Before the explosion of women’s soccer, there was FC Gold Pride | Women’s football

Running away from the cleat-melting turf at Hayward’s Pioneer Stadium, the newly minted 2010 national soccer champions chanted “Obama! Obama!” as they gathered around the champagne-filled coolers in the locker-room. Led by the likes of Brazil’s Marta, Canada’s Christine Sinclair and then-rookies Kelley O’Hara and Ali Riley, FC Gold Pride, the San Francisco Bay Area’s representative in the short-lived Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS), defeated the Philadelphia Independence 4-0 in the final. As is customary for championship teams in the United States, they would be expecting their invitation to the White House soon after.

The day was 26 September 2010. On 16 November, FC Gold Pride announced they were ceasing operations because of high costs and low ticket sales.

The meeting with the president never materialized. In January 2011, when Marta won her fifth straight Fifa’s Women’s Player of the Year award, she acknowledged her team-mates in a club that did not exist anymore. The demise of the championship team was seen then as an indictment on the viability of the women’s game in the US.

Fast forward to the present and four of those free agents who departed after FC Gold Pride’s dissolution are about to play the 2023 Women’s World Cup in a very different environment. Once a niche event that Fifa branded the M&M’s Cup so as to not tarnish the prestige of its main celebration, the tournament is about to open in Australia and New Zealand to record-breaking audiences and, for the first time, a broadcasting deal negotiated as a stand-alone product instead of bundled with the men’s edition. Fifa will also distribute at least $30,000 per player as prize money, and a total prize pool of $110m.

Sinclair, O’Hara and New Zealand captain Riley are expected to play key roles for their teams, while 37-year-old Marta attempts a full recovery from a knee injury to help Brazil lift their first trophy. All four players feature in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), now 11 years old, still expanding and soon to include another San Francisco Bay Area-based team. O’Hara, now a two-time World Cup champion, was among the players who sued US Soccer for equal pay, now a reality in the US and a vigorous demand elsewhere.

And yet it wasn’t that long ago that professionalism still felt like a dream.

“I never thought I could play pro until I was actually doing it, so I was living in the present,” said Riley, still a student at Stanford when she was drafted by the worst team of the inaugural 2009 WPS season.

Backed by tech entrepreneur and hardcore soccer dad Brian NeSmith, FC Gold Pride were not even supposed to join until the first league expansion but became the last team at the WPS founding table when the proposed Dallas franchise fell through. As their general manager they hired Ilisa Kessler, a director of operations for the Bay Area CyberRays, first champion of the failed Women’s United Soccer Association league (WUSA).

“Everything had to be built from scratch: the business side, player scouting, figure out payroll, insurance, the basics,” Kessler said. “We didn’t even own a stapler.”

FC Gold Pride's Christine Sinclair gets by Sky Blue defenders and scores in the first half of a May 2010 match.
FC Gold Pride’s Christine Sinclair gets by Sky Blue defenders and scores in the first half of a May 2010 match. Photograph: Icon Sports Wire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

The late start and rushed set-up of the entire business operation resulted in a 1-7-5 season that added up to a last-place finish. For 2010, they built more deliberately around coach Albertin Montoya’s pass-happy style. They signed French star midfielder Camille Abily and Canada’s Candace Chapman, and drafted defender Riley, holding-mid Becky Edwards and forward O’Hara, who still hadn’t transitioned to the outside back position. Sinclair and 1999 veteran Tiffeny Milbrett were among eight holdovers from the previous season.

“It was my first experience playing pro and the thing that sticks out was just how talented everyone was,” said Sinclair, now the world’s all-time leader for international goals scored for men or women. “It was kind of an international all-star team.”

The player meant to change FC Gold Pride’s destiny was still to come.

Early in 2010, the Los Angeles Sol folded, and then-four-time Fifa Player of the Year Marta became the most coveted prize in the ensuing dispersal draft. FC Gold Pride picked up the $500,000 price tag – a good chunk of their $3m yearly budget – and Kessler’s small squad of staffers and volunteers prepared for the lines to be ringing off the hook with fans vying for season tickets and looking for Marta merchandise.

“We sent out the announcement and sat for the entire day staring at each other waiting for the phones to ring,” recalled Kessler. The sales representatives ended up making the calls to potential clients and explaining over the phone who the best player in the world was. The biggest sale of Marta jerseys went to Marta herself, who bought a batch for family and friends.

“It was unreal, just such a mental crush,” Kessler added.

Financial heartbreak notwithstanding, the investment paid off on the field almost immediately. The team lost their first match in April, then went on to lose only twice more and closed the season on a 14-win streak. Marta was the obvious standout, but the team is remembered for its attacking style and creative resources on every line.

Off the field, resourcefulness under the circumstances was the norm. In the face of low salaries for anyone not named Marta, which ranged between $20,000 and $65,000, a few players stayed with host families. Others drove cars lent by volunteers. The club even sponsored a couple of green card applications.

Riley recalled “living the dream”, with some caveats. “There were places [we traveled to] where there wasn’t a locker room with showers, of where we had to play on a concrete turf stadium.” She along with O’Hara ran a series in the club’s YouTube account, a low-budget amateur production that stands as a record of the fun the team was having while dealing with the quirks of the women’s game at the time.

