Oregon opens a Christmas present early this year as they officially add a new team to their roster. The Portland Thorns FC will make their debut as one of eight teams in the new National Women’s Soccer League this spring, continuing the city’s soccer enthusiasm and stepping onto another athletic stage. Of course, as exciting as the announcement is, joining a freshly christened league certainly comes with its fair share of risks, and Portland won’t be immune.
The NWSL won’t mark the first time women’s soccer has tried to sustain a professional presence. Two different leagues have folded after three seasons, failing to draw the same attention and support as Team USA does during the World Cup and Olympics. With this third attempt, U.S. Soccer is trying to learn from financial troubles of the past by subsidizing the salaries of 24 U.S. National Team Players. The Canadian and Mexican federations will also subsidize some of their players’ salaries and teams will be privately owned.
But managing finances and saving money are only part of the equation. Women’s professional sports in general have failed to draw the same audience as their male counterparts. Women’s professional fastpitch softball (NPF) and the WNBA are the other two major leagues still standing and have both struggled to stay alive. NPF folded in 2001 and after being revived in 2004 is comprised of only 4 teams. The WNBA has lasted the longest and now plays 12 teams.
So what do the Portland Thorns mean for Oregon? The last time the state fielded a women’s professional team was in 2000 when Paul Allen helped to birth a WNBA team called the Portland Fire. The Fire only lasted three seasons in the league, folding in 2002, making them the WNBA team with the shortest lifespan.
One would like to think the Thorns will have better success than the Fire. After all, since their arrival in Portland, the Timbers have proven that the Rose City is one that loves its soccer. If even half the enthusiasm carries over from the Timber Army to the Thorns, then I think the women will find themselves on the right track.
And let’s not forget about the hype the Olympics and World Cup has gained in the last five years. No matter how little praise women’s sports get during the regular season, when it comes to seeing Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Hope Solo represent the country on the international stage, fanfare is rampant among all ages and genders.
For Portland, a city that has had little success with its professional teams, I think the Thorns are a nice fit. Soccer in general has proven to be the right sport for the Rose City. It’s exciting yet alternative, professional but low-key, easy to follow, fun for all ages, and a joy for both the sports fanatic and the casual spectator. I anticipate carry over from the Timbers, aspiring young female athletes, and soccer fans to find a place among the Thorns bandwagon. Just this summer when the University of Portland women played University of Oregon, it was a packed house at Merlo Field. Also, with some of the U.S. National Team players in the league making the trip to Portland, it will certainly stand as another draw.
I think the stars could certainly align for the Thorns and hopefully for the NWSL as a whole. It’s not just a chance for Portland to put out another team but also a chance to support female athletes on the professional stage. It certainly won’t be an easy road but just as each rose has its thorn, every new venture comes with its risks.