Women's sports are on the verge of something big

Thu, 07/02/2020 - 5:45am
Cliff Pfenning
Cliff Pfenning's picture
Last seen: 11 hours 42 min ago
Joined: 2010-07-01

I've been a fan of women's sports for a long time. Of women's college sports and girls high school competition.

My interest probably goes back to following the UO women's basketball team in the mid-80s, and when I really think about it is somewhat attached to McArthur Court - just going there was such a pleasure and all I needed was a reason to go. The school had a men's and women's team, and my voice had a little more impact in those games with fewer fans, so ... heck, it was a team to follow.

High school sports comes from covering Mt. Hood Conference volleyball matches for The Oregonian in the late '90s when Gresham, Barlow and Central Catholic could attract crowds of 800 fans at least for their rivalry matches, and maket a gym come alive. Covering the University of Portland women's soccer team in 2001 and onward was crowds of 3,000 and more for most matches, especially during the Pilots first title season, 2002.

I've covered the high school cheerleading finals at Memorial Coliseum for most of the last decade. Want to see some energy at an event - that's it.

So, it's good to see women's pro soccer get something of momentum going this season after the U.S. National team's win in the World Cup last summer. Portland sports fans have done more than their part in getting the National Women's Soccer League onto the map by averaging more than 20,000 fans per game last year - more than 15 of the 24 Major League Soccer teams in 2019.

The first match in the NWSL Challenge Cup Saturday attracted the largest audience for a women's pro soccer in television history due to it being televised by CBS and not a cable network. HAving the league's two most successful teams - the Thorns and North Carolina Courage might of had something to do with that.

And yet, the NWSL, and women's sports with it, is still being treated as a second or even third-class option for sports coverage, and CBS is doing its part to show that off. The network has done a great job of bumping up the level of respect for the NWSL, but if it really wanted to get some more results out of its investment in the league, it could easily do more. Just put more matches on its main channel and pay more attention on its online site. 

And, the NWSL would do well to make this happen as well as respond to what it's actually doing for the future. The league got a significant bump in exposure when Kansas City moved to Salt Lake City last year, and that team finished second in attendance at more than 10,000 fans per match. And it has an expansion team set for Louisville next year. It's got a bunch of new marketing partners and a bunch of players who've almost defied public scrutiny by playing in the current tournament, even after one of the nine teams bailed in the week of the first match.

The nation is looking at the MLS and NBA, which are set to restart this month, and wondering if the men's teams have the strength to start, and yet the women's league is going full steam ahead.

The NWSL and CBS should be just thrashing the public sports community with these stories, and yet it doesn't - almost like it's playing into the role it has established as being lucky to still be around after eight years.





Thorns fall in Challenge Cup opener

North Carolina's late goal turns into 2-1 victory
Staff Report

A stoppage-time goal by North Carolina boosted the two-time defending league champions to a 2-1 win over the Portland Thorns in the opening match of the NWSL Challenge Cup being played in suburban Salt Lake City, Utah.

Lucy Williams headed home a cross from Samantha Mewis in the fourth minute of stoppage time to break a 1-a tie.

Portland scored in the 80th minute when Simone Charley put home short volley after a wild scramble in front of the North Carolina goal moved to ball to her just one foot from the goal.

North Carolina scored the tournament opener in the 75th minute when Debinha headed home a cross by Hallie Mace, taking advantage of a defensive lapse by the Thorns.

The match was the first by a pro league in the U.S. since all pro leagues stopped regular play March 12. The match was also the first to be broadcast on a major network in the eight years of matches.

The tournament continues to July 26, with the final being broadcast on CBS.

Portland's second match is Wednesday against the Chicago Red Stars, at 9:30 a.m. The match will be streamed by CBS All-Access. 



June 26, 2020

The National Women's Soccer League is headed for uncharted waters Saturday with the opening match of the Challenge Cup - namely its media partnership with CBS.

