Portland’s Unique Place in the NWSL

By | September 15, 2013

Portland, Oregon is my weird little hometown that recently has gained some fame as a city friendly to bikes, nudists, environmental lovers and most notably, as the subject of the TV show Portlandia. While I decline to comment on the accuracy of that show in general, I must point out another feature of this paragon of the Northwest: we also feature some of the most fervent soccer supporters in the United States. The Portland Timbers command, literally, an Army of fans; although the Seattle Sounders get a greater volume of people, in 2013, our average attendance, around 20,600, has been more than our stadium capacity (around 20, 400). Clearly, Portland people love their MLS. But when we went to add a women’s team, some were skeptical about the ability of enthusiasm to carry over to the women’s game.

They needn’t have worried. Firstly, our team was graced with four national team players, one of whom–Alex Morgan–is one of the biggest stars the world has ever seen in their sport. Secondly, our fan base realized that they now had double the chances to watch soccer games and responded accordingly. The average attendance for the Portland Thorns for their inaugural season has been over 13,000. The league average is around 4,000. Shirts sell like wildfire.  The Rose City has a new favorite team.

But why? Why does my weird little city represent one of the most important fanbases for soccer fandom in the US (the other city, of course, being our less weird and more caffeinated sister Seattle)? And in particular, why has our women’s team done so well?

Part of it, people would say, is the fact that Oregon lacks a professional football or baseball team. Yes, we have the Blazers, and we love the Blazers, but by default, our second place choice for pro sports is the Portland Timbers/Thorns. And so we gather and we cheer.

And yet I disagree. Like I said, we have the Blazers; we have a semi professional hockey league; we travel to go to NFL games. But soccer still has a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s just Portland’s hipster ways, but a distinctly European feel has begun to settle into the crowds at games. The Timbers Army stands, shouts, chants and flag-waves the entire time. We have a chainsaw-wielding lumberjack cheerleader with his own platform. Beer is swilled and smoke bombs I’m sure have occurred at least once. It’s fun and energetic and exciting. This is what soccer can be, and this is particularly what women’s soccer can be.

There have been three women’s leagues in the past 13 years, two of which have fizzled out quietly in less than three years. But Portland provides an answer that can save this third attempt from the fate of the other two. Firstly, star power and development of the media. The bigger women’s soccer gets, the more players people will know and the more people will want to come see them. The first two leagues didn’t have this advantage. Although Mia Hamm and the rest of the 1999 World Cup team were part of the inaugural league, they weren’t enough to spur attendance. Now, with the women’s team increasingly on TV and the internet, with players like Alex Morgan gracing magazine covers regularly, and with the general development of interest in the sport, the conditions are far better for a women’s league.

Secondly, and pertaining more to Portland, the Thorns are the only team in the league who have affiliated their team with a men’s team–in this case, the Portland Timbers. This means that the same corporation owns both and the central staff is the same. Therefore, the Thorns have the same marketing and event teams, play in the same stadium, and are more connected to the fans of MLS teams.  The stadium sharing alone is huge–the seating capacity is far above any other women’s team, and many other NWSL teams are situated in inconvenient places outside the cities they serve.

Thirdly, this affiliation allows fans what they want: a consistent soccer experience. Let the Portland fans have their screams and their banners and their man waving his chainsaw in front of them–for both teams. If you give the fans a reason to come and keep the experience the same across all events, attendance will continue to rise. That’s what Portland is really doing–riding the wave. Other cities, perhaps, have a while before they have a wave to ride. But allowing fans to have the same type of experience at both men’s and women’s games will be part of building the league.

So here’s to you, Portland. Paving the way for US Women’s Soccer. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead for the NWSL.

4 thoughts on “Portland’s Unique Place in the NWSL

  1. Annett

    Thanks for this great post. Glad to hear that soccer for women and man is supported in Portland, OR. It amazes me how far women’s soccer has comes over the past 30 years. There was a time when it was unthinkable for women to even play soccer.
    But the changes in society plus great soccer training have made it possible today to also see a lot of great female players.

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  2. June

    I think you bring up a really interesting point in how gender affects how our perception on sports and especially soccer. It’s not surprising that although MLS carries a relatively wide fan base in the United States, NWLS has not prospered. Despite Title IX and the integration of women’s soccer in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, women’s soccer has not attracted audiences quite like men’s soccer has. However, I think this dynamic has drawn positive attention to women’s soccer at the collegiate level. It has become center stage in terms of nationally showcasing talented female soccer players. Especially at Duke, as a student I feel like both men and women’s soccer are supported and respected equally. I think the nation and the NWSL in particular have something to learn from the collegiate women’s soccer program.

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  3. Gilda Doria

    This is amazing. You bring up such a good point that I think the chairs and organizers of the NWSL league need to really pay attention to: the affiliation the Portland Timbers have with the MLS team. Being a women’s college soccer player myself, it has been really devastating to see our women’s professional league fold due to lack of attention and lack of organization. I think that if we place NWSL teams in major MLS cities it will definitely attract the attention of many Americans. If we change the way that American’s view the sport and make it a more lively environment to participate in, they will start to catch on. Many times I hear that soccer will never prosper in America, because it is too boring in the way that a game can finish tied 0-0. Soccer is so much more than just statistics and goals, it is a way of life. I think the Portland Timbers are really starting to change the way American’s treat soccer.

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  4. Ursula

    Love the read and I couldn’t agree more. I hope other teams adopt what Portland is teaching.

    I live in Canada and the Thorns are my favorite team b/c of all that you mentioned and then some: the some being Karina LeBlanc and Christine Sinclair.

    My Thorns wardrobe just arrived today, and should last me until next season.

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