At first, I just wanted to help – I joined as the sixth of seven founding Chicago Red Stars owners in 2007. My goal was to offer financial and strategic perspective to the board. WPS had lofty goals, probably too lofty. While we had learned from the ‘naïve’ mistakes of WUSA, we scaled down expenses and moderated revenue plans. Despite this, we did not learn enough. Midway through 2009 we had spent most of our money that was supposed to carry us for three years.
It might have been impossible launching in one of the worst depressions since the 1930s, but no one in the league could make the financials work. Chicago played two years in WPS then bought its way out of the league and played WPSL and WPSL Elite in 2011 and 2012 – where we won our first national championship as Open Cup winners. Meanwhile, the rest of WPS went down in 2011.
By 2012 I was all alone.
Some lost hope after the dismal financial start in the 2009-2010 season, others changed their priorities. In the end, no one would contribute for our 2012 season. Here we are in 2018, the 10th season, taking aim on our best season, both financially and on the field.
How poorly the ‘skorts’ were received in the original Puma runway show for our inaugural WPS season in 2009.
The giddy anticipation of the first game, the St. Louis road trip on a school bus to our league opener with the supporters group.
I am not sure many owners had previously had a Pabst Blue Ribbon before.
The first goal scored by the team – (hey Tarpley was that actually a cross? … and then the devastation and Tarpley’s remarkable poise after she tore her ACL later that year).
Christiane’s hat trick – and the strike force of Tarpley, Lloyd, Carney, Rapinoe, Christiane, Aslanni, Klein and later Formiga.
The combo of Markgraf and Engen as centerbacks.
Spilger flip throws, bloodied heads and green laces.
Nearly 8,000 in attendance at our final game in 2009 at Toyota Park (finished second in attendance that year to LA – but beat them the second half of year).
Full on battles at the board meetings, desperately trying to find new investors after St. Louis, Los Angeles, and later FC Gold Pride folded.
And the worst part of it all, tearfully telling the players in 2010 we were shutting the team down.
Grinding the years after that to make the Red Stars stay alive. Showing up at the stadium for the WPSL Midwest championship in 2011 after driving in vans and cars with the players. One of our super fans from WPS was there waiting – with Red Stars logos hand-painted on each toenail. Another fan couple – who I don’t think ever missed a game – continued showing up for the games in 2011 at Benedictine and the next year seeing her expecting her first. The following season, she showed up with twins and has been at every single game since – now the girls play Old Maid during the game and I’m the Old Maid card – seriously.
We have literally watched our next generation of fans grow up from a gleam in their parent’s eye.
We are not going down.
There were many, many weeks and very long nights when I could not have dreamt that we could write about our 10th season anniversary. Never would I have imagined launching the NWSL and the great success it has brought. It’s a bit surreal now to be the oldest continuous brand and operator in pro-women’s soccer. To be the winningest pro women’s soccer team in US History. To have launched (and relaunched (Chups!)) the careers of numerous WNT mainstays. AND to have steadily grown our revenue each year along the way as we find ways to fund the need to grow salaries for our front office and players.
You will tell your grandchildren about these teams that YOU watched and supported… the originals… the ones who made it – with head bowed and many tear-drenched sleeves recalling the people and teams that were our friends and fellow warriors in this battle. The Sol, Gold Pride, Athletica, Beat, Independence, Freedom (intentionally omitting the magic Jack), Flash, FCKC and now our great friends the Breakers – though they’ll be back. So many people who gave everything even though the business model or league model was wrong and the market wasn’t ready. Celebrate those originals and these Independents, they were dependent on no one – they took a chance and led this change and we lost many along the way. Collectively, they are the reason we are all here today. They are the ones that took this head on when everyone else saw failure or were too scared to jump in. The independents, the originals, they are the ones that deserve our thanks.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
We still have many of our original fans. It is amazing. You showed up in WPSL, travel to preseason games no matter how close or far and you continue to help us rise today.
