Musing on Borkowski, fan contributions, and narratives

Although there are points on which we don’t agree, I do think that Shek Borkowski writes a good, thought-provoking blog. I went to his site to find a link to his 9/16 entry, found that he had written more in the meantime, and got caught up in reading the more recent entries. So here is a small plug for his site, and he is on Twitter @shekborkowski.

Last week, Borkowski posted this entry on WPS and the German Bundesliga. Is less of a “Germany is better, nya!” and more of an explanation as to what advantages players have in the German setup, despite the potential in the US. Rather than putting the reader on the defensive by saying “Germany is superior and the US will fail,” Borkowski lays out his points and foregrounds his concern: “I have a vested interest in seeing women’s professional football succeed in the US but I am worried.” After the comparison, he continues, “Today and tomorrow, WPS represents the only real, long term chance American women’s football has in staying competitive internationally.”

Then:

In America, we the fans of women’s football, participants, administrators, referees and coaches are the only asset WPS owners have. […]

Nothing else. Without us, the fans, unlike in European countries where women’s football is subsidized, they are doomed. […]

All of us involved in women’s football always can find reasons not to attend games, but 2011 is the year of no excuses.

We must do all we can to support WPS, we can’t count on baseball or basketball fans to support the league, we must do it.

This morning, my co-writer reminded me of the lesson that I grew up with, as a Catholic, that there are basically two ways to contribute to an organization or cause. One way is monetarily. You put your money where your mouth is. Buy the ticket, go to the game. I am the sort of fan that would much rather buy a ticket to a WPS game than a USWNT game. The league adds another layer to development, where players that aren’t crowned in NCAA are getting the opportunity to show on home soil that not every American player peaks in that limited four-year time-span. The league is where the US pool can diversify and build both talent and consistency, which is admittedly lacking at the W-League/WPSL level. There needs to be recognition that just because the USWNT no longer formally has months of residence and frequent friendlies doesn’t mean that the USWNT player pool hasn’t been in a residency, playing competitive international-level games April through September. Supporting WPS goes a long way towards supporting our national team, so you can have Natasha Kais, Hope Solos, and Abby Wambachs in the future, after those names have retired.

The other way of supporting is through service. Time and energy. Volunteering for those jobs and positions that the teams and league can’t afford to spend money on. Becoming active in keeping this league. Speaking as a monetarily-challenged (read: poor) grad student with a 1.5- to 2-hour drive to my nearest WPS teams, my opportunities to be involved with traditional volunteer positions seem limited. My co-writer, who is about 600 miles from her nearest WPS team, has even more limited options–but that doesn’t stop her, or me, from doing what we can. We have the knowledge and means to talk about the league, teams, and players in various types of media. So we do. We write and podcast, and we’re gradually stretching to see what more we can do and add.

Additionally, I do go to games when I can. I am fortunate to have returned to a part of the East Coast where I have relatively easy access to US women’s soccer at all levels. I did not go to the WPS playoff game between Philadelphia and Washington, but that was because I was already locked into plans to go to the Boston College-Rutgers game, where a number of future professionals and internationals were playing. I feel a little guilty about missing that WPS game, because I know from living in St. Louis that any WPS game could be the last. But then, instead of a WPS game, I was at an NCAA women’s soccer game, not at home on the couch playing video games.

Hope Solo is half-right about statistics. There are intangibles that matter. If you can’t affect the numbers, there are other things you can be doing. One of the intangibles that keeps sport alive and relevant is story. If you know the history, if you know what inspires you to care about the sport, you can pass that on to share or strengthen the same interest within others. (For instance, I don’t care if one keeper has a better statistical average against a team. I care that the other keeper earned the starting position over time and has dedicated her performance in this tournament to a recently deceased relative.) You know how Our Game Magazine is trying to drum up subscribers? They have some of the stories that the mainstream media isn’t hooked into. When you talk someone into going to a game or following a team or player, you have those stories, too.

To come back to Borkowski, he’s right. It’s packaging as much as product. Sometimes it’s packaging more than product. The stories are part of the packaging. Mechelle Voepel, a women’s basketball journalist, grasps and executes that well–she draws me in when I’d just as soon ignore basketball altogether. When you can describe why someone could care instead of just telling them that they should, you can sell. Teach a man to fish, and all that. Our experiences as fans are just as much a part of building the league and interest in the league as anything the leagues or teams are doing.

