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Sports Then and Now

Western New York Flash: The World’s Best Women’s Soccer Team, Strangers in their Own Land

Posted on February 28, 2011 by John Wingspread Howell

Remember the bumper sticker, “What if they threw a war and nobody came?” And then there’s the conundrum about a tree falling in the forest when no one is there.

As the third season of Women’s Professional Soccer draws near, it is possible that the world’s best women’s soccer team will be the tree in the forest unobserved, the war left un-attended.

Western New York is already the center of the women’s soccer world in the sense that meat mogul Joe Sahlen, third generation owner of Sahlen Packing Company in the Buffalo suburbs, singlehandely saved Women’s Professional Soccer. Had Sahlen not come forward offering to buy in with an expansion team, the league would have folded for lack of teams.

After 2010 league champion FC Gold Pride (Bay Area) folded and the Chicago Red Stars suspended play for a season while looking for additional investors, the five remaining clubs in the league would have been one member short of what league management had determined to be the minimum number of teams required to have a meaningful season.

Enter Joe Sahlen, whose Buffalo Flash had just one the W-League championship in only their second year of play, coached by Sahlen’s son-in-law, former New Zealand international Aaron Lines, with Sahlen’s daughter Alexandra on the roster. Sahlen admitted he bought the franchise for the benefit of his daughter, and as a man who likes keeping business in the family, acted completely in character by employing her husband as their coach.

But Joe Sahlen is a competitor. He wasn’t satisfied being champion of pro soccer’s minor league universe. He wanted to conquer the majors. Again, admitting he knew next to nothing about WPS except that some of his best prospects for the W-League Flash snubbed him to play in WPS, Sahlen decided to enter the big time.

He approached WPS with a plan right at the time they were in need of one more club to fill up the dance card. He had what WPS needed most in an expansion team: money and a sound business plan.

Sahlen’s bid was accepted, the league was saved, and merely by virtue of this salvation, Western New York became the center of the women’s pro soccer world. But wait, there’s more.

Sahlen’s Packing Company became a league sponsor. Their logo would be displayed on the sleeves of each team’s kits. But wait, there’s more.

Once established, Sahlen and his new club, Western New York Flash was determined to do more than simply get on the dance floor. They were determined to come off the floor with a crown. After signing an All-Star caliber roster from free agent acquisitions and judicious use of two drafts, Sahlen had already assembled a team that, on paper at least, was a favorite to win the championship. But even that wasn’t enough.

Fans will have to drive to Rochester to see Marta play for the flash.

Sahlen was determined to sign women’s soccer’s equivalent of Pele. Marta, the Brazilian phenom and consensus best woman in the history of the game. He continued to pursue her, with a handful of other WPS clubs, until finally Marta signed with the Flash for a salary in the neighborhood of a half million dollars. Barely above the NFL minimum but when the norm in WPS is $20,000, Marta’s salary alone would be nearly double the rest of the club combined.

With Marta in place, Sahlen could brag with no exaggeration, ownership of the world’s best women’s club.

And despite all of that, Western New York is barely aware of the team’s existence—especially in Buffalo, where the team is headquartered at Sahlen Sports Park in suburban Elma.

When Sahlen announced the team’s launch, he was asked about soccer interest in Buffalo. He described it as “barely having a pulse.” Still at the launch he declared plans to split the home venue between a location in Buffalo Niagara to be determined and Rhinos Stadium in Rochester. (The minor league Rhinos have a new soccer only stadium with 14,000 seats).

Sahlen said he was considering investing in an expansion of the new soccer facility at Niagara University to bring it up to scale for WPS. He thought the location near the border would be useful in luring Canadian fans. In that vein he signed Canada’s best player, Christine Sinclair.

If not Niagara, he was also considering Buffalo’s All High Stadium. Owned and used primarily by Buffalo Public Schools, All High has a classic architectural design and covered seating. The football markings on the field would detract, but overall the edifice would be a desirable venue.

Within weeks of this announcement, however, a routine Flash press release noted in the footer that all games would be played at Rhinos stadium. Upon further investigation, it was learned that Sahlen had purchased naming rights to the Rochester venue and it would now be known as Sahlen’s Stadium.

So what happened to Buffalo?

As it turns out, the Sahlens were disrespected in blogs related to Niagara soccer, so that eliminated the Niagara option. They considered 4,000 seat Kuntz Field at the University at Buffalo, but the field has no locker rooms, and apparently using locker rooms at nearby Alumni Arena or UB Stadium was not feasible or practical.

