Portland’s case study for building a following and “letting those fans express themselves”

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Tyler Lussi ’17
Courtesy Portland Thorns F.C.

Tyler Lussi ’17, a forward for Portland Thorns F.C. in the National Women’s Soccer League, broke the Princeton records for career goals and career points in her senior year. Since then, she’s been chasing new goals in pro soccer in a city that is deeply invested in its team. In an interview for the PAWcast, Lussi shares her ideas for getting more fans to buy into women’s soccer.

This episode was recorded on location at the Princeton Soccer Conference [5] earlier this month.

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TRANSCRIPT

Brett Tomlinson: Welcome to the PAWcast. Welcome to the PAWcast. I’m Brett Tomlinson. This episode was recorded on location at the Princeton Soccer Conference, a student-organized event featuring pro soccer executives, players, and journalists.

My guest is Tyler Lussi ’17, a forward for the Portland Thorns F.C. in the National Women’s Soccer League. Tyler broke the Princeton records for career goals and career points in her senior year. In fact, she broke the records of Esmerelda Negron, who was sitting next to her on a panel about 20 minutes ago. Tyler was then drafted by Portland and has spent the last three years playing there for a team that is regularly among the league’s best. Tyler, thank you for joining me.

Tyler Lussi: Well, thank you for having me. It’s great to be back at Princeton, and being on this PAWcast, and being involved with the Princeton Soccer Conference. So I appreciate this interview.

BT: It really was a great panel. And there are a lot of takeaways that I picked up. But one interesting discussion, I thought, was how women’s soccer is marketed. Brooke Elby, the president of the NWSL Players Association, spoke about how the game is packaged in an inspirational way. “Look what you can achieve.” And she would rather see it marketed for the athleticism, the competition, and simply as great soccer. And she was quick to point out that that’s her opinion, not the league’s opinion, not the position of the players overall. But I saw a lot of nods in the room. Is that something that resonated with you, that the league has to kind of move beyond just looking at the 12-year-old girls and their parents as their fans, but cast a wider net.

TL: Yes. The league needs to obviously expand. Having Nike and now Budweiser and ESPN as platforms is huge in promoting the women’s game and spotlighting every single player. And I’m so fortunate to have been drafted by the Portland Thorns and playing for them for three seasons. And they really invest in each and every single player.

[The fans] make banners. They’re always cheering. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a game day or not, they are professional fans. That’s what I call them. They really are excited about not only the team but using that energy that they bring all the time, not just when it’s game day. But the enthusiasm in their lives — and that unique ability to be truly themselves — is something that needs to be spotlighted for all the NWSL teams. And in order to promote that and promote the players, the fans also need to promote themselves and work with their managements in order to promote everybody. And work with each other and have a platform with ESPN that will expand the game. And luckily, after the World Cup, we had ESPN come on board and broadcast the first game of the Thorns at Providence Park, versus Orlando. And the fans showed up in numbers, as they always do. But the game was something I will never forget. It ended up 4-3. And luckily, I was on the back post, to put the ball in the back of the net as the last play. But that could have been any single one of my teammates. Every single person on my team is that good. And that’s just how every single team in the NWSL is. Every single player is that good. And even when the World Cup players left, every team still did very well. So I think that spotlighting every single player will not only increase our platform but grow the game.

BT: And I wanted to ask you about that goal [6] in particular. What is that like, when that ball comes across the box and you get your head on it, and it’s in the back of the net — 20,000 people are already standing, and they just explode like that. What’s that like for you?

TL: So obviously, as a forward playing at Princeton, I’ve scored many goals. But any goal I’ve ever scored, I didn’t just do it myself. It was an entire team effort. And I always say you can’t do anything without the team. So when I scored the goal, I couldn’t do anything without my teammates. And Meghan Klingenberg, playing a perfect ball and getting in the right spot to follow it in. But I also couldn’t do anything without the fans.

