The Boston Breakers are trying to build a winning women's soccer team, and win some fans, as a new addition to a crowded sports marketplace. It's a process.
Photo by Mike Gridley/Boston Breakers
Lindsay and Anne Clemons drive their red Toyota RAV4 into Harvard Stadium, and men in orange vests direct them, in twists and turns, to the rear of the crowded parking lot. They are closer to the high school lacrosse games unfolding on the fields in the distance than they are to the stadium, but Lindsay and Anne are not there for that. They came to see Boston's women's soccer team, the Boston Breakers, play the Houston Dash in their home opener at Soldier Field, a single turf soccer field with some steel bleachers neatly tucked away in the middle of Harvard's field complex.
It's April in New England, and feels it—a chilly breeze blasts off the water, a low-hanging sun barely pokes through the clouds. The couple had never heard of the Breakers, Boston's only women's professional team, until a few weeks ago.
"I love sports and I've always had an interest in women's sports but it always feels like it stops after college," Lindsay, 33, says. They bought a pair of Breakers t-shirts, worn deep under their winter jackets, and a flex package of 15 tickets to be used in any way they wanted. Then they bought one extra so they could go to the team's eight home games together. Despite their research, they have no idea what to expect.
"This sounds so terrible, but I've only been to high school soccer games for cousins or friends, so that's the only experience I've had," says Anne, 32. "That was the litmus test for me."
Lindsay and Anne take their seats in the stadium with the rest of the 2,376 fans and find themselves surrounded by a sea of Orange instead of the Breakers' blue. The Dash, who are affiliated with the Major League Soccer franchise the Houston Dynamo, have vibrant orange uniforms; the crowd in Anne and Lindsay's section were there to cheer on Dash defender Niki Cross, who is from nearby Brockton. The game is the last before the U.S. Women's National team stars leave their teams to train for the upcoming World Cup. The Dash's roster includes U.S midfield stalwarts Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd; the Breakers have just one U.S player—Alyssa Naeher, the third-string goalkeeper on the national team.
The game seesaws. The Breakers take a 2-0 lead in the first half. The Dash tie the game in the second half before an own goal gifts the Breakers their first win of the season. Lindsay and Anne leave the game in happy disbelief. "Neither of us grew up playing [soccer], we have to admit," Lindsay says. "It was new. It was legit. We were really impressed."
If there's any disappointment to be found on the Clemons' part, it's that they hadn't heard of the Breakers or the National Women's Soccer League sooner. "[There's] no advertising," Lindsay says.
"Which is problematic in itself, " Anne follows up. "How do we not know about it?"
Boston literally casts its sporting legends in bronze, and uses its teams to turn its defiance outward—against the big boys in New York and Los Angeles, and everyone else. But a love affair with any team in the city takes time. Boston is skeptical of new things—see the subway system, Fenway Park, elected officials—and women's soccer and the Breakers, even though the team has been around in some form for nearly 15 years, are new.
The big question, here, is whether the Breakers have the luxury of time. This is the franchise's third go-around, and it's not getting any easier to own a pro sports team, especially as the price of property continues to climb and fans are already embedded in their ways. For the Breakers, the challenge—and it's an existential one—is finally about finding space.
John Powers took his seat at Harvard Stadium to watch the Boston Breakers play...well, he doesn't remember who because he was too busy looking around and seeing all the things he could bring to the team.
This was 2014, and the Breakers were in the midst of their second season in the National Women's Soccer League, the third try at a professional women's soccer league in the United States, and also the third incarnation of the Breakers in Boston. Powers had just become an investor in the team, as well as a managing partner. The stadium holds 30,323 people, but looked empty with roughly 2,000 fans scattered in the stands. Powers, for his part, didn't see an empty stadium. He saw potential.
Powers came under soccer's spell when he was 13. It was 1973 and family moved from their home outside of Hartford to England for a year; the game was everywhere, and it took hold of Powers' imagination. "I completely fell in love with [soccer]," he said. "I love the game. I love the passion that the fans have for it. I love the colors and the songs."
When his family moved back to the States, the game drifted from Powers' life until he started a family and his children; his son and daughter both began playing in the Weston Youth Soccer program. Powers, who works in investment management for J. O. Hambro Capital Management, became the Weston High School Varsity Girls Soccer coach in 2013 and has had two stints as the Weston Youth Soccer's President. "Coaching that fall had really reminded me how much I loved the game," Powers says. "At that point in my life I thought, 'I love this, I want to be involved in things I am passionate about and there is nothing I am more passionate about than football.'"
