POP QUIZ: Which city had the largest crowd ever to watch the U.S. women’s national soccer team in a standalone game? We’re talking outside of tournaments like the World Cup and Olympics.
It wasn’t in New York or Los Angeles, or in a “traditional” soccer city like Kansas City or Seattle.
THE CORRECT ANSWER: Pittsburgh. When the 2015 World Cup champions returned to the U.S., they played to a record attendance of 44,028 fans at Heinz Field.
The iconic moment of that U.S. Victory Tour opener was Pittsburgh’s own Meghan Klingenberg getting on the board (from her spot on defense!). And when she did, she created a lasting image waving a Terrible Towel to the black-and-gold faithful.
Meghan Klingenberg scored the fifth of the afternoon and honored her hometown crowd with a special celebration. More info: http://www.ussoccer.com Subscribe to U.S. Soccer on YouTube! http://www.youtube.com/subscription_center?add_user=ussoccerdotcom U.S. Soccer …on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ussoccer …on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ussoccer …on Instagram: http://www.instagram/ussoccer
Across the nation, the USWNT’s World Cup victory included the most-watched soccer match ever, and it helped kick-start (pun most certainly intended) attendance for the nascent National Women’s Soccer League.
The 44,000 strong who greeted the U.S. team at Heinz Field (it was also the largest crowd to watch a soccer match in Pittsburgh) showed that the Pittsburgh region would support women’s soccer.
That’s why I am puzzled the city has not played host to a National Women’s Soccer League team. Nor have we landed a team in the three-year-old National Women’s Hockey League.
What’s the deal? Or lack of a deal?
We Have The Passion
The lone women’s professional team in town is the (American) football team, the Pittsburgh Passion. And to my eyes, the Passion have been a success.
They started play in 2003, drew a league-high 2,500 fans per game in 2004, and despite moving among all manner of Alphabet Soup leagues (NWFA, IWFL, IWFL and WFA), the Passion have survived for 15 years and have become a cornerstone franchise in women’s football.
Pittsburgh has the Passion, as well as the passion for more.
The market is certainly large enough. In fact, of American metro areas with at least 2.5 million people, only Pittsburgh and Denver have never had a pro team in the major women’s basketball, hockey or soccer leagues.
Our city can support women’s sports. And we’ll certainly support a winner. We always do.
Pitt women’s basketball under Agnus Berenato went to back-to-back Sweet Sixteens, and built one of the best-drawing programs in the Big East. About 4,000 fans per game went to the Petersen Events Center in Pitt’s best season (besting at least one WNBA team at the time).
And now, unexpectedly, Pitt is becoming a women’s volleyball town.
Bump, Set, Killin’ It
Dan Fisher’s program has become the best team in the city. They built off an ACC title in 2017 to become a top-10 team in 2018. And Pittsburghers have not ignored the 26-1 Panthers.
Three weeks ago, I was among the biggest crowd in Pitt volleyball history (2,152). We watched a resilient Pitt squad fight from being down 16-6 in the 4th set to finishing on a 19-4 run to seal the victory.
And on Sunday, that attendance record was broken again.
3,179 fans filled the old Fitzgerald Field House to watch Pitt avenge its only loss by sweeping Duke.
The volleyball team’s Twitter account has been re-tweeting fans’ photos with the caption Welcome To The Party. And boy is it. Pitt has won 22 straight games at the old Field House, and when it’s packed, the barn achieves decibel levels not heard since Jerome Lane “sent it in.”
Pitt volleyball’s success in a 67-year-old gymnasium ought to be a siren call to potential owners of a professional women’s sports team.
Here’s my pitch, to Thomas Tull or David Tepper or Mario Lemieux or Michael Keaton or any other rich Pittsburgher with a love for sports…
… Start a professional women’s soccer team and a professional women’s hockey team, and own them both.
Soccer On The Mon
The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) needs a city that can match the passion of the outrageously successful Portland Thorns. At 17,000 fans per game, have become a phenomenon in the Rose City.
And there just so happens to be a perfect venue for Pittsburgh’s women’s team: the Instagram-friendly Highmark Stadium, which just capped off the Pittsburgh Riverhounds season with a sellout crowd of 5,189 (yours truly included), despite a cold and rainy night.
It’s a picture-perfect 5,000-seat stadium in a league that averages 4,742 fans per game outside of Portland.
A Pittsburgh women’s team starting in the spring of 2020 would be in the sweet spot: right after another U.S. World Cup run and right before the Olympics.
Call them Pittsburgh United. Get Meghan Klingenberg on the squad. You could be the sensation of the summer.
The NWSL runs from late March to September. But a combined soccer-and-hockey front office could work year-round in promoting women’s sports teams.
More Hockey Nights in Pittsburgh
When the soccer season ends, things would pick right back up in October with the National Women’s Hockey League.
Many Pittsburghers already know about the league. The UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry hosted a successful NWHL All-Star Weekend and a neutral-site game in January.
The Lemieux Complex would be a natural fit for a sixth NWHL franchise. Heck, the league’s social media accounts have already teased the possibility.
This is a dream and a goal we share together, Lauren. The support of Pittsburgh, the @penguins and @penguinsrinks has been incredible. We’ll do our best to make it happen. Happy birthday, Lauren!
Call them the Pittsburgh Chinstraps (Get it? Like a chinstrap penguin?) A Penguins-Capitals kind of rivalry with the Washington Spirit would be inevitable. Get the Pride of Robert Morris, Brianne McLaughlin, out of retirement.
I don’t need to tell you that Pittsburgh’s become a hockey town. But I did anyway. And this hockey town is certainly big enough for two pro teams.
The Future of Pittsburgh Sports
When I was growing up, I had all sorts of Pittsburgh sports stars to look up to: Lemieux, Jerome Bettis, and in a childhood bereft of great Pirates players, Brian Giles. But where were the women?
Pittsburgh has raised female sports legends, from Klingenberg to Swin Cash to Lauryn Williams. But they all had to leave Western Pennsylvania for their professional careers, out of this collective delusion that women’s pro sports can only happen elsewhere.
It doesn’t need to be so. If Pittsburgh is really the City of Champions, then it should a place where Olympic Gold Medalists and World Cup winners come to play. In the present, that means familiar names like Amanda Kessel and Alex Morgan. But in the future, it will be home-grown stars who are already on the youth fields and peewee ice rinks around Western PA.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, two of the biggest reasons girls drop out of sports are social stigma and lack of positive role models. What better way to attack those problems than by having some of the world’s best professional athletes right here in Pittsburgh?
Now is the time to make it happen.
Pitt volleyball could already be outgrowing the Field House. They moved their regular season finale into the larger confines of The Pete.
As for hockey, Kessel herself will be back in Cranberry for another neutral-site NWHL game on Dec. 2.
Get your tickets now. Show that Pittsburgh is the place for the future of women’s sports. Maybe we’ll even set some more attendance records along the way.
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