The opening match pitting Portland Thorns FC and the North Carolina Courage is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on CBS, the first time a women's professional soccer match will be broadcast on one of the four major networks.

CBS signed onto a three-year exclusive partnership with the NWSL on March 11, when the league was set to open play on April 11. Later that day, Rudy Gobert of the NBA's Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 and all major sports leagues as well as NCAA sports began cancelling events. The NWSL is the first league to begin play.

Twitch, the media app owned by Amazon, also agreed to a partnership to be the exclusive international media partner - on March 11. 

CBS will also cover the Challenge Cup final, July 26. All other matches will be streamed on CBS All-Access, a service available for $5.99 monthly. Twitch will provide streaming service for free to fans outside of the U.S. and Canada.

All Cup matches will be played at Zions Bank Stadium in suburban Salt Lake City, with the semifinals and final being played at Rio Tinto Stadium - the home field of the NWSL's Utah Royals FC and MLS side Real Salt Lake - in Sandy, Utah. Since the league began in 2013, it has had media partnerships with Fox Sports, ESPN and Lifetime, but none of those resulted in a regular broadcast match.

CBS is one of a number of partnerships the NWSL signed in the months following the U.S. win in the World Cup beginning with Budweiser in July.

COVID-19 has not diminished partnership interest in the league, which announced Google as one today. Google plans to use its app Google Meet to provide virtual cheering sections for Challenge Cup matches. Verizon signed on in late May, and Procter and Gamble agreed to a partnership for its Secret brand in winter as well.

Nutritional supplement company Thorne continues to be a partner as does Nike.

Nike extended its partnership through 2022. 



May 24

The Portland Thorns FC announced their 26-player roster Tuesday in advance of the NWSL Challenge Cup that begins Saturday, and most of the regular names were on the list.

Christine Sinclair, Lindsey Horan, Adrianna Franch, Becky Sauerbrunn - all members of the US National Team - are set to play, as is international star Rocky Rodriguez of Costa Ria.

One name not on the list is US National Team star Tobin Heath, who decided not to play.

The team's top two draft picks: forwards Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, will play their first matches when the Thorns take on North Carolina at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in the opening match of the month-long tournament.

Saturday's match is set to be televised by CBS, one of two matches the network is scheduled to broadcast. The other is the final, July 26.

All matches will be played at Zions Bank Stadium in suburban Salt Lake City, Utah, or Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The semifinals and final are the matches set for Rio Tinto, the home of both NWSL side Utah Royals and Major League Soccer side Real Salt Lake.

Eight of the nine NWSL teams have entered into the tournament. Orlando withdrew Monday citing at least 10 players or staffers who've tested positive for COVID-19. The NWSL announced one player or staff member had tested positive for the virus last week at the practice facility where teams were practicing next to Zions Bank Stadium, but no more information was available from the league, and preparations were not affected.

Portland has not announced any positive tests among its players or staff.

2020 Thorns FC NWSL Challenge Cup roster
Goalkeepers (3): Bella Bixby, Britt Eckerstrom, Adrianna Franch (FED-USA)

Defenders (9): Kelli Hubly, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Menges, Meaghan Nally (CDP), Madison Pogarch, Katherine Reynolds, Becky Sauerbrunn (FED-USA), Autumn Smithers, Christen Westphal

Midfielders (6): Celeste Boureille, Lindsey Horan (FED-USA), Emily OgleRocky Rodríguez (INTL), Angela Salem, Gabby Seiler

Forwards (7): Simone Charley, Marissa Everett, Tyler Lussi, Anika Rodriguez, Christine Sinclair (FED-CAN), Sophia Smith (CDP), Morgan Weaver (CDP)

CDP – 2020 NWSL College Draft pick
FED – Federation Player
INTL – International Player


Thorns, NWSL set to boldly go where no league has gone before - this summer ... sort of

Mon, 06/22/2020 - 12:02pm
Cliff Pfenning
Cliff Pfenning's picture
Last seen: 11 hours 42 min ago
Joined: 2010-07-01

It’s almost “go” time for the return of pro team sports in America with the National Women’s Soccer League set to kick off Saturday in Salt Lake City.