In an interview, the chair of the Rose City Riveters, who was standing behind, they were standing behind the goal and cheering as loud as possible, the chair of Riveters is a woman named Gabby Rosas. And she was saying in an interview, because Budweiser actually gave them the Supporters Award of the Year, she said that the fans literally sucked that ball into the back of the net. They have so much power and enthusiasm that somehow, with that energy, but not only the energy from the Riveters, but they got everybody up and going. They’re like, let’s go. And so it went in the back of the net. It wasn’t anything special. I’ve headed the ball in the back of the net before. But once it happened, I just ran to the corner. I was so excited. And just the passion: I don’t think I’ve ever heard the stadium get that loud before. So it was a moment I will never forget, as a soccer player and now as a professional soccer player.

BT: When people talk about the future of women’s soccer, not just in America but worldwide, they always mention Portland. I mean, this is the example. Thorns F.C. drew about 20,000 fans per game last season, which is nearly double the number two team in the attendance stats. It’s the best fan support. It’s a truly passionate fan base. What are the lessons that you think other cities can take away from the example of Portland? Not every city is Portland. There’s a great heritage of soccer there. But in building that fan base and letting those fans express themselves in the way that they do, what are the lessons that other cities can take away?

TL: I think the lesson is the Thorns management really just lets the Thorns be who they are, be their unique self. They spend their money on making banners for every single player, making huge banners before the game starts. They even have a stage for them so that the leaders can get everybody up and chanting and going for the game. But that lasts 90 minutes. They don’t sit down. They have organized songs. They have chants. Within the game, there are certain minutes where they’ll start singing a song or having a chant. And like I said, I call them professional fans, because they really are. They do their job as well as we do our job. And they’re supported by the management as well as we are supported. And I think that’s something that other fans in the NWSL can take into account.

If you start with a small group — I think the Thorns, back in 2013, started with 45 fans, and had an organized meeting and said, how are we going to grow this game? And once they started with their small fans and making banners, everybody wanted to see that and be like, well, I want to be a part of that. Because they were able to chant what they want. Sometimes, it’s not always the best thing, obviously, when there’s younger kids. But at the same time, that’s who they are. And they stick to that. So I think with other teams, if they have a small fan base, they need to somehow, with banners and chanting and reds, blue smoke, whatever their color is, purple smoke, really get everybody involved. And create what the small community has and grow it to everybody else so they come back more and more. Because I know that when somebody goes to a Thorns game, and they see the Riveters, and see what they’re about, and their yelling and energy, they’re going to come back. Without a doubt, they’re going to come back. So hopefully, that will help.

BT: Rewind to your Princeton days. I know every alum, athlete or not, has a story of how they got here. How did you get here? I imagine you had opportunities to play at a number of other colleges. What was it about Princeton that drew you in?

TL: Princeton was always my number one choice ever since I was little. And I knew about Princeton and visited the campus a bunch. Fell in love and knew that obviously it would take a lot of work academically and athletically. But growing up in a very athletic family, I always had that mentorship from my parents and my two brothers. So I always was very mature about how I went about things in my studies and with soccer.

When I was younger, I played a lot of sports. And obviously, around 12, 13, when I was playing ... I started playing club soccer when I was 6. But it was around the age of 12, 13 when I stuck with soccer. And I was like, this is the sport that I’ve loved since I was 3 when I started. But this is the sport that I know I can take and really build upon the craft. But with the craft, you have to keep working at it because it’s so competitive. Everybody wants to go to UVA and Stanford and UNC and those schools. I was interested, and they were recruiting me. But at the same time, I wanted to have a different experience of going to Princeton. Have this unique experience of, I’m going to get the best education in the country, if not the world, and be a scholar-athlete. And to be able to handle both things is something that, from a young age, I grew up with the ability to do.

So I thought, why not take a chance? Work as hard as I possibly could in every aspect of my life — and really just loved my experience at Princeton.

BT: A quintessential part of the Princeton experience is the thesis. I know that you wrote about women’s athletics in the early days of coeducation. What did you learn from doing that research?

TL: Oh, I loved doing the research. My thesis was “Exercise and the Equality of Coeducational Athletics at Princeton University After 1969.” So 1969, [undergraduate] women were admitted to Princeton. And that involvement with women and men in the classroom, obviously there was... Men needed to get used to women in the classroom. And obviously, Title IX in 1972 came along, where women now can participate in women’s athletics. So timelining that and talking to athletes at the time, in the ’70s and ’80s who went through that process, and the coaches and administrators, it was really great to see how their involvement, not only in the classroom but athletics, really helped them feel that they can create an environment where it’s gender equal. And be able to use their platform, not only in athletics but in the classroom, and say, no, I am smart enough. I know exactly what I’m doing.