But of course, in order to share those experiences and stories, we have to have them, first.

Cross-Conference ‘Cast – Episode 09 – No Touching!

New Episode! We recorded mere hours before the Sky Blue FC coaching change, which actually doesn’t matter considering our general apathy towards the orange.

My co-editor is on vacation, living the life of the rich elite on the East coast, while I toil in middle America. All of this was made very clear in the hour we discussed:

  • WPS Action, including Ashlyn Harris’ coaching debut, Boston’s turnaround, and FCGP’s meteoric… extended stay at the top.
  • USWNT’s two games against Sweden.
  • U20 WWC and how much we looooooooove Mexico <3 <3 <3
  • Shek Borkowski leaves Zvezda
  • W-League update! Pali survived!
  • Utah does a scarf thing.
  • Kelsey Davis wins our award.

My W-League bias and fickleness, let me show you it.

My team loyalties at the W-League level aren’t as strong as they are for WPS or NCAA. These teams change so much that I go season to season, bouncing my attention around three or four teams depending the the rosters they put together and who actually shows up.  The Pali Blues had me hooked in 2008, mildly interested in 2009, and apathetic in 2010. The Vancouver Whitecaps have always had some degree of my interest, but rarely hooked my support–too many youth national players in 2008, too few of the CWNT in 2009. 2010, though, reminds me of the rosters in 2005 and 2006. When Kara Lang committed to them this season, that was it. There’s my loyalty for this year. Pali’s signing of two Irish, two Cardinal, and Alex Morgan cannot buy my love.

This year, the Whitecaps are a mix of Canadian international experience. Here is their lineup from Sunday’s 3-2 win over Pali:

1.Siobhan Chamberlain; 16.Robyn Gayle, 2.Emily Zurrer, 19.Martina Franko (3.Shannon Woeller 76′), 21.Danielle Sweeney; 13.Sophie Schmidt, 17.Chelsea Stewart, 15.Kara Lang (18.Monica Lam-Feist 79′); 10.Jodi-Ann Robinson, 6.Amy Vermeulen (11.Desiree Scott 45′), 14.Melissa Tancredi (23.Nikki Wright 90′)

Subs not used: 27.Stephanie Panozzo, 25.Rachael Pelat, Ranee Premji

If you follow the CWNT or their youth national teams at all (which I suspect is not likely), most of those names are familiar. The likes of UCLA, UNC, Portland, and Notre Dame are represented here.  There are two former WPS starters. A handful of these players have won W-League and NCAA championships in the past. Most of them have played together at various levels.

In the past couple of weeks, the Whitecaps have dealt Pali two losses, including the first in the Blues’ history. I respect Pali’s history and Charlie Naimo’s ability to put together an amazing team, year after year, and I’m glad that when Pali finally fell, it was to a team of Vancouver’s caliber.

It’s like the World Cup, but with higher stakes.

As much as I have disliked Athletica, I am rather connected to the team. My time in St. Louis unintentionally mirrored Athletica’s, including stadium/apartment moves and quick (but foretold) departure. We were both relatively successful while we lasted, had our ups and downs, and never really had a chance to settle in. Now we’re in free-agency, and there is a pretty good chance of unemployment for the summer. Funny how that works.

A friend of mine, a fellow FC Gold Pride fan, was recently accepted by graduate programs in both St. Louis and Philadelphia. For a variety of reasons, she decided on the Philly school (more prestigious and better for networking, in my opinion) and will be making that move this fall.

When Athletica was shut down yesterday, I eventually said to myself, “Glad I moved. Got out of there just in time.” Later it occurred to me that she and I both got lucky, as we both will have dodged the bullet of being in the St. Louis area without a pro soccer team, with little decent WPSL or W-League presence, and far from any NCAA teams that we support.

We have talked a lot in the past couple of months about attending soccer games together this fall and next summer. Yesterday, we quickly agreed that we need to be Philadelphia Independence season ticket holders next summer. It’s not an emotional decision; it might have happened anyway. Even knowing that I won’t be able to make every home game next summer, I want to do my part in the numbers game.