In January of 2014 Powers—who has the look of a professional banker with his wispy gray hair, athletic build, and square head—called Lee Billiard, the varsity soccer coach for the Acton-Boxborough girls and general manager of the Breakers. The pair met years before when Billiard coached Powers' daughter in club soccer. They sat down for lunch and Powers told Billiard what he was thinking of doing. "I knew I wasn't going to coach at an extraordinarily high level," Powers says. "But somebody with finance and business and organizational skills kind of has a place in the game." Billiard sold Powers on working with the Breakers, and introduced him to managing partner Michael Stoller. Powers decided began researching the team and women's soccer to see if the investment made sense.
"I have been fortunate over the years to make some friends in the game," Powers says, "and I think I had talked to everybody and asked, 'can you recommend somebody else I can talk to about the game?' I talked to folks who told me I was crazy, folks who told me this time the league was getting it right. I heard every possible perspective."
In April, Powers sat down with Billiard and Stoller in a Starbucks in Newton and shook on a deal. Powers became a managing partner. Powers thought the Breakers could become more than Boston's sixth or seventh professional sports team.
"I think there is a place for [women's soccer] in what is admittedly a crowded athletic marketplace," Powers says. "I'm convinced. It is going to take us some time to grow it and I want to be a part of that."
But about that marketplace: the Breakers are in one of the country's most crowded sports markets, with devoted fans already giving everything they have to five major professional teams—all of them men's pro sports, of course. There have been times when Breakers players have walked through Harvard Square in their team apparel and been asked if they were on a basketball team. "There's a soccer ball on our logo," Powers says.
Michael Stoller became enamored with soccer after his daughter, Brooke, started playing when she was four. By the time Brooke was in second grade, Michael had joined the board for Newton's Girls Soccer program and the family had season tickets to the Boston Breakers team playing in the Women's United Soccer Association at Nickerson Field at Boston University.
Plans for the WUSA began at the end of 2000, a year after the 1999 Women's World Cup. Women's soccer in America reached its peak in 1999, when the United States hosted the Women's World Cup. Crowds flooded stadiums across the country to see the U.S. Women's National Team win it all in front of a record crowd at the Rose Bowl; nearly 18 million people watched the game on television, which ended with Brandi Chastain whipping her jersey off after sealing an American victory in penalty kicks. After the World Cup, plans for a Women's professional soccer league were put into place in the hopes that the momentum would carry over as it did for the men's game after the 1994 World Cup, which catalyzed the start of Major League Soccer.
The first women's professional league in America began with eight teams and $5 million in investment from cable television. The Breakers played their first home game in May 2001, in front of a sellout crowd of 11,714 fans. The Breakers averaged more than 8,000 fans during their first season and more than 20,000 tickets were sold for the WUSA Championship game between the Bay Area CyberRays and the Atlanta Beat at Foxboro Stadium. The future seemed bright for women's soccer, in Boston and everywhere else.
And yet, after three seasons, WUSA folded. The league racked up a $16 million deficit and blew through more than $100 million in funding. The announcement came five days before the 2003 Women's World Cup kicked off.
In 2007, Stoller was invited to join a team of investors to bring the Breakers back and help found a new women's league, the Women's Professional Soccer League (WPS). Two years earlier, Stoller sold his business and was looking for something to do. "Once I retired, I had time on my hands to do things I really loved," Stoller says. "And I decided getting involved in soccer was one of them."
The WPS launched in 2009 with eight teams, and the Breakers were one of the founding members, again. And the league collapsed, again, even though players made less money on average and there were large corporate sponsorships like PUMA that should have made the league solvent. The Breakers had one of the better attendance records in the league, but still averaged under 4,000 fans a game. A boost in attendance after the 2011 Women's World Cup, where the United States made a dramatic fun to the finals before losing to Japan, appeared to be a saving grace. But the league was bleeding money and a lawsuit was brewing between the league and Dan Borislow, the owner of the team magicJack. After the conclusion of the 2011 season, the WPS ceased operations.