After striking out in attempts to find a suitable venue in Buffalo, the Flash will play all home games at Rhinos Stadium in Rochester.

That leaves All High Stadium. At least three attempts to meet with Buffalo Public Schools were made. Each time an appointment was set, then cancelled by the school district. After the third cancellation, Rhinos Stadium became the full time, permanent home field. And became Sahlen’s stadium.

So, the world’s best women’s soccer team, including the most talented woman ever to play the game, is based (offices and training facilities) in the Buffalo suburbs but will not play games here. The team is named for Western New York, but functionally Rochester is not part of Western New York. They call themselves, “The Genessee Valley.” According to Rochesterites, Western New York starts somewhere around Batavia.

In addition to the lack of an appropriate venue in Buffalo, Sahlen was quick to play in Rochester because there is a much deeper soccer tradition there. But the tradition is men’s soccer. The Rochester Rhinos, though not part of MLS, have played at major league levels at times, including an upset U.S. Open Cup championship won by defeating several MLS clubs, a few years ago. The question remains whether or not Rochester will embrace women’s soccer, anymore than Chicago embraced the WPS Red Stars. Despite filling Toyota Park on a regular basis for the MLS Chicago Fire, the Red Stars drew less than 4,000 in the same venue.

It’s very possible that not only in Buffalo but in Rochester, there will be no one in the forest to hear the tree fall.

You can’t fault Joe Sahlen for his business plan, as far as it goes. First of all, he is using his corporate management staff to handle the business end of the Flash. Just by absorbing much of the front office cost of the franchise, he’s significantly lowered his overhead. Secondly, he’s using the team as part of his corporate marketing strategy. Third, he’s doing most of his marketing in the super markets where people buy his hot dogs and meat products.

And the tickets are practically going to be given away. A season ticket for the best seats is going for $175. A family pack including four season tickets and four hot dogs each game, will go for $475. One Bills or Sabres game could cost more. Around the rest of WPS, premier season tickets are fetching $600, and that’s per seat.

But I still have concerns that none of this is going to work. The best strategy would have been to find a way to play all games in Buffalo, even if Sahlen had to build locker rooms at Kunz Field. Here’s why.

First, Buffalo, not Rochester, is a major league market. Rochester fans are accustomed to driving to Buffalo for Bills and Sabres games, and do so in great numbers. Buffalonians are not in the habit of going to Rochester for anything, least of all sports.

Because Buffalo does not currently have a professional men’s soccer team, a women’s team is more likely to draw pure soccer fans simply by virtue of having a corner on the market. Pure soccer fans in Rochester can be satiated by the Rhinos. Again, remember Chicago.

A look at successful women’s pro sports franchises, especially in the WNBA, shows that the greatest success is found where the women’s business community is engaged and invested. Case in point, the Seattle Storm.

When the Seattle Sonics were stolen from Seattle and moved to Oklahoma City, the city rallied around its WNBA franchise. The team was purchased by business women and you will find key Seattle female executives sitting courtside.

Buffalo has a significant group of power-women who could have been convinced to buy into supporting the Flash had they been approached. Instead of or in addition to aiming at the “soccer mom buying hot dogs in the super market, the Flash should have been aiming at super women in the marketplace and corner office.

Buffalo has an active gay and lesbian community. This community has been core supporters of other WPS franchises and could have been recruited to help fill seats and build brand loyalty.

Buffalo as a community has a much greater sense of affinity with its sports franchises than Rochester. Simply having the world’s best team in any sport would be enough to attract significant fan support in Buffalo—a city starved for victory, a city with a chip on its shoulder, desperate for the vicarious redemption that a sports championship can bring.

To write off these important dynamics and constituencies and assume that the Rochester soccer tradition and the soccer mom in the grocery store will be sufficient sources of fan base is a recipe for failure. Other WPS teams have learned that despite their assumptions and expectations, young families with girls who play soccer are too busy to attend more than one game, if any, in a season, and are not sufficiently invested in soccer beyond their children’s own team activity.

It is a shame, because Buffalo could have been sold on the Flash, could have benefited from it more than Rochester ever will or could.

For the sake of those within a reasonable drive of Rochester in any direction, and for the sake of Joe Sahlen and his first class soccer organization, I hope I’m wrong. Because if I’m not, Western New York and the Genessee Valley will have no idea what they’re missing.

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