Fittingly, the Portland Thorns will be involved in the opening match, putting the league’s most successful franchise up against the North Carolina Courage - the league’s second-most successful franchise. And, it will be televised on CBS - the actual network and not a streaming service. It’s the only match of the month-long tournament scheduled for CBS until the final, July 26. All other matches will be streamed on CBS All-Access ($5.99/month) as well as Twitch - for fans outside the U.S. and Canada.

The NWSL is the first league to begin play, albeit in a tournament form, since all leagues stopped the evening of March 11 due to fears from the COVID-19 outbreak.

The NBA and MLS are scheduled to return to some form of play in July, but the NWSL is the first to return to actual physical contact just as European soccer leagues have done in the past month. 

The return comes at a unique time as the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing in many states, including Utah. All the matches will be played at the 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium, located in suburban Salt Lake City, with the semifinals and final at Rio Tinto Stadium.

The tournament hit an unexpected snag when Orlando removed itself after more than a dozen players and staff members tested positive. The league, released a modified schedule for the remaining eight teams Tuesday.

The tournament has a number of unique elements such as there’s no extra time in any match and no draws. Each match will have a winner, decided on penalty kicks if it ends in a tie after 90 minutes

Significant testing, social distancing and no on-site fans are part of the plan for the tournament. I guess.

What’s puzzling about the upcoming tournament is the information available about it from the NWSL - there basically isn’t any other than what’s been published three weeks ago about it happening and the schedule and a tiny bit on social media. There’s more information available on regular media and social media about Major League Baseball not playing because they’re fighting about money than there is about the NWSL kicking off in five days.

There’s a lot of stress from other leagues - MLS and NBA - about what the reality of actual games is going to be with all the testing involved. And, with positive tests being reported regularly, the thought that the leagues might not actually get into gear is still out there. But not with the NWSL.

Women’s soccer is on the rise following the U.S. World Cup win last summer. The NWSL has a number of new sponsors, including Budweiser and CBS. There’s a new owner in Seattle (French club Olympique took on that role and renamed the team OL Reign), and a new club in Louisville, Ky., is set to join the league next year.

You have to dig across the Internet to get this info, though. For something of a trending league, this should be front and center to sports fans. 

Even the Thorns, the league’s standout franchise, have not presented any information about the team’s preparation for Saturday’s opener on its own website. How are the players preparing, as well as their thoughts on the dangers that might be involved? One player on one of the nine teams tested positive last week, but the league released no information other than that - no name or team, just that it happened. Did that change any thoughts among the other players on playing? These stories just aren’t anywhere to be read.

It’s almost as if the league were hedging its commitment to the tournament being played, especially with the coronavirus making a surge in the last two weeks.

This is a key moment for the league, its players and women’s soccer. The NWSL is a league of entertainers, as sports is entertainment. And, if it isn’t playing, it’s not entertaining, so the players aren’t working.  And with women’s soccer already starting in the hole of people just not caring other than hardcore soccer fans (it’s barely recogmnized by ESPN), the players are pretty much tied into making the league tournament happen regardless of whatever fear they might have from participating. 

The NWSL has to play this tournament sort of like folks working at Fred Meyer have to stock shelves - frontline workers for sports entertainment.

So. 9:30 a.m. Saturday. Hopefully, the league will make a big deal about it in the next few days, because it really is a big deal for team sports in America.





Follow the money Team USA

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 3:04pm
Cliff Pfenning
Cliff Pfenning's picture
Last seen: 11 hours 42 min ago
Joined: 2010-07-01

As America celebrates its heroes from the Women’s World Cup, the real key to the month of success on the soccer pitch will be on the fields of the U.S., in such towns as Kansas City and Atlanta.

Now that Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and company have dominated the world on behalf of the nation, it’s time to see if anyone will show up to see them when they’re not repping for the Stars and Stripes.

