Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The MLS women's revolution

The face of a growing fan faction? WUFC thinks so.
Over the course of the last decade or so, MLS has undergone the painstaking process of outgrowing its training wheels. The sparks of life the league cradled so delicately in the 90s are roaring into full-fledged wildfires that dance loud and bright on green fields from Seattle to DC. 

Sixty thousand strong showed up at CenturyLink Field last year to throw a send-off party for Kasey Keller. NBC just lobbed $10 million a year at MLS to broadcast its games until at least 2014. Attendance averages are already up eight percent from 2011, when MLS blazed a league record for bodies through the turnstiles. And supporters groups, long the backbone of fervent team support, continue to gain momentum with an ever growing panoply of chants, songs and traditions.

But what about women?

It was a question that dogged Kayla Knapp. In the midst of all this unchecked growth, she saw female soccer support scattered to the four winds. It was there, but it wasn't organized.

Knapp was sure there a better way. So she did something about it.

Knapp insists that the women soccer supporters in America were already there in broad numbers, they just needed some direction. That's where Women United Football Club entered the picture, an online meeting place for women to pour over every corner of MLS from a woman's perspective. Since launching in March, the site has flourished.

"The biggest service we want to provide is just to have a space for women to go and enjoy the game," Knapp told NSC. "It's a wide range of ways to view the game. It's to give women a space where they feel comfortable to talk about things they don't want to feel judged about."

Knapp worked in concert with six other founding members to kickstart WUFC earlier this year, and by March 9 they had a website up and running. It was born of the 21st century, Twitter conversations spawning an email chain that birthed a movement. Kristi Colvin initially floated the idea on Twitter and looked for any takers, and a mutual Twitter contact hooked the two up. Colvin has been more involved with constructing the architecture of the website while Knapp and others have provided years of soccer-watching know-how. So it's appropriate that everything about WUFC feels new, fresh and, fortuitously, extremely popular.

Word spread quickly once WUFC's feet hit the ground. The NY Times picked up the scent trail. Yahoo got on board. and The Original Winger, too.

"From the very beginning, before we had a website, the support has been incredible from both men and women," Knapp said. "People jumped on board so quickly that it was almost overwhelming."

The membership rolls hit 451 on Tuesday just shy of the site's three-month birthday, and roughly 1,300 already follow WUFC on Twitter. The site is still stretching its legs and brushing off the sleep-caked eyes of early site formation, meaning it isn't fully developed just yet. Knapp said the site will soon open its blogs to members as well as admins, one of the first moves in a long line of them planned out over days, months and years.

Knapp represents the female soccer fanatic as a first-hand acolyte. An online editor for Fox Soccer and a contributor at Soccer By Ives, Knapp knows the kind of trained, unique view a female can have on the beautiful game. That spurred conversations with other women maybe less practiced in the art of soccer viewing.

"There wasn't really a place for women to go and talk about game from our perspective," Knapp said. "Myself as a sports journalist, there aren't very many women writing and blogging about soccer. For me personally, it was about getting women to a place where they can share their own content and their own perspectives on the game."

The organization is already providing a female ballast for gender issues in MLS. In the wake of Simon Borg's suspension from well-traveled podcast ExtraTime Radio, the boys invited co-founder Malena Barajas onto the program to talk shop.

WUFC was among the first responders to Borg's monologue, which, among other things, established Borg's hesitance to date a female soccer fanatic like himself. The words fell flat upon the public at large. As the sails of social media strained and billowed in the aftermath, WUFC's members rallied under a common banner. The response was deemed so legitimate that MLS itself held up the microphone to WUFC's collective voice.

The response solidified the vibrancy and legitimacy of WUFC for Knapp. Its future, it appears, is bright.

"I think that women make up a much larger viewership of MLS than people realize," she said. "Some of us might not be as vocal, but women are popping up all over the place. Before this process I didn't know as many female soccer fans, but now its incredible how many female fans are popping up that I didn't even know were there."

- Will Parchman


Tom said...

Grow the game, peeps. Excellent /\

Alex said...

Is that a no boys allowed club?

jon said...

@Alex: Yes. Which isn't a bad thing as that's essentially the whole point of WUFC -- to provide a community for female fans where they aren't overrun by snooty males. This is the text next to a box used to verify your femaleness when you register: "I am a female. This is a community of women. Please verify that you are female."

This topic made me chuckle at the text above the CAPTCHA. How come NoShortCorners is a no robots allowed club?

Jacob Klinger said...

Well, we used to have some, but they wouldn't stop dancing around the office. Kinda distracting.

Plus they always raided the kitchen ... drove the maintenance staff nuts.