“I never really thought about it until I was playing professionally,” Reeves says. “Then I realized, wow, there’s a team down the street from us playing in Gillette Stadium and we can’t even get a consistent training field half the time ... You can’t deny the fact that there’s a pattern.”
Reeves does see hope in the way one city embraced its female players. “I did not feel like a professional athlete until we went to Portland,” she says. She likely won’t be on the field to see NWSL’s future, however. At the end of the season, at age 22, she retired from professional soccer to take a job with Amazon.
What Reeves felt during that game against the Portland Thorns was the effect of 14,383 fans dressed in Thorns red packing the same stadium where the MLS’ Portland Timbers play. At their home games a rowdy crowd waves flags, sings songs and performs cheers led by Capos, fans who stand with their backs to the field the entire game simply to fire up the crowd. In other words, Reeves played in an environment very similar to the one most men’s professional soccer teams experience.
In some ways Portland, where soccer scarves—often representing both the Timbers and the Thorns—hang from the walls and ceilings of bars across the city, is uniquely set up to support a women’s soccer team. The Portland MLS and NWSL teams have the same ownership, a distinction shared by just one other of the nine NWSL teams in the league. And it helps that the Timbers are incredibly popular. The waiting list for Timbers season tickets is reportedly more than 10,000 strong. Providence Park, where the teams play, holds 22,000. Marketing the Thorns to these soccer-hungry fans is a no-brainer.
“When the [Thorns] team was announced people stepped up immediately and said we want to make sure the support for them is equal to that for the Timbers,” says Kristen Gehrke, one of the leaders of the Rose City Riveters, the main Thorns supporter group.
But without a built-in MLS infrastructure that promises media, advertising, and audience support, the NWSL fan base in most cities has struggled. Not counting Portland, the average attendance in 2014 was a little less than 3,000, with many of those being families or youth-soccer players.
The Thorns prove that a deeper and more diverse fan base exists for women’s soccer when male and female teams are treated more equally. Hours before the kickoff of a Thorns game against the Washington Spirit in Portland in May, Thorns jerseys could be spotted on the streets of the city. And though the stadium filled with many young soccer players and families early on, groups of 20- and 30-somethings of both genders filled many of the seats before the first whistle, as well as the bars near the stadium before and after the game.
So why, in 2015, is sports, a multi-billion dollar industry that so many take so seriously, still seen as a “frivolous” issue by many feminists, as Elkins suggested in 1978? There are a few small groups advocating for more women coaches and better treatment for women athletes. But according to Allison, “even in the academy, studying sports is often considered a less serious pursuit than studying the economy, or politics.”
And that, says Cooky, is wrong. Feminists need to focus on sports because it’s an institution of massive cultural significance and an area rife with “serious” issues, such as sexual violence, pay inequality, and a lack of women in leadership positions. “Who wouldn’t want to do what they love and say that’s their job?” says Reeves. “I’m not saying I would never play again, but I can’t live off of what they gave me. I can’t.”