This is the challenge that’s truly bigger than the world, too, because it’s the future, in the attendance figures of the National Women’s Soccer League.

The nation fell in love with Team USA’s players as a unit, but will that translate into more paid ticket sales and sponsors for the league the players star in?

Getting better or even equal pay from the U.S. Soccer Federation seems very logical for the top players, but getting better pay for the breadth of the NWSL’s players will be the greater success of the World Cup win.

One of those keys to success has actually happened, too - the NWSL has a beer sponsor.

As the U.S. was beating The Netherlands in France on Sunday, the league announced Budweiser had become its first beer sponsor and will attach its name to a host of elements such as the championship game.

A check of the league website shows Budweiser adds a significant sense of legitimacy to the league along with Nike. The three other NWSL sponsors are Cutter, which is an insect repellent, Thorne, which produces supplements, and Lifetime Network, although it doesn’t seem to have much if any involvement in airing league matches. ESPN will air matches on ESPN2 and ESPN News for the remainder of the season.

Budweiser is a step the NWSL has needed, and the Team USA players should address directly because that’s where the future of the professional games lies. And, women need to recognize that because equal pay requires equal results within capitalism. Kansas City can be a valuable asset in this arena. Atlanta, too.

During the World Cup final the FOX broadcast switched to a party being held in a public section of Kansas City that attracted a reported 10,000 fans. It was a wild atmosphere worthy of such an event. Kansas City officials used the party to promote the city as a host site for men’s World Cup headed for North American in 2026.

Kansas City is a great soccer town, evident by 10,000 fans showing up to watch Team USA win the World Cup. But, where is the town on women’s soccer? It had one, but it folded and its players moved to Salt Lake City, Utah to form the Utah Royals FC.

Atlanta joined the MLS in 2017 and immediately set the soccer world on fire with its raucous crowds at Mercedes Benz Stadium. The team led the league in attendance its opening year and set a record of 53,000 fans per game in 2018 on the way to winning the league title. Atlanta does not have a team in the NWSL.

And, moving across sport lines, Portland has some women’s equality issues to deal with, too - in basketball. For all his wealth, the late Paul Allen didn’t have much passion for the Rose City in terms of women’s sports. Allen owned the Portland Fire in the early years of the WNBA, but folded the team after only three seasons (2000-02) because of economics. It was an era when the Blazers were losing a tremendous amount of money due to luxury tax issues, and Allen’s company was on the way to filing for bankruptcy from just running the Rose Garden.

A women’s team in the WNBA would seem like a solid economic gamble these days considering the University of Oregon and Oregon State have some of the best attended games in women’s basketball these days, and win on the court regularly. Would Portland’s basketball fans support the Portland Fire the way its soccer fans support the Thorns? Portland would be a great market for the WNBA, and in the process serve as a step forward for women’s pro sports if it works economically.

Team USA can beat the world in the World Cup and in the Olympic Games, but can its players survive as professionals within their own league? It requires fans in seats.

Of the NWSL’s nine teams, only Portland and Utah, which features Team USA players such as Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press, average more than 10,000 fans per game. The other seven teams aren’t past 5,000 fans per game even though they also have Team USA players on their rosters.

Fans in seats, eyes on screens, sponsors on jerseys and beyond.

Team USA’s stars have earned some celebration time in the very near future, but they need to capitalize on this momentum to make the NWSL a stronger league, which is how women’s soccer, and women’s pro sports, will truly win going into the future.

Thorns have everything to gain against Seattle

Portland got help from the rest of the league in its playoff quest
Aug. 12, 2014 / By Cliff Pfenning, Oregonsports Journal

The Portland Thorns could use another monster crowd, Sunday, especially if it inspires another victory.

Teetering on the verge of missing the NWSL Playoffs Saturday, a pair of upsets gave the Thorns hope of not only reaching the playoffs, but avoiding the league's top team in the playoff semifinals, although they'll have to beat that team - Seattle - just to reach the playoffs.

