a thin resume by WPS standards. Skeptics of the hire pointed out that Montoya’s key credential seemed to have been running the Mountain View Los Altos Girls Youth Soccer Club where the NeSmith daughters played as teenagers.
FC Gold Pride signed a lease to play at 10,000-seat Buck Shaw Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University, a facility shared with the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer. Gold Pride debuted at home on April 5th, 2009 against the Boston Breakers in a game televised nationally on Fox Soccer Channel. The crowd of 6,459 went home happy after former U.S. National Team star Tiffeny Milbrett came off the Gold Pride bench to break a 1-1 tie in the 90th minute.
“Carrie Dew and I would call that our ‘Glory Day’,” recalled forward Tiffany Weimer, who assisted on the franchise’s first goal that afternoon. “It was the best we played and we thought we were going undefeated after that.”
The glory didn’t last. Gold Pride won only three of their remaining 19 matches in 2009. At 4-10-6, Gold Pride finished last in the seven-team league and their total of 17 goals in 20 matches was the weakest offensive output in WPS. Bright spots included the Canadian international Christine Sinclair (6 goals) and Tiffeny Milbrett (4 goals), who combined for ten of the club’s seventeen goals and were both selected to play in the postseason WPS All-Star game. The All-Star nod must have been sweet vindication for the 36-year old Milbrett. The former WUSA Most Valuable Player (2001) had scored 100 goals for the U.S. National Team from 1991 to 2006 but was passed over by every WPS franchise in the league’s January player draft before latching on with Gold Pride as a free agent in March.
FC Gold Pride’s announced attendance dropped substantially after the home opener. Only one of Gold Pride’s remaining eight home dates in 2009 drew over 4,000 fans. The club started the season with the highest ticket prices in WPS ($18 – $45 per seat). Halfway through the summer, the team slashed those prices, angering some season ticket holders and advance buyers. Unlike other WPS clubs, Gold Pride offered few comp and deep discount promotions to pad attendance. In fact, the club’s internal sales figures actually stacked up much better within WPS than the league’s announced attendance figures indicated to the public. Gold Pride sold 885 season tickets – 4th best in WPS – and their total 2009 ticket sales revenue of $644,000 ranked third, trailing only the Boston Breakers ($646K) and the Los Angeles Sol ($854K).
Despite the last place finish, the NeSmith’s retained Montoya for Gold Pride’s second season in 2010 and the rebuilding began. 41-year U.S. National Team legend Brandi Chastain, the league’s oldest player, was released. Team captain Leslie Osborne was allowed to depart via free agency, as was the Brazilian midfielder Formiga, whom Gold Pride had selected with the #1 overall selection in the international player draft prior to the 2009 season. Formiga’s rumored $75,000 annual salary made her easily expendable after an unexceptional campaign.
The club’s fortunes began to turn at the WPS college draft on January 15th, 2010. Montoya stockpiled three of the first twelve picks and then shrewdly chose Stanford teammates Kelley O’Hara (#3 overall) and Ali Riley (#10) as well as Florida State’s Becky Edwards (#12). O’Hara would score six goals and earn an All-Star nod as a rookie. Riley would take home WPS Rookie-of-the-Year honors, while Edwards would emerge as a key contributor in the midfield. Beyond their skill, Stanford products O’Hara and Riley could be expected to add local appeal at the box office in the Bay Area – in theory anyway.
FC Gold Pride’s make-or-break moment as a franchise came two weeks after the college draft on January 28th, 2010. Shockingly, the league’s flagship franchise, the Los Angeles Sol, folded after a single season of play when a new investor solicited by the WPS league office backed out at the 11th hour. The Sol had posted the league’s best record in 2009 and now the key components of that club would be parceled out to the remaining WPS clubs in a disperal draft in early February. All except one. The 23-year old Brazilian superstar Marta was league’s greatest star – and its greatest burden.