"I think we all underestimated at the time what the recession impact was going to be. Although I can't say that was the major factor, I think we all underestimated at the time," Stoller says. "And over the first couple of years we became a sort of fractured group and lost a team or two and added a team and by the time we got to, after the third year we were looking at, 'oh my god there are only five of us who are willing to return.'"
Stoller and his partners gathered the few owners still interested in keeping the women's soccer alive and created the WPSL Elite league. The hope was to create a small league with extremely limited funds—some players didn't get paid at all—that could keep teams alive while owners built up to a new professional league.
For the new league, they decided to ask for U.S. Soccer's help organizing, something U.S. Soccer did for MLS but had yet to do for the women's game. U.S. Soccer brought in the Mexican and Canadian Soccer Federations to help handle national team players' salaries. In November 2012, the National Women's Soccer League became official. The Breakers were back.
Well, sort of. The momentum of the WUSA and WPS had been lost in the two leagues closing. In the intervening years between leagues, the team lost most of its well-known U.S. National Team players, including future World Cup winners Kalley O'Hara, Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez, Meghan Klingenberg, and Sydney Leroux, who could have helped market the team. Add in the time away from any spotlight, fading interest, and the poor location of Dilboy Stadium in Somerville and the Breakers were in a tight spot.
"They couldn't afford to buy out ads on The T or put up a billboard in Harvard Square," says Stephanie Yang, a freelance women's soccer writer and one of the founders of the Breakers' supporters' group The Armada. "It really killed the audience. Now they're actually having to rebuild again."
That rebuild hasn't been easy. "We're in probably the most competitive market of the all the teams presently [in NWSL]," Stoller says. "Chicago's [Red Stars] similar, but I think overall soccer is a much bigger focus of the community than it is in greater Boston. This is a baseball, hockey town, and now football."
A team like the Portland Thorns competes only against the other soccer team in the city, the Portland Timbers; both are owned by Merritt Paulson, so resources are shared instead of used against each other and it shows in an average attendance of over 13,000 fans per game. The Breakers don't have that kind of structure in place to leverage the Revolution's fan base, and the MLS side hasn't done much to help.
"We don't have any partnership with the Revs at all," Lee Billiard, the Breakers general manager, says. This means that the Breakers aren't just trying to build a professional sports team from scratch, they're trying to do it fast—before the money runs out.
These relationships don't happen overnight. When the Celtics relocated from Buffalo to Boston in 1946 they struggled to get fans to go to games, attendance averaged less than 5,000 fans from 1946-50. People were skeptical of professional basketball and more interested in the collegiate game, and attendance numbers stayed low even after Bill Russell arrived and one of sport's most dominant dynasties was born. In only two seasons between 1946-1972 the team averaged more than 10,000 fans a game at home—1956-57, the team's first championship season, and 1966-67.
"We had to sell the game and we had to sell ourselves," Red Auerbach told John Feinstein in his book Let Me Tell You a Story. "I wasn't just the coach and general manager, I was the marketing guy, too. We were constantly trying to come up with ideas to get more fans to come. Even after we started winning we didn't sell out during the regular season because the fans figured we were going to win anyway and the playoffs were what mattered. So we had to come up with different ways to get them to come."
To offset the struggling attendance, Auerbach tried every trick he could come up with, including being one of the first teams to give away prizes to fans. Auerbach even tried to bring fans to games by offering $1 tickets to a Sunday afternoon game at Boston Arena, which held 5,000 people. Everything changed in 1979 when Larry Bird joined the Celtics and resurrected the team and brought them into the golden age of basketball. The next big push came after the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007. A championship-caliber team brought fans to the arena. Since then, the Celtics have been able to keep fans coming out despite going through a rebuilding phase. They've made going to games an experience, an event. This is what the Breakers are trying to harness.
Powers contacted CBS Radio and started advertising on stations in Boston; he brought DJs to games and started advertising on the radio. He's made a concerted effort to bring in more beer and food options. Now he's trying to court millennials who grew up with soccer to offset the families and children that have been the team's core fans.
"If you're turning 25 this year in 2016, you turned five in 1996 when MLS was formed, two years after we hosted the men's World Cup," Powers says. "That means you grew up with a major professional league—a men's league, but a major professional [soccer] league in your country. You grew up seeing it periodically on television and you definitely grew up with the opportunity to play youth soccer. There's a solid chance that you're a fan."
