The last two offseasons have seen considerable movement among NWSL franchises, with Western New York relocating to North Carolina, FC Kansas City being replaced by the Utah Royals, and the Boston Breakers folding suddenly in early 2018.
All this movement has generated some persistent chatter about the status of other franchises, with Sky Blue FC being regularly mentioned as a spot of concern. Compared to many of the other NWSL teams, Sky Blue offers a far less impressive support infrastructure for its players and a less impressive gameday experience for its fans. With discussions swirling about raised standards, there have long been low-level conversations about whether (and how) they might work to raise their standards.
Things finally came to a head this weekend, however, with the the instigating event being a postgame interview with Sam Kerr. Asked about her feelings coming back to play her former club, Kerr provided a heartfelt and plaintive comment, as reported by Dan Lauletta:
Kerr on returning to NJ: “If I’m honest I didn’t enjoy it. I wish things were better here and that I could stay. I scored a hat trick, but I wasn’t myself today. I feel sad. I feel sick playing against these girls. They’re my life long friends… (1/) #NWSL
— Dan Lauletta (@TheDanLauletta) July 8, 2018
Kerr: “I wish I could take every single one of them with me but that’s not the way it is. I felt like I was going to cry at some points in the game.” #NWSL (3/3)
— Dan Lauletta (@TheDanLauletta) July 8, 2018
These are not new issues, but one of the world’s best players raising the topic—and doing so in this way, more in sadness than in anger—has turned on the spotlight. Additional fuel was then added to the fire when the Cloud 9 supporters group released their own statement building off Kerr’s comments:
— Cloud 9 (@Cloud9SBFC) July 8, 2018
Neither Kerr’s comments, nor the statement from Cloud 9, name any specific goals. The list of potential improvements is long, however, and speaks to the continuing disparity between franchises in a league where the average player barely makes a minimum wage salary. In that context, additional support—housing, modern training and matchday facilities, job opportunities, transportation, etc.—make an enormous difference in quality of life. Compare the experience at Portland, Utah, or Chicago to those at Sky Blue, for example, and it’s not difficult to understand why Kerr wanted to leave.
Obviously, every team is different, and faces different conditions. Not every team can offer what Portland provides. But there absolutely must be minimal standards, and they need to be significantly higher than what is currently offered by some teams—with Sky Blue certainly being on the list.
What’s more, even if conditions differ, we shouldn’t drift into fatalism. Portland is able to offer so much more largely because they have committed to building an organization and infrastructure capable of doing so. They have built a fanbase capable of sustaining those operations, and have redoubled their investments to continue making improvements. This process isn’t easy, but we also shouldn’t accept the idea that Portland is simply an outlier. Every NWSL team should strive to treat their players like the professionals they are. And if they can’t, serious external pressure will be needed to enforce those standards.
The pressure generated by Kerr and Cloud 9 does seem to have lit a fire, with Sky Blue releasing a statement yesterday morning promising improvements.
— Sky Blue FC (@SkyBlueFC) July 9, 2018
This is an important step, but it’s notable just how little actual substance there is to this statement. Kerr and Cloud 9 spoke vaguely, and for good reason, but the club itself needs to start getting specific.
Sky Blue says that they are committed to “doing better.” Unless that involves making concrete and specific promises, sooner rather than later, that commitment is going to ring hollow. If they are serious about being held accountable, that means setting benchmarks against which their actions can be measured.
Change doesn’t come easily, particularly when it comes to issues as grounded as stadium infrastructure, but without something more definite, it will be hard to take this statement as anything other than an attempt to escape from a PR disaster, rather than a genuine invitation to collaboration.
This is a club with a rich history. It’s been an integral part of women’s professional soccer in this country, and no one is hoping to see them disappear. But as league standards continue to improve, Sky Blue’s position in the league is growing more and more untenable. It’s time for them to professionalize and modernize. If the investments necessary to make that happen aren’t forthcoming, it will be time to start asking whether it might be time to explore relocation.
The players deserve better. So do the fans. For all their sake, it’s time for Sky Blue to show that they’re listening, and that they’re willing to do more than just keep scraping by.