I don’t know if Philadelphia is one of the teams rumored to be in trouble, and quite frankly, I don’t want to know. I think that, as fans, we need to play defensively. We should have been playing defensively all along, but we got lazy, sloppy, and beat in LA and St. Louis. So it’s time to man up or sub out. I shelled out probably more than I could afford for the WPS (and a couple W-League games) last year. I will very likely do the same this summer, and I fully intend to do the same next summer. Even if I can’t put my butt in the seat, the WPS can have my money, and I’ll do my best to get the ticket to someone who can be there.

Fuck yeah, Tumblr!

One of my biggest complaints about social/media and women’s soccer is the lack of significant or varying content. If a twitter account is basically a website’s RSS feed, why should I follow it? If a blog is essentially saying “This is what I heard the commentators say” or “This is what I read in the mainstream narrative,” then that isn’t something I’m going to waste time on. As a grad student, I have spent enough time reading things I’m not interested in and listening to people namedrop instead of generating new ideas and opinions of their own.

On the other hand, since I started grad school during an odd semester and couldn’t take the usual introductory courses, listening to people namedrop and regurgitate others’ ideas helped me settle into the ongoing conversation. It made me semi-competent with the basic theories without having read the primary sources. So this was helpful in that manner, and it does say something about an individual if they are constantly referencing, say, Friere.

Tumblr is a lot like my grad school experience. We do readings, share quotes and ideas, make commentary, and generally aren’t “thought leaders.” (We should be, we’re not, and yes it’s problematic.) In some cases, this is helpful. Tumblr seems like an appropriate place to reproduce content that someone else generated. If we had known that US Soccer was going to make its archives impossible to sift through or completely remove old content related to the women’s programs, Tumblr probably would have been the perfect place for fans to create their own archives.

When I started using Tumblr, aggregating and archiving is what I had in mind, due to that exact situation with US Soccer’s removal of content. Since the new U-20 cycle had just started and US Soccer had completely neglected their winning team in 2008, I focused on content related to the run towards the 2010 U-20 World Cup. There isn’t much opportunity to reblog other content, and this approach would have worked better in 2008–but somewhere down the line, having public backups of this women’s soccer content might be helpful. For instance, I might want to reference the China-Australia brawl in the AFC qualifiers. You can keep having conniptions over Lambert, but she’s really not unique in anything but catching ESPN’s attention.

From a less “academic” angle and more just fannish consternation, I’ve found it interesting that the WPS doesn’t seem to have made much use of tumblr. The league and its fans are everywhere else, and there clearly isn’t any hesitation to reproduce content. Why so little love for tumblr? Why didn’t any of the teams have Fuck Yeah tumblogs until this season? What is there to lose by using another free platform? Why don’t fans defend their turf by following, submitting, reblogging, and liking?

Right now, I know of two FY tumblogs for teams:

How funny is it that the teams in the basement get the most love? Sky Blue FC hasn’t updated since the draft. I could have sworn there was another SBFC tumblog, but what good is it if I can’t find it again? (Maybe it’s the searchability that’s keeping the WPS from Tumblr.) Who wants to bet that Megan Rapinoe gets a FY tumblog before Natasha Kai or Hope Solo?

Away from WPS, there is also a Fuck Yeah, Women’s Football and the newly created PSU Women’s Soccer, which is off to a promising start. I figure there have to be more women’s soccer/WPS-centric tumblogs out there, though, and someone has to be really eager for another couple of followers reblogging and liking their posts. If I have to sift through men’s soccer, I’m not interested.

Let me know who or what I’m missing. If there are any other NCAA women’s soccer teams represented on Tumblr–excluding Utah right now–I would really like to know. If the W-League’s Pali Blues are on Tumblr, then someone is doing the world a disservice by not advertising.

Flashback: August 2005, W-League semifinals.

I wish I could tell you about my first live soccer game. I wish I could remember it. It was 2004, on the Farewell Tour, and I cannot even remember who they were playing. I remember it was cold and that the drive there and back were both miserable. I vaguely remember that the US lost. This game wasn’t a great experience; no wonder I’ve forgotten most of it.

So let me tell you about taking my brother to his first live soccer game. August 2005, Mercer County Community College, the W-League Championship Weekend. This was the year that the New Jersey Wildcats had players like Reddick, Fletcher, White, LeBlanc, Yankey, Unitt, Hammond, O’Reilly, Welsh–and that’s just who I remember off the top of my head. Naimo was in charge that year, making this an important team to watch. Who else was there? Mitts and Fotopoulos were with the Central Florida Krush. The Ottawa Fury was there with Swiatek, Matheson, and others I can’t remember. The Vancouver Whitecaps had Lang, Thorlakson, Zurrer, Timko, Andrews–and again, that’s just just who I remember off the top of my head. Andrea Neil was not there, despite being part of the squad–I remember this because it was my one disappointment that weekend. Lindsay Tarpley was injured, but there. Christie Rampone was very pregnant, but there. Greg Ryan was there, but who wants to remember him?

