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.