And I think that has brought such a great environment to Princeton athletics, but Princeton women’s athletics, and even today. When I was here as a Princeton athlete and a student-athlete, I felt that I belonged. But as a woman athlete, I definitely felt that they work that they put into pioneering for us has definitely been something that is special and has moved the equality for my years so well.

BT: How do you think that your experience as a student-athlete here was different than it may have been for the women of the 1970s and ’80s?

TL: Obviously, they didn’t have all the facilities. They had to go to the administrators and ask for uniforms and balls and just the little necessities that you need. Or that they weren’t allowed to play on the basketball court or do certain things, because that was just the beginning.

Administrators had to figure out how to work with women and give them the same opportunity as men. Obviously, that wasn’t there before Title IX. So this was this evolving evolution of women’s athletics. And today, when I was at Princeton, I felt I was given the same opportunity as men. I was given great equipment and field access. I mean, Roberts Stadium is amazing. To have two fields, but to play on a grass field is something very special.

BT: I mentioned your records. You obviously had team success. You had individual success at Princeton. You were a big-time scorer. As a pro, it’s different. You really need to earn your spot on the field. And I’ve talked with other alumni who are professional athletes. Going from the star of the football team to a practice squad player in the NFL, it’s a difficult transition. What has that been like for you, to take that step to a higher level of soccer?

TL: Yes, so the transition — obviously, at Princeton I would play in every single game, play a full 90-minute game. Transitioning to professional soccer, where you have the best of the best. So they were the best at their college, either the best forward, the best midfielder, defender, or goalkeeper. And started and played every single game. So professionally, that’s not going to happen right away. And you have to work even harder than you think you did at the school you went to — here at Princeton — to be able to maybe get in the game for a couple of minutes.

Once I got drafted, I actually waited to graduate and finish my thesis because obviously, this is a huge part of Princeton. And I wanted to have that experience and graduate and finish my thesis that I’d been working on. And so after I graduated in June, a week later, I went out and moved to Portland. But just because I was drafted didn’t necessarily mean I made the team or had a contract. I had to work for two and a half weeks, training with the team, working as hard as possible, probably harder than I ever have, just to get a contract.

But once you get a contract, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be starting every single game. You have to work every single day, because every team has U.S. international players. We have players from Australia and Canada and so many international players that are on their full international team. And they’re starters on their full international team. So how do I, as a new professional athlete, work my way into that?

Well, I’ve got to work harder, every single day, in practice than they do. And that’s pretty hard, because they’re really good. So when you surround yourself with incredible, world-class players, you have to rise to that occasion and step up as much as they do, every single day. But that’s something I’ve always had and something I’ve learned from a young age, is I’m going to give 110 percent, no matter what, in anything I do. So to not only be surrounded by them, but then to look to them as now my teammates. And I get to play with these incredible players, is something that you just have to work for every single day. Because I’m not just going to be given the opportunity because I was a four-year starter at Princeton. I have to work for that.

And it’s kind of a new level and a new step that’s not just going to be handed to you. You got here for a reason. But what are you going to do with that now? So obviously, in my three years, I’ve subbed on, I’ve started a couple of games. But anytime, whether I’m playing a minute or 90 minutes, I’m going to give my all. And I want to be able to bring a new level of energy and help my team win.

BT: And this came up in the panel, that the issue of stability in, well, it’s an issue in any professional sport, but particularly in this league. Players who have been with the same team for a number of years, yet they still don’t consider the city where they play to be their home. Now, I know you personally don’t live in Portland in the off-season. You come back to where you’re from in Maryland. Is that a personal choice? Or is that a necessity, that you can’t stay in Portland, that you need to come home?

