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Why Doesn't the Bay Area Have a Pro Women's Sports Team?

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Four your girls in gray sweatshirts stand in a row on a soccer field. Two of them are holding soccer balls under their feet.
Members of the Alameda Islanders at the Bay FC kickoff event. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Afifa Tawil works for the women’s and non-binary semi-pro ultimate frisbee team, the San Francisco Falcons, and she’s noticed something: The Bay Area has a men’s pro football team, a men’s pro basketball team, a men’s pro soccer team, a men’s pro hockey team, and (at least for now) two men’s pro baseball teams.

That’s a lot of sports. But no women’s pro team!

So she wants to know why. “Why isn’t there a professional women’s or non-binary team in the Bay Area?” she asked.

Afifa thinks our area has a lot going for it: a big, outdoors-y population and progressive values that would appear supportive of women’s sports. Other places have women’s pro sports teams. Why not here?

The good news first

Well, first off: There is one coming. The newest team in the National Women’s Soccer League, the Bay FC, held a launch event last month and they are getting ready for their debut season in spring 2024.

But it took a long time to make that happen.

According to Brandi Chastain, of World Cup fame, it took almost two years to get the team off the ground. Chastain, who grew up playing on the boys team in San José, is one of four founders of the Bay FC — all of whom grew up or live in the Bay Area, and all of whom played on the U.S. national team. They said it has taken years and multiple attempts to line up investment partners, media and interest. And that interest is finally building and momentum is shifting.

“It has to be the right time and the right moment with the right people,” she said at the launch event.

The other piece of semi-good news: There actually have been women’s pro teams in the Bay Area before — from basketball to softball.

But the bad news: They all folded. The past attempts at women’s pro teams couldn’t survive. Which means Tawil’s question still stands. Why exactly did it take so long for the Bay Area to get this newest professional women’s team? Shouldn’t women’s sports be big here?

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In the beginning

Before professional sports — men’s or women’s — really existed in a modern form, elite women’s sports could be found throughout the Bay Area. In fact, the first collegiate women’s basketball ever played was here, between Stanford and UC Berkeley back in 1896.

an old-fashioned drawing of women on a basketball court
An artist from The San Francisco Call captured the historic basketball game. (San Francisco Call/Library of Congress)

The sport had only been invented a few years earlier and you probably wouldn’t recognize it now. Nine women played on a half-size court, wearing the athletic clothing of the day: knee-length bloomers, tall socks, and long-sleeve sweaters. Still, it was a hard-fought battle. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, at the time:

“From the very first the game was snappy. The bewitched pigskin seemed to be everywhere and nowhere … Sometimes with a slump and a slide three girls would dive for the ball and end in an inextricable heap … In less time than it takes to read