In a league where the average player earned $32,000 in 2009 and where most clubs generated less than a million dollars in annual revenues, Marta had a three-year guaranteed contract worth a reported $500,000 per annum. A special mechanism was created to dispose of her contract. Any interest club could submit a bid, with the minimum offer set at 75% ($375,000) of Marta’s 2010 salary. If the highest bid was less than $500,000, the remaining eight clubs would collectively make up the difference to fulfill the contract. The great question was what would happen if no one was interested. Across the board, WPS owners were reeling from far greater than expected losses during the inaugural season. Boston, with its large Brazilian population, passed, as did Chicago, New Jersey, St. Louis, Washington and the new expansion team in Philadelphia. The Atlanta Beat expansion club, in need of a star attraction for its new soccer specific stadium, placed a bid. And then the NeSmith’s, whom no one expected to be a player in the auction after losing $3 million in 2009, stepped in and bid the full $500,000. Marta would play in the Bay Area. A couple of days later, with the deal already done, FC Gold Pride went through the charade of selecting her with the third overall pick in February 4th dispersal draft.
“Our plan is to sell out every game,” owner Nancy NeSmith declared to The New York Times after WPS announced the dispersal draft results. “If we get into a smaller stadium and sell out, the demand grows and sponsorship grows.”
The Marta acquisition aside, budget cuts were the rule of the day as Gold Pride headed into year two. The team departed Buck Shaw Stadium and signed a cheaper deal to play at Pioneer Stadium on the campus of Cal State East Bay. Necessary renovations to the 5,000-seat facility would not be complete until June, so Gold Pride would play the first two months of the 2010 season at Castro Valley High School Stadium.
The team also slashed its already lean marketing budget to near zero, meaning that many Bay Area soccer fans never got the memo about Marta’s arrival. Only 3,757 turned out for the 2010 home opener at Castro Valley High School on April 17th, 2010. An early June match-up against the visiting Washington Freedom featured the two greatest stars of the women’s game – Gold Pride’s Marta versus Abby Wambach of the Freedom. The same pairing drew 14,000 to the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles the prior season. Only 3,442 turned out in the Bay Area.
On the field, the rebuilding campaign led by Montoya and GM Ilisa Kessler was a wild success. After dropping the 2010 season opener on the road to St. Louis Athletica in April, Gold Pride reeled off five consecutive victories. In June, the St. Louis franchise folded abruptly in midseason and its players were dispersed. Gold Pride added long-time U.S. National team stalwart Shannon Boxx to an already fearsome line-up that included world class internationals Marta, Sinclair, Milbrett, Buehler, Barnhart, French midfielder Camille Abily, Canadian defender Candace Chapman, and the outstanding rookie trio of O’Hara, Riley and Edwards.
Gold Pride rampaged through the WPS regular season with a 16-3-5 record, outscoring its opposition by a margin of 46-19. Marta paced WPS in scoring with a record 19 goals. Sinclair led the league in assists with 9 and also finished fifth in goals with 10 of her own. Barnhart allowed a miserly 0.77 goals against average with eight shutouts, both tops in the league. By virtue of finishing with the best record in the league, Gold Pride earned a bye through the WPS playoffs and the right to host the WPS Cup Final at Pioneer Stadium on September 26th, 2010.
The final was anti-climactic. Coming off a two-week layoff, Gold Pride easily defeated a tired Philadelphia Independence team, playing their third game in eight days, by a score of 4-0. Sinclair scored a brace, Kandace Wilson got one, and Marta added a garbage time goal in the 90th minute to give the hometown fans a final thrill. WPS announced a sell-out crowd of 5,228, but Nancy NeSmith later told blogger Jeff Kassouf of Equalizer Soccer that the team only managed to sell 2,900 tickets for the final.
“If you can’t even sell out a championship game, that’s a wake up call for us…that people had better things to do or they are just not that interested,” NeSmith told Kassouf. “It’s kind of like Field of Dreams. You build it and people will come. And no one came.”
Gold Pride owners Brian and Nancy NeSmith lost a reported $5 million on the team during its 26 months of operation. Dismayed at the response to the championship game by the public and the media, and by the lack of sponsorship and season ticket interest in the weeks immediately following the Cup victory, the owners decided not to post the required security bond to play a third season in 2011. FC Gold Pride officially folded on November 16th, 2010.