Portland, the defending league champion, enters Sunday's regular-season finale in need of a victory over the Seattle Reign in order to qualify for the playoffs.

Two weeks ago, a National Women's Soccer League record crowd of 19,123 fans jammed into Providence Park to see the Thorns beat Houston 1-0. The thrill of that victory, though, didn't carry over to the following week when Portland needed only to beat the bottom team in the league to basically secure a playoff spot.

Didn't happen.

Instead, the Thorns lost 2-0 to the Boston Breakers in a road game.

After conceding two early goals, Portland peppered Boston goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher with 13 shots, including 10 on goal, in the second half and finished with a 20-8 advantage overall in the match. Christing Sinclair set a Thorns FC single-game record for shots (11), becoming just the third player in NWSL history to tally 10 or more shots in a match. Sinclair’s seven shots on goal set both a single-game record for the club and a NWSL record, breaking the previous record set by Portland forward Alex Morgan and FC Kansas City midfielder Lauren Holiday (6).

Naeher kept Portland off the board with 10 saves in the match, while Morgan, who finished the match with five shots (5 on goal), and midfielder Amber Brooks each saw efforts cleared off the goal line in the second half.

Portland dropped from fourth to fifth during the week with Chicago winning on Wednesday to move a point ahead of the Thorns, but the Red Stars got only a point from their draw with Western New York Saturday. Washington, which was two points ahead of Portland entering the week, lost to Sky Blue FC, and is tied for third with Chicago.

Portland will leap over both teams with a victory over a team that's lost just once.

Seattle (16-1-6, 54 points) has dominated the league in both offense and defense. The Reign have 50 goals and given up just 19, both league bests. Portland (9-8-6, 33 points) has 38 goals, although 13 of those goals were in a pair of routs. The Thorns have allowed 35 goals.

In their previous meetings this season, Seattle beat Portland 5-0 in Seattle, and 1-0 at Providence Park, May 10.






Portland shows off its Thorns

A record crowd cheers on a 1-0 victory over Houston
August 3, 2014

Midfielder Verónica Boquete tallied the game-winning goal, while goalkeeper Nadine Angerer recorded a clean sheet as Portland Thorns FC earned a 1-0 victory against the Houston Dash in front of a National Women’s Soccer League record crowd of 19,123 fans at Providence Park on Sunday night.

Thorns FC (9-7-6, 33 pts) broke the previous NWSL attendance record of 17,619 set at the team’s 2013 regular-season home finale against FC Kansas City on Aug. 4, 2013.

After limited chances in the first half, Portland broke the deadlock in the 54th minute of the match. Defender Steph Catley played a cross from the left flank as Boquete made a run into the box. The Spanish international finished with a shot in stride at the back post, tallying her fourth goal of the season. The assist was Catley’s fifth in the last six games.

Portland tallied its third consecutive clean sheet against Houston, winning all three meetings by a score of 1-0 this season. Thorns FC earned a pair of shutout victories on the road against the Dash on April 12 and May 14. Goalkeeper Nadine Angerer tallied a clean sheet in all three wins.

The shutout was the second for Portland at home this season and the first since the team’s 2-0 victory against Washington on June 15. Thorns FC allowed just five total shots in the match, the fewest by an opponent this season.

Portland and Houston combined for six shots in the first half and just one shot on goal. In the second half, Thorns FC were on the front foot with a 12-2 advantage in shots, finishing the match with a 15-5 edge. Portland tallied eight shots on goal in the match, including seven in the second half.

Thorns FC remain in the hunt for one of two remaining NWSL playoff berths. Seattle Reign FC has clinched the top seed, while FC Kansas City secured a playoff spot as well. Portland is currently in fourth place with 33 points, while the Washington Spirit sit in third place at 34 points and the Chicago Red Stars are fifth with 28 points.

Portland plays at Boston, Aug. 10, then closes out the regular season at home against Seattle, Aug. 17.


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