Ticket sales aren't the Breakers only source of revenue making it a stable franchise. The Breakers big push financially is through its academy program and by partnering with youth teams across the region. "The low hanging fruit, so to speak, is the youth soccer groups," Billiard says. "That's where we get the majority of our ticket sales and the majority of interest."
The Breakers work with local youth teams in the region and offer them package deals for games as well as training and coaching resources provided by the club's staff. In the spring of 2013, the Breakers launched the Boston Breakers Academy Program. At the academy, girls pay to train with Breakers players and coaches to improve their skills, which also gives the Breakers a way to connect to fans on a personal level.
"One of my initial jobs was: how can we build it more into a business?" Billiard says. "We started with all the youth teams and grew to we have a reserve team now; we have a college academy team; we have a youth team structure. We pretty much go from cradle to grave. We do summer camps and clinics, educational clinics, in towns, so different revenue streams are coming in to allow us to offset some of the costs of what we're doing with the pro team and push us forward and help us with the bigger brand and operate as more of a business so we can start making some money."
There is one shortcut to making it as a sports team in Boston—win. And that part the Breakers have yet to manage.
The team finished in last place in the NWSL in each of the last two seasons under coach Tom Durkin and often looked lost on the field. At the close of the season, Billiard decided to make the change. He knew who he wanted.
Matt Beard, 38, has been in soccer his whole life. His father was an academy director Millwall, a club in London, and his older brother Mark played professionally. Matt was a Millwall academy player himself—he left the club to prove himself and washed out of the professional game as a player by the time he was 19. In time, he found himself working his way up the coaching chain in England.
Beard led Millwall to 16 consecutive victories and a league title. He worked for Chelsea and then Liverpool, where he won the club's first women's league title. And his pedigree of turning a franchise around enticed Billiard and the Breakers. The feeling was mutual—after a tough season filled with injuries, Beard was ready for a change. "I wanted to move and challenge myself in a different country and environment, to challenge myself as a coach," Beard says.
That challenge is a big one, and starts with making the league's worst team respectable. The Breakers have already begun an overhaul of the roster, trading away their only World Cup-winning American, Naeher, to Chicago; that deal brought back USWNT defender Whitney Egan, who played for Beard at Liverpool. The team went on to add midfielder Angela Salem from the Washington Spirit, midfielder McCall Zerboni, and Sinead Farrelly from Portland. They also signed Beard's former goalkeeper at Liverpool, Elizabeth Stout, who Beard believes will be a USWNT player soon enough.
The moves are part of a concerted plan to rebuild the roster with experienced players who can help move the team forward and realize Beard's vision for the team. "All I can do is bring a brand of football fans want to come and watch and you guys [the media] talk about," Beard says.
The moves seem to be working. NESN has signed on to partner with the Breakers this year and show more of their games on the regional television network, similar to deal struck with the women's professional hockey team the Boston Pride.
When the U.S. players returned to their NWSL teams after captivating the country en route to their Women's World Cup win, ticket sales jumped across the league. The Breakers sold out the final three games of the season.
But this has happened before. Leagues ride the wave of World Cup or Olympic success for a bit and then it wanes—fans are attached to their new favorite players, not the teams on which they play. "The World Cup is great because it gets us some attention, but we have to establish ourselves as a club and not as a team with a couple national team stars on it," Powers says. The Breakers need to become more than a place where people go see their favorite national team players if it's going to succeed over the long term.
"If you're in Boston, you're like, 'I want to go to Fenway and see the Red Sox, I don't care who they're playing I just want to see the Red Sox play', right?" says Cat Whitehill, a former U.S National team and Breakers defender. "Coming to Breakers, it's not like you're a diehard Breakers fan. You're a diehard women's soccer fan, or a diehard Hope Solo fan. I think that's big problem with our league. Instead of saying, 'come out and see Stephanie McCaffrey and the Boston Breakers,' [say] 'just come out and see the Boston Breakers.' We don't say, 'come see Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.'"
This iteration of the Breakers, and women's soccer in general, is still young. The NWSL has already surpassed the previous women's pro leagues as it enters its fourth season, but it's still going through growing pains. The confetti will fall again for women's soccer in America. Right now, the dream of the Breakers, and their league, is just to stay alive long enough to get to the fun part.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Morgan Brian's last name.