After FC Gold Pride’s demise, the 2011 WPS expansion franchise Western New York Flash opened up its checkbook in an effort to re-assemble the core of Gold Pride’s championship team in Rochester, New York. Flash owner Joe Sahlen took on the final year of Marta’s $500,000 annual contract. The club also landed Gold Pride vets Sinclair, Ali Riley, Candace Chapman, Becky Edwards, Kandace Wilson, and Brittany Cameron. The Flash lost a bidding war with Boston for the rights to Kelley O’Hara.
Like Gold Pride a year earlier, the Flash breezed through the regular season and earned the right to host the 3rd WPS Cup at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester on August 27th, 2011. Once again, the opponent would be the Philadelphia Independence. This time the match was a thriller, with the Flash winning on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie held up through overtime.
Young UC-Berkeley filmmaker Jun Stinson produced a mini-documentary on the demise of FC Gold Pride entitled the 90th minute in 2011. The 20-minute film has screened at several symposiums on the West Coast and in Hawaii, often with live commentary from former WPS and WUSA players.
The Virginia Wave was a short-lived franchise in the all-but-forgotten Women’s American Basketball Association which operated in the autumn of 1984.
The WABA was the brainchild of Bill Byrne, a Columbus, Ohio-based sports promoter who had launched the American Professional Slo-Pitch League (men’s softball) and the original Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL) in the late 1970’s. The WPBL flamed out in 1981 after completing its third season and the WABA represented Byrne’s attempt to learn from the mistakes of the first league and to capitalize on the expected Gold Medal performance of the U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team at the 1984 Los Angeles summer games.
Announced in March 1984, Byrne’s initials plans called for a summer-time league, composed of 8-12 franchises playing a 22-game schedule. Individual player salaries would range from $5,000 to $10,000 and total annual operating budgets were pegged around $300,000. But Byrne’s plans and financial backing were in constant flux. The planned summer schedule was quickly pushed back to the fall. Nine cities were represented at the WABA’s college and veteran draft in Columbus on April 25th, 1984, but only five of these cities made it to the opening bell in October.
“Bill Byrne was having difficulty getting owners to put up the money for all the teams,” recalled Columbus Minks player Molly Bolin, who lived with the Byrne family during the 1984 season. “He would not let that stop him and believed that if he got the league started, people would believe and the money would fall into place.”
One of the cities that fell by the wayside was Baltimore, Maryland. The unnamed Baltimore team took part in the WABA draft in April 1984, selecting two-time Clemson University All-American Barbara Kennedy with its first round selection. Long-time Morgan State men’s basketball Head Coach Nat Frazier signed on to coach the squad and serve as General Manager. But in mid-September 1984, less than a month before the start of the season, the WABA pulled out of Baltimore and relocated the franchise to Norfolk, Virginia and the city’s 10,000-seat Norfolk Scope. The Scope was the home of the powerhouse Old Dominion University women’s basketball program, which had produced one of the women’s game’s greatest early stars, Nancy Lieberman, who played for the WABA’s Dallas Diamonds franchise. The league hoped local enthusiasm for ODU women’s hoops would rub off on the WABA brand. The team would be called the Virginia Wave.
The WABA’s chaotic pre-season carried over into a dysfunctional, under-capitalized season that launched with six teams on October 9th, 1984. Wave players, along with players on the Atlanta Comets and Columbus Minks, did not receive paychecks. With the exception of the Dallas Diamonds franchise, crowds of 500 or less were the norm throughout the league.
Lacking funds for air travel, the Wave endured epic bus trips, including a brutal late November swing that took the club from Atlanta (where less than 100 fans turned out) to Dallas to Houston for three games in four days. As it turned out, these would be the Wave’s final games:
“The players and I were discouraged prior to <the Dallas> game because we had not been paid for the season. We talked to our coach and he assured us that we would be paid prior to game,” recalled Wave captain Barbara Kennedy. “So we played professionally and fought hard to beat Dallas. When we returned back to Virginia, we thought that the check was valid but it was not good. Then immediately we checked out of the hotel and departed to our destinations. Again, we lifted our heads and left Virginia but <it was> bitter because we were losing our passion for the game, leaving our teammates and starting over. That was a sad day for us.”