To our new fans, you are the ones that have pushed us over that rough edge and continue to make a difference. We need this to keep growing.
To our sponsors that took a chance on us when others would not. Without you, we might not be here. When others wouldn’t, IWSL, IYSA, Loyola Medical, Heartland, IBJI, Mazda and QCSS continued to be there.
To our players, just wow. Our DNA continues to be there from the early influencers – Masar, Wenino, Santacaterina, Sitch, Cinalli, Mautz, DiBernardo, Hemmings…(and so many others) – the core of the team that passed on to the next generation. We pride ourselves on character and determination that has fueled us and without you doing this for the love of the game, we would not be here. We needed these exact players to play when we had nothing to pay, when a few hundred dedicated fans would show up. These players did it for the future. For their daughters that were not yet born. Here we are, ten years later and it is because of the effort of every single player from the last nine seasons.
To Rory (and Sarah), for all your sacrifices to help grow this league. For a couple of years, we had no money to pay, but we had players that wanted to play – so Rory coached for them. Thank you to Rory and all the coaches over the years.
To our front office, you really need more love and appreciation. The players get attention for rightly needing higher salaries, but so do you (eek, I said it out loud). The staff works for the love of the game and to make this league work. Other jobs pay more and have better hours – few are as rewarding as we all see the sun rising now. They do it all – 15 people leaning against three Million trying to get a few thousand out 13 times per yer. I write this standing on the shoulders of giants who got us this far: Wilt, McDermott, LaHue and all those who have shaped our culture and continued to fuel our passion.
This year is a celebration for all of you and all of us. Everyone who has ever put on a piece of merchandise with the Red Stars crest, this year is for you. Whether you put in 90 minutes on the field and gave your blood and sweat to the organization. Whether you put in hours and hours on the job without ever taking the thank you. Whether you are the fan waiting for that NWSL Championship. Without all of you, we are not here.
I am humbled. When I came into pro women’s soccer ownership, I brought in a vast amount of knowledge of marketing and business strategy. I had spent my career advising startups and corporate boardrooms around the world. I was smart.
I had the requisite knowledge of my adolescent daughters and my own sports team addictions I had nurtured for decades. I had played, coached, and refereed soccer since I was a teenager. Surely women’s soccer couldn’t be harder than launching any other business, right? Wrong.
It’s completely different. It’s not just about having a vision and executing a business plan.
It’s about leaning against and changing an entire culture AND waiting for the fan base to mature and arrive.
I would have loved to jump into pro women’s soccer right now and have a full bank account and knowledge of a decade of trial and error. Sometimes, I would also like to have a chance to operate in a smaller market where I’m confident we would break even by now and have a sense of relaxation.
But the thing is – this is not where we are or who we are.
Instead, we are in the greatest city in the world – we are in CHICAGO and I would not trade that for anything. The city of big shoulders, home of world champions, many pro sports teams, theater, concerts and over-programmed parents driving hours to let their children achieve their dreams in sports every week. 100% #MKOT. Yeah, it’s hard – so what. We need to do it here. We are Chicagoans and no one else is doing it. As a league that must make it in the large markets too for the national television and sponsor revenues. So we fight on.
We are weaving ourselves into the consciousness of our young fans as they fall asleep at night dreaming of becoming the next world champions: Markgraf, Tarpley, Engen, Chalupny, Boxx, Lloyd, Rapinoe, Press, Ertz, Short, Huerta, Naeher, Dominguez, Grings, Kerr, Nagasato, and the list that keeps going and growing each season. We are forcing our way into the annual and weekend plans of thousands of fans who a decade, NO, even a year ago, didn’t know you could actually watch women’s pro soccer and love it like they do with any other sports team.
At the end of the game we stand and watch hundreds of young women meet and chat with their heroes – the sparkling eyes and giddy smiles stick with us and create a memory that will inspire for years.
Steady as she goes. The Chicago Red Stars are the oldest and winningest continuously operating pro women’s franchise in the US.
Here’s to 10 more.
Arnim Whisler III
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