Growing up in LA County, youth soccer was an ubiquitous sight up there with In N’ Out and the elote man. For the hundreds of thousands of boys and girls (and their parents) spending their weekends driving to tournaments across the region, the sport was a way of life.
This hasn’t changed. At the college level, the UCLA women’s team has advanced to the National Championship twice the past five years, winning it all in 2013 and grooming future players like Sydney Leroux and Abby Dahlkemper along the way. “Southern California is perhaps the biggest ladies soccer hotbed in the country” CoG’s Wendy Thomas has argued in the past, noting in addition to addition to local stars Alex Morgan and Christen Press, nine members of Mexico’s 2015 World Cup squad hailed from Southern California.
20 years since the U.S. Women’s National Team captured World Cup glory in sunny Pasadena, LA today is a city without a NWSL team.
LA has already proven it can support the women’s game. Led by a star-studded cast including Brazilian sensation Marta, France’s Camille Abily and Japanese midfielder Aya Miyama, the Los Angeles Sol averaged 6,382 fans at the Home Depot Center their inaugural year in WPS, an impressive figure which would place the Sol among the league leaders in today’s NWSL. This in spite of numerous issues including poor kick off times and a forgettable brand identity.
Unfortunately the Sol were not supported by ownership. AEG got the club off the ground but were only committed to running the team for a single season. When a planned sale fell through at the last minute, the end was near. The Sol were done.
This theme of short term thinking and a lack of serious investment has doggedly harmed the women’s game and stunted its growth for some time. There was the infamous decision by FIFA forcing 2015 World Cup participants to ply their trade on artificial turf.
The situation isn’t much better domestically. Deadspin reported last fall on the shambolic operations of Sky Blue FC, while concerns have been raised about the resources allocated to a pair of struggling NWSL teams with MLS connections in the Houston Dash and Orlando Pride.
These recurring incidents are buoyed by the all-too common perception that women’s sports should be run with the frugality of a fast food franchise. Conversely, sports on the men’s side are often portrayed as noble pursuits worthy of dumping large sums of money into.
One only has to travel to the early days of MLS to understand the disparity. With the league having blown through 250 million dollars in five years, a fresh-faced Don Garber got the owners together in an emergency meeting and successfully convinced them to double down on their investment in order to save the league. The likes of Philip Anschutz and Lamar Hunt kept multiple franchises afloat for years, sacrificing a small fortune to secure a professional men’s league.
Has the same commitment been afforded to women’s soccer?
It should be noted the fledgling league is far from a sure bet. A decision from entertainment channel Lifetime to pull a 25% equity stake has left the NWSL without a broadcast partner. Understaffed clubs, shoestring budgets and other hindrances have also cast doubt on the league’s future viability.
That being, the potential rewards for taking a calculated risk may be too tempting to overlook.
Which LA club will land a NWSL team first?
To their credit, the LA Galaxy have steadily funneled more resources into the women’s game. Currently the club fields two second-division teams, one in Orange County and the other in San Diego. Former goalkeeper Kevin Hartman also leads the newly formed Girls’ Academy. Word on a possible NWSL expansion team however is nil at the moment.
As one of the owners of crosstown rivals LAFC, USWNT legend Mia Hamm has long been rumored to bring the NWSL to Los Angeles. Appearing at an open practice Saturday at Banc of California Stadium, Hamm confirmed the speculation but added there’s still lots to be done.
Bringing a NWSL franchise to LA could prove to be a game changer for whichever club decides to pull the trigger first, and not just because Forbes agrees. As Hamm hinted earlier, it would be mutually beneficial for an expansion franchise to build their identity as an extension of the club brand and vise versa.
Then there’s El Trafico. Since LAFC began play last season, both clubs have competed for city supremacy in the greater LA market. Whichever team brings women’s soccer first will instantly inherit thousands of fans, many of whom know friends and family members who support the other side. Loyalties will be tested, and for some, switched.
Can the Galaxy afford to take that chance?