On November 28th, 1984 Byrne announced that six to twelve games would be cut from the end of the WABA regular season schedule.
The following day, disgruntled WABA investors led by Dallas owner and league finance committee chaiman Ed Dubaj forced Byrne to resign. Dubaj shuttered the league office in Columbus and immediately cancelled the remaining games of the three most financially troubled franchises – Atlanta, Columbus and the Wave. The Wave finished their only campaign with a 5-9 record, eight games shy of completing their 22-game schedule.
The WABA made brave noises about returning in 1985 with a new league office in Dallas led by Dubaj, but was never heard from again after a hastily scheduled championship game between the Dallas Diamonds and Chicago Spirit in December 1984.
“We laughed, cried and were grateful for the experiences and memories,” said Barbara Kennedy in 2011. “We certainly wanted to finish the season but the league had some challenges. But what I can say is that my teammates were close and stayed strong throughout the time and we will always remember our times together and remember <that> we were pioneers. I am proud of my teammates, our coach, the league and thankful for the opportunity, the resources and the many memories…I loved all my experiences.”
Barbara Kennedy-Dixon was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 50th Anniversary Team in 2002. Today she is Associate Athletic Director/Senior Women’s Administrator at her alma mater, Clemson University.
The Women’s American Basketball Association was the brainchild of 47-year old Columbus, Ohio-based sports promoter Bill Byrne. Byrne was something of a serial sports entrepeneur. After holding player personnel positions in the World Football League, Byrne founded the American Professional Slo-Pitch Softball League in 1977. One year later, Byrne launched the Women’s Professional Basketball League, the first attempt at a nationwide professional basketball league for women. The WPBL signed the sport’s top American collegians and Olympic stars such as Carol Blazejowski, Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers. Byrne stepped down as Commissioner after two seasons intending to launch his own WPBL expansion franchise, the Tampa Bay Sun. The Sun never got off the drawing board and the league folded following its third season of play in 1981.
By March of 1984, Byrne was ready to give women’s basketball another shot, hoping to capitalize on the expected strong showing of the USA women at the 1984 Los Angeles summer Olympics. The WABA, Byrne claimed, would avoid the mistakes of the previous league, such as playing in the winter time, when arena rental fees were higher and competition was greater against men’s basketball, hockey, football and various college sports. The WABA would play a 22-game schedule in the summer, with 8-12 franchises operating on $300,000 annual budgets. Player salaries would range from $5,000 to $10,000 per year.
“The pay, the arenas, the travel were all out of whack,” Byrne told George Vecsey of The New York Times, speaking about the WPBL.
But Byrne’s WABA was severely disorganized and under-capitalized from the get-go. Plans for the summer season were quickly scrapped and the 1984 tip-off was pushed back to the fall. Of the nine cities represented at the WABA’s college and free agent draft on April 25th, 1984, four dropped out or relocated before the season began. The United States won the gold medal in women’s basketball in Los Angeles, but only two U.S. Olympians, Pam McGee and Lea Henry, agreed to play in the rickety-looking WABA.
“Bill Byrne was having difficulty getting owners to put up the money for all the teams,” recalled Minks player Molly Bolin. “He would not let that stop him and believed that if he got the league started, people would believe and the money would fall into place.”
The WABA debuted in early October 1984 with six teams: the Atlanta Comets, Chicago Spirit, Columbus Minks, Dallas Diamonds, Houston Shamrocks and the Virginia Wave.
The Minks set up shop alongside the league office in Byrne’s home base of Columbus, Ohio and had a distinctive throwback feel to the days of the WPBL. In September 1984 the Minks signed Larry Jones as Head Coach. Jones, 42, played ten seasons in the NBA and the American Basketball Association between 1964 and 1974. Like Byrne, Jones lived in Columbus and he had worked for Byrne in the old WPBL office as that league’s Director of Player Operations and Scouting in the late 1970’s.