TL: So obviously yes, the season’s between six and eight months, depending how far you go, if you make it to the NWSL championship. So I have a couple of other jobs outside of being a professional athlete. I created, co-founded the National College Recruiting Center with my older brother, who’s a professional triathlete, and who’s in his second year of law school. Which is a professional, text-based mentoring that helps young scholar athletes — and their parents are involved — and connects them with professional, collegiate and/or professional athletes in many different sports. It’s not just soccer, as my brother is a professional triathlete. He can help them in three different sports. And as well as I’m in commercial real estate, an executive in that. So I work a lot in D.C. So that’s why I do come back in Maryland and D.C. in the off-season, to create another revenue for myself.

But I have an idea moving forward that I think will help generate more revenue for all the players in NWSL and help generate revenue for girls coming out of college who want to play professional soccer and who want to just be professional soccer players. They don’t want to have one, two, three jobs outside of that. They want to be fully funded and have that as their revenue.

BT: And this is the idea of not just getting fans to buy in metaphorically, but to buy in literally. To have an IPO for NWSL.

TL: Yes. So ever since I graduated, I’ve been working. And obviously, numbers and data will always change. But [my idea is] taking the NWSL public: The fans and the players will own the league. So the selling of stock at five dollars a share will generate money for the first year in the IPO, which is the money we need, which solves the salary problem and then generates new income. And this is an experience that you can’t do in the NFL, MLS, La Liga, MLB, NHL, any other professional sports leagues. They’re too big. They’re worth billions of dollars. So I think right now is a great time for the NWSL, because we’re this small-knit little thing. And we can become bigger so that everybody will generate more income.

And it’s not just for the players. It’s also for the fans. And the stock — the NWSL will sell stock — will pay dividends. And you can buy and sell it.

So how do we extend this experience? Because the fans, they want to be known and seen as owners of the NWSL. So in order to do that, you have to have an additional source of added revenue. And by doing that, you brand, say you say brand the NWSL owner on all the merchandise and gear that you already buy, that the fans already buy anyway. They buy balls, cleats, shinguards, scarves, headbands. So you add “NWSL Owner” or “Property of NWSL Owner” to on those equipment. So that little bit of five percent, $10 on about, say it’s $200 minimum of that merchandise. That little bit will generate enough income for 40 to 120, will create $40 to $120 million. Because four to 12 million — obviously numbers are changing; it could be eight or nine million — girls and women play soccer. So that’s enough to fund and create 20 to 30 new NWSL teams. And then the owners will still be the owners. They’ll still own their NWSL team. And this will also allow us to play in bigger and better stadiums. But the thing is, the fans and the players will own the league and create this shared experience. So that’s my idea. And been working on it and cultivating it for years. So this Princeton Soccer Conference is the first public announcement of this idea of mine.

BT: In women’s soccer, there have been two leagues that didn’t make it. NWSL is, by all accounts, growing and on a sustainable trajectory. I hear a lot about slow and sustainable growth and all that. Does that sound reasonable to you? Or do you think this is a league that should be thinking bigger or thinking of big ideas like an IPO?

TL: Yes. So an IPO, obviously, is a very big idea. And I think it’s a great time to do it. Now, it would take around two years to complete. But I think, why not? Maybe it’s a big idea. And obviously, there’s going to be a lot of pushback. And people will like it or not like it. But everybody wants to make more money. We need to make more money so that this league will continue for 30 years. I want to look back and say that this league is now huge and not still just trying to make a little money every year. So it’s an idea. But something that I want to push forward. And hopefully people will buy into, literally.

BT: When you were in high school, this was just the type of thing that was getting started. This was not the league that it is today. How does it make you feel, to put on that uniform and be able to say that — yes, I have other jobs. It’s not a singular thing for me. But I get to be playing with the best players in the world.

TL: Yes. So ever since I was little, obviously I would watch the first two leagues and go to get those games and look up to those players. And sometimes even be fortunate just to kind of play pick-up or even train with some of the players when I was 12 or 13. And to now have a jersey representing the Thorns, representing the NWSL, with my name and number on the back, is something truly special.

 And I am representing women’s professional athletes. Not just soccer, professional athletes. Because everybody knows. Especially at Thorns, Portland Thorns, they know who we are. So you just have to give your all and just go for it.

BT: Well Tyler, thank you so much for joining me. This has been great to speak with you.

TL: Well, it’s been great speaking with you, as well. I really enjoyed it. And it’s been great being back at Princeton.