The Washington Spirit have added to their ownership group, with Steve Baldwin, chief executive of Qbase, joining longtime owner Bill Lynch for the 2019 season. Baldwin sent out a statement today detailing his thoughts about women’s soccer and his vision for the future of the team. There was a lot of good stuff in there - upgrades to player resources, the addition of a Pride Night for fans, discussion of return on investment for sponsors - but there were warning flags too, starting at the very beginning.
“I come to the Washington Spirit as a father of two daughters, one that plays the game. So, yes, I am a soccer dad,” Baldwin wrote at the top. A bit later, there was this:
“They are inspirational. They are accessible to kids and they love to positively impact the lives of children. Additionally, some are mothers to their own children and are balancing parenthood while being a world class athlete. They are the role models that everyone can look up to and aspire to be.” Please mark off your bingo squares accordingly.
Anyone who has been a women’s soccer fan for longer than a few months knows the common phrases: as a father of daughters, these women are role models, we’re making a difference for little girls everywhere. It’s the kind of phrasing we’ve heard before from men who, well-meaning or otherwise, are treating their investment in women’s soccer like a charity cause and not a business. If they weren’t the fathers of daughters, would they even care? If their daughters lose interest in the game, will they? In the Spirit statement, Baldwin promises, “When the day comes that the Spirit are transferred to a new owner, all of my economic proceeds will be donated to the Maryland Soccer Foundation. I will not take a dollar out of the club during my tenure.”
It’s good that Baldwin is talking about the club as though proceeds are fait accompli, but women’s soccer needs owners that are in it for long-term economic gain instead of running their clubs like nonprofits. Baldwin says it himself at the end of his statement, calling for greater corporate investment in both the team and the league overall and promising ROI better than what they’d find in men’s sports. That’s exactly the kind of business hustle the league needs, and so perhaps there’s reason for optimism to outweigh worry in this case.
It’s just tiring to hear constantly the refrain of men handling women’s soccer like a delicate treasure. Women’s soccer is a sport, a business, an entertainment property. When Baldwin pleads for fans to buy tickets to support their mission of “changing female soccer in the DMV, impacting the lives of the women that play the game we love, and impacting the lives of kids in our community,” that’s not a sales pitch that will win in the long run. Community buy-in is good; it helps fans feel like they identify with a team and vice-versa, but it shouldn’t feel like the team is a cause. When you market your product like a cause, people want to donate once and not think of the cause again. For a sports team, that’s a death knell. Clubs need lifelong fans who develop deep emotional attachments on a sporting level, that steady generational commitment that takes it as given that of course people in a certain geographical area are local team fans.
This is not to single out the Washington Spirit. There were plenty of good developments in their statement, like an expanded coaching staff, investment in better equipment, new player amenities, and increased local marketing efforts. But it behooves anyone entering the women’s game to do a little research on the pitfalls that have come before them, so they can avoid the fates of their predecessors. Update your perception of the game and the way you talk about it. As a daughter of a father, I promise your female fans will take notice and appreciate it.