The Minks star player was expected to be “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, the all-time leading scorer during the WPBL’s three-year run and a player whose striking appearance was often called upon to market her teams. But Bolin left Columbus right before the season opener in early October in a dispute over salary and working conditions.
“<The Minks> were staying on an old army base outside Columbus,” says Bolin. “The weather had turned to freezing and we were walking about a mile to the cafeteria and to the gym, but the kicker was they would not turn on the heat in the dormitories for another couple weeks and I was letting the hot water in my shower run to warm up the room. When some of the girls began to get sick, an owner’s wife took pity on us and moved us into a hotel in Columbus, which was a huge improvement.
“I was offered about the same amount I made my first year <in the WPBL in 1978> so I promptly thanked the coach for ending my misery in Columbus and told him I was leaving.”
Bill Byrne convinced Bolin to return to the Minks several weeks later, with the promise of a larger salary and free housing at the Byrne family home.
The WABA struck a television deal with the Satellite Programming Network, a Tulsa-based syndicator of old movies and talk shows (which later morphed into CNBC in 1989). Bolin unearthed this rare broadcast footage from a Minks home game against the Dallas Diamonds at the Ohio State Faigrounds Coliseum and posted it on her Youtube page in 2011:
The WABA’s pre-season dysfunction predictably carried over into a disastrous regular season. The Atlanta Comets ownership pulled out just prior to the opener. Seven of Atlanta’s unpaid players boycotted a November home game. The Chicago Spirit drew an estimated crowd of just 150 to their first home game.
The Minks made their home debut on October 9th, 1984, defeating the Atlanta Comets 103-98 in overtime before an announced crowd of 723. The Minks’ second game on October 30th drew 503 fans and a November 1st match up against the Houston Shamrocks drew just 251.
On November 28th, 1984 Byrne announced that six to twelve games would be cut from the end of the WABA regular season schedule.
“Houston’s 3-15 and there’s no reason in the world to fly them <into Columbus> for $12,000 for a game that won’t affect the standings at all,” Byrne told The Associated Press. “As far as we’re concerned, these games are being treated just like rainouts in baseball. If a team is out of the race and has rainouts to make up that don’t affect anybody, they sometimes forget them, and that’s just what we’re doing.”
The following day, disgruntled WABA team owners led by Dallas Diamonds owner and league finance committee chaiman Ed Dubaj forced Byrne to resign. Dubaj shuttered the league office in Columbus and immediately cancelled the remaining games of the three most financially troubled franchises – Atlanta, the Virginia Wave and the Minks. The Minks finished their only campaign with a 12-5 record, five games short of completing their 22-game schedule.
The WABA made brave noises about returning in 1985 with a new league office in Dallas led by Dubaj, but was never heard from again after a hastily scheduled championship game between the Dallas Diamonds and Chicago Spirit in December 1984.
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They can rightfully claim to be the first women’s professional basketball team ever formed in the United States. They travelled the small cities of Iowa and beyond in a custom 1964 Greyhound bus known as “The Corn Dog”. Team members co-starred with Pistol Pete Maravich in a box-office flop from the auteur who brought you UFO: Target Earth and Bloodbath in Psychotown. And they were pretty good too. During their short two-year history, the Iowa Cornets appeared in two championship series and produced one of the earliest stars of the women’s game.
George Nissen purchased the first franchise in the fledgling Women’s Professional Basketball League on March 21st, 1978 for the sum of $50,000. Nissen was a star gymnast at the University of Iowa in the 1930’s who pioneered the manufacture and sale of the modern trampoline at his Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Co. in Cedar Rapids.
The state of Iowa had a unique fervor for the sport of girls basketball, although not in a form that many of today’s fans would recognize or appreciate. School girls in Iowa and a few other Midwestern states played a variation called “six-on-six”, with three forwards and three guards. Forwards could not cross the half court line to defend and guards could not cross the boundary to participate in the offense. Each player was limited to only two dribbles before they had to pass or shoot. The Cornets and the WPBL, of course, would play the more conventional five-on-five rules familiar to the rest of the nation.