The first day was beastly hot and humid. The traffic was bad. We missed most of the first game, which was between the Krush and Fury. But that’s okay. We set up camp on the hill with a pound of Skittles, a camera, and–thankfully–a bit of shade. My brother had been hearing about the Wildcats and USWNT from me all summer. He had probably watched a couple games when they were on TV, because he knew some of the players on sight without my saying anything. I remember he liked Welsh in particular that year. Is that an odd thing to remember?

He must have been twelve that summer. I somehow managed to get a moody twelve year old boy to enjoy going to four women’s soccer games with his older sister in the dead of summer that year. And I still couldn’t be happier that that was his first live soccer experience. The W-League Championship in 2005 was very different from the experience in 2008 or 2009. This was the (incredibly affordable!) casual, laid-back, intimate atmosphere that I became hooked on in women’s soccer–but with the added crowd of fans and the added college, national team, and international stars that you just don’t get anymore.

My brother’s first full live soccer game was the New Jersey Wildcats versus the Vancouver Whitecaps. This was essentially a US vs. Canada game. It should have been the championship game. New Jersey-Vancouver was the best match-up, by far. Given how much time has passed, I couldn’t tell you the score (New Jersey won, obviously) or any particular plays that impressed me, but I do remember that that was the game.

I would love to know what my brother remembers about this day, because I know he does remember it. He remembers the Skittles–was that really all we ate that evening?–but does he remember talking to Welsh? Does he remember that he was almost too shy then to approach O’Reilly? Does he remember the weather, the goals, or the drive home?

I know what I remember, most distinctly. After the game, when much of the remaining fans were mobbing the Wildcats (you know, the USWNT and UNC players?), I went over to a trio of Whitecaps sitting in the middle of the field away from the commotion. I didn’t get why absolutely no one was interested in these players. Katie Thorlakson had just won a national championship with Notre Dame in the fall, and Kara Lang was a top recruit who had signed with UCLA. Both were CWNT players. And the teammate who was with them… well, she was Ashley McGhee, which probably means more to me now than it did then.

Given that my previous experience with “pro” athletes was the USWNT game, and particularly since Vancouver had just lost, I didn’t expect these three to be that interested in signing for an obviously local young fan. So I tried to be as polite and earnest as possible, telling them that I enjoyed the game and appreciated this–it caught me completely off-guard when they started asking me about the Krush-Fury game. Genuine questions, not the stock stuff US players will spout when interacting with fans.

That made my night. That made my year. For certain, that cemented my affection for the CWNT.

Five years later, that is my clearest memory from that particular day. There are other memories from the championship and consolation games, of the games themselves and the events surrounding them, but those are stories I’ll get into later. For now, the Canadians–why does that stick with me, even though I’m old enough to know it shouldn’t mean anything now?

2005 is the reason I prefer the W-League to the WPSL. There was a greater concentration of national team and up-and-coming YNT or NCAA players. For me (and I realize this is debatable, hence the qualifier), this was the precursor to the WPS. I have been to W-League, USWNT, NCAA, and WPS games in the past five years, and none of them have compared to that combination of fan- and game-experience. Although the WPS has come close.

The thing is, I don’t ask the WPS to give me, as a fan, anything close to that experience in 2005. That was a unique situation created by senior and youth national team players choosing the W-League and these teams in particular. It was created by the WUSA’s collapse, Charlie Naimo’s magic, and the craziness that is New Jersey. It was created by college players and Canadians.  It was created by being in the right place at the right time, and probably at the right age, too.

I think what I ask the WPS to give me, as a fan, is the kind of experience I would be able to take my now-17 year old brother to and still see him get as excited as he did that weekend in 2005. I know a USWNT game would not cut it, and I know our local W-League teams don’t anymore. But I would love to know that the WPS, either as a league or through a few conscientious players, could somehow inspire the same spark from that 2005 weekend for people like us, for the other new fans.