Part of the deal of the professional player was not just training and performing but promoting the league and their team. In an effort to build community and increase ticket sales, the best players in the world were put on the phone with season ticket holders and paraded around parks and soccer fields to try to entice fans to go to the games.

FC Gold Pride’s Marta races past a fallen St Louis Athletica player in an attempt to score in the second half during the 2010 season opener at Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri.
FC Gold Pride’s Marta races past a fallen St Louis Athletica player in an attempt to score in the second half during the 2010 season opener at Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri. Photograph: Icon Sports Wire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

“Obviously we wanted the league to survive, and we had to do our part, but, yeah, just things that wouldn’t be acceptable nowadays,” said Sinclair.

It didn’t always work. Kessler, the general manager, fumes to this day at the disrespect her athletes had to endure at times, like the time no weekend recreational player cared enough to kick the ball around with Abily, then one of the best midfielders in the globe.

“They didn’t understand what was standing in front of them or who this person was, just no respect,” she said. “I can guarantee you if a male soccer player came up and said, ‘hey, can I play,’ they would be all over that.”

Despite their DIY marketing efforts, the team remained unable to gather significant attention from local media and averaged an attendance of 3,000 in their home stadium of Cal State East Bay. Even though most tickets sold for under $20, they never broke the 4,000-mark.

FC Gold Pride finished the regular season in first place and earned a bye into the final, where they faced a Philadelphia Independence team that was playing their third game in eight days. The contest quickly turned into a 4-0 rout spearheaded by Marta, who scored twice. The worst-to-first journey was complete, but it wouldn’t change the fate of the club.

The victory failed to drum up any more media coverage, new sponsorships or season ticket interest, and the NeSmith family decided to cut the bleeding. The club folded with a $5m loss.

The players scattered to the six remaining teams in the league, before the WPS as a whole collapsed in early 2012. Some careers were lost in the vacuum. Others were reinvigorated by the hardship.

“FC Gold Pride is an important part of the journey because it gave me a taste of what it should feel like to live this incredible life. When I lost the chance to play professionally, that informed so many decisions [going forward],” said Riley, who spent the rest of that decade in Europe before returning to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the third iteration of the women’s first division and the one that finally found its footing and a way to provide a viable lifestyle for a larger pool of players.

Riley is now the captain of Angel City FC, the sophomore Los Angeles franchise that is pushing the bar in the NWSL and beyond with a blend of equity mission and an aggressive push for branding and profitability.

Team captain Rachel Buehler raises the championship trophy aloft after FC Gold Pride defeated the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS championship game in September 2010.
Team captain Rachel Buehler raises the championship trophy aloft after FC Gold Pride defeated the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS championship game in September 2010. Photograph: MediaNews Group/Bay Area News/Getty Images

The change of attitude can be partially attributed to the dominant run of the US women’s national team, whose on-the-field success and off-the-field outspokenness impacted the game on a global scale. According to Angel City president Julie Uhrman, the first important step was this group of women declaring their value and fighting for it.

“Historically, women didn’t do that, it was always a handout or a charity or, well, you know, you have to support us because it’s right,” Uhrman said. “The product was given away as if we were asking for support, versus demanding support for a product that is exceptional.”

Looking back, Kessler, now the COO of Special Olympics Northern California & Nevada, acknowledges that approach may not have moved the needle in 2010, but that it was what they deserved.

“We were in that mindset of ‘we’re just lucky to be here,’ but we owed ourselves more than that,” she said.

Social media and content creation by the teams and their stars also had their role in helping circumvent mass sports media’s lack of interest in a game that remains somewhat inaccessible to the TV audiences.

Once a business of wealthy entrepreneurs who wanted role models for their daughters, women’s soccer is now a game where people bet big on return of investment. On its biannual report on the sport, Fifa revealed record commercial revenue for clubs globally, and it is resonating in the US. Just in April, the investment firm Sixth Street led an ownership group that plans to spend $125m on the Bay Area’s National Women’s Soccer League expansion team, $30m to 50m of which will go toward building a training facility.

Former players Aly Wagner, Danielle Slaton, Brandi Chastain and Leslie Osborn – the latter two veterans of FC Gold Pride’s 2009 season – are the founding members of Bay FC, the area’s third shot at women’s soccer’s first division.

“Other leagues and other examples around the world have built the confidence in sponsors and the understanding of women’s sport from a business perspective, as a solid business decision and not just as a nice thing to do,” said Slaton.

The challenges remaining are evident any time Angel City’s Uhrman walks into a room and has to prove people care about the game.

“The narrative that people don’t watch women’s sports is false,” she remarked. “What we need is to get better broadcast deals so it’s easier for fans to watch and continue telling these stories.”

Stories like the one of FC Gold Pride, the little-known bankrupt all-star team that couldn’t sell enough tickets to survive.

“Some of the biggest names in the history of women’s soccer were all on the roster, but it didn’t matter,” Slaton said. “Culturally we weren’t ready to see it, to watch it, to be a part of it. But now we are.”

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