Nissen wanted the club to truly belong to the entire state. The Cornets would split their 17-game home schedule among eight different venues throughout Iowa for the 1978-79 WPBL season. The Cornets primary homes would be the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines and the newly constructed Five Seasons Center in Cedar Rapids. The team also scheduled single game appearances in high school auditoriums in Bettendorf, Council Bluffs, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Spencer.
In June 1978, Moravia, Iowa native Molly Bolin inked the first Cornets player contract for $6,000 during a ceremony attended by Nissen, Cornets General Manager Rod Lein (Bolin’s former college coach) and Iowa Governor Robert Ray. Bolin was an Iowa “six-on-six” high school legend who played just two seasons of college basketball at Grandview College in Des Moines. Cornets officials seemed confident that Bolin could adjust to the fluid five-on-five game and equally confident that the attractive 21-year old blonde would help to promote the new team across the state.
Nissen had another idea to promote his newfound interest in women’s basketball. As the WPBL formed in 1978, Nissen invested $1 million in Dribble, a basketball comedy about a women’s team called the Vixens playing against a men’s team led by NBA star Pete Maravich. Cornets players appeared as the Vixens and the film was shot on location in Iowa. The film’s screenwriter and director, Michael de Gaetano, had a pair of ultra low budget horror films to his credit. Dribble proved to be an expensive flop for Nissen – it opened in Cedar Rapids for a screening in January 1979 and then vanished, until it was released on home video years later under the new title Scoring. (Brief clips of a few scenes featuring Maravich are available on Youtube, but they were simply too boring to post here.)
Women’s professional basketball debuted at the Des Moines Auditorium on December 17, 1978 against the visiting New York Stars. The Cornets were one of the best clubs in the new league, finishing tied with the Chicago Hustle atop the Midwest Division standings with a 21-13 record. The team finished second in the league in scoring at 104.9 PPG, despite failing to place any players among the league’s top twelve scorers. The offensive production was well distributed, with Bolin, Doris Draving, Denise Sharps, Debra Thomas and Joan Uhl all averaging in double figures. The Cornets dispatched the Hustle in the semis before losing the inaugural WPBL championship series to the Houston Angels in the fifth and deciding match on May 1st, 1979 at Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston.
The Cornets returned for the 1979-80 WPBL season with a different dynamic. Bolin had led the Cornets in scoring with 16.7 points per per game in 1978-79, but in her second season she fully emerged as a scoring force, earning the nickname “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin. During the 1979-80 season, Bolin led the league in scoring with 32.8 points per game, including a record 54 during a televised match against the Minnesota Fillies on January 13th, 1980.
The Cornets won the WPBL’s Midwest Division once again during the 1979-80 season with a 24-12 record. They defeated the Fillies in the league semi-finals, only to fall once again the league championship series, this time to the New York Stars who defeated the Cornets 3 games to 1 in April 1980. Bolin was named the league’s co-MVP along with Ann Meyers of the New Jersey Gems.
After the 1980 season, George Nissen attempted to sell the club to Des Moines-area disc jockey Dick Vance. The sale fell through. At league meetings in late September 1980, WPBL officials granted the Cornets request for a hiatus from the league to sell or financially re-organize the team. Effectively, the club ceased activity at this point and the Women’s Professional Basketball League itself would follow suit after a third and final season in the winter and spring of 1980-81.
Connie Kunzmann was one of several Iowa natives to suit up for the Cornets. At 6′ 2″, she was one of the tallest players on the team. After the Cornets folded in 1980, she joined the expansion Nebraska Wranglers for the WPBL’s final season. On February 7th, 1981 Kunzmann was murdered by an acquaintance, Lance Tibke, after celebrating a Wranglers victory in an Omaha bar. Tibke threw Kunzmann’s body in the Missouri River and she was not recovered until late March 1981, although Tibke had confessed to the crime weeks earlier. Tibke was sentenced in July 1981 and paroled in June 1990.
George Nissen passed away in 2010 at the age of 96.
Molly Bolin played for the San Franscisco Pioneers during the final season of the WPBL in 1980-81. She also played briefly the Southern California Breeze and the Columbus Minks in a pair of unsuccesful rivals and offshoots of the original WPBL. Today she sells real estate in California.