If you’ve been busy with the Super Bowl and the Olympics, you probably missed a big loss in local sports: The Boston Breakers folded.
The official announcement came at the end of January. And like so much about the Breakers, the news barely registered beyond the team’s most devoted fans. There was a short-lived #savethebreakers campaign, then poof.
Since the first incarnation of the Breakers, as a founding member of the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2000, the franchise struggled to grow its fan base and generate buzz. Even with star players such as Kristine Lilly, Angela Hucles, Heather Mitts, and Sydney Leroux, the team remained on the margins of the Boston sports scene. No surprise in a city with a glut of pro sports options.
Still, the Breakers persevered. As US women’s pro soccer reinvented itself with league after league, the Breakers always came back for more. So the team’s sudden demise shouldn’t be shrugged off as one more women’s pro team that failed. Attention should be paid because the Breakers’ downfall is about more than the Breakers; it says something about the state of women’s pro sports in the United States.
The Breakers calling it quits should sound an alarm. Sports executives need to do better by female pro athletes — build better business models, build better support systems for players, build better marketing strategies, build better broadcast opportunities, build better fan bases. Ideally, the Breakers will prompt some soul-searching and some changes.
What ultimately doomed them? The beginning of the end came when discussions with an active buyer stopped on short notice. Then, according to Breakers managing partner Michael Stoller, “A number of potential buyers were spoken with, but nothing could be completed within the short timeline” before the 2018 season. The statement noted that the Breakers’ absence from the National Women’s Soccer League “does not impact the Boston Breakers Academy and dedication to developing grass-roots soccer across the state.”
That’s little consolation, especially when girls involved in grass-roots soccer see women’s pro sports continually struggle to generate interest, from prospective owners to sponsors to broadcasters to fans. What message does that send about how society values female athletes? By now, that’s a rhetorical question.
While the Breakers’ failure to secure new ownership proved fatal, it’s also a symptom of the larger, systemic problems in women’s pro sports. Whether you’re talking soccer, hockey, or basketball, women’s pro teams are a tougher sell. Their default position is often survival mode. Always has been. Probably always will be since men’s pro leagues have been at it decades longer. And through trial and error, ups and downs, and luck, the men’s leagues have defined the look and feel of pro sports in the United States.
How do you get past that? How about accepting the advantages men’s pro sports enjoy and working with them?
But the collaboration between men’s and women’s pro teams has to go beyond sharing best practices in a conference room and calling it a day. It has to be a true partnership. This isn’t a new idea. It’s an idea that’s been incredibly successful in Portland, Ore., where there’s a strong affiliation between the city’s NWSL and MLS teams, the Thorns and the Timbers.
It’s been so successful that it’s the example most often cited when looking for a way forward for women’s pro sports. And for evidence that women’s pro sports can break through entrenched cultural and financial barriers. Last season, Thorns attendance averaged 17,653, a number that would make more than a dozen NBA and NHL teams envious.
Behind the Thorns’ impressive attendance is a business partnership in which they’re treated as the Timbers’ equals. That mentality offers a valuable lesson. When fans see a women’s pro team given the same respect, the same resources, even the same-sized logo on the home-field marquee, it changes things.
The biggest challenge with this model: getting the men’s teams to buy in. Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, in a since-deleted tweet, said the New England Revolution presented the “only solution to keep [the Breakers] in market after the new local owner checked out at the 11.5 hr.”
There were reports that the Krafts and the Revolution were approached but were not interested in taking over the Breakers. Hard to blame them. Parachuting in at “the 11.5 hour” doesn’t exactly scream smart business decision.
Some partnering with the Revolution could have helped. A series of doubleheaders maybe? Some joint training sessions open to fans? It doesn’t have to be a take-over-the-team-or-nothing proposition. Women’s and men’s teams in the same sport in the same market should work to build better bridges.
Hope the Bruins and the local women’s pro hockey teams, the Blades and the Pride, take note and do more, before there’s another 11.5-hour situation.
So, what else? Let’s get back to the fans. It’s not just how many people show up. The demographic breakdown matters, too.
Like other women’s pro teams, the Breakers positioned their players as role models and courted young female fans. At a typical game, the largest demographic appeared to be girls who came with their soccer teammates and their parents. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about the next generation. But when the majority of your fans need mom or dad to drive them to a game — and attend one or two games per season as a result — it’s not exactly the best strategy for developing a knowledgeable, devoted fan base.
Maybe there’s a future season ticket-holder in a 10-year-old girl, but more likely she sees the game as just another cool experience with friends. Having talked to former Breakers players, it’s clear they appreciated the enthusiasm of young fans. But at postgame autograph signings, it was equally clear those young fans often didn’t know the players’ names or positions.
Appealing to fans who are college age or older is a lot tougher. Still, for women’s pro sports to succeed, time and energy need to be invested in courting older, more knowledgeable fans who come to games more regularly and invest in players as athletes, not only role models.
And that brings the conversation to marketing. Women’s pro sports can’t avoid comparisons with men’s sports. But they can position themselves as different and better because they are different. It’s advice I first heard from marketing expert David Schmittlein, dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, and repeat every chance I get.
He talked about how light beer sold itself as a better experience because of its difference, with the slogan, “Tastes great, less filling.” For light beer, it was about creating what Schmittlein called “distinctive value for the product.” That remains a challenge for women’s pro sports.
Before the Breakers folded, they played on a field across the street from the Harvard Business School. What would’ve happened if the Breakers walked across the street and asked someone at HBS to take a closer look at what was working and what wasn’t with their business model, to offer fresh ideas, to figure out their distinctive value? What about post-mortem? Any takers?
It’s too late to save the Breakers, but maybe they can live on as a case study that saves another women’s pro team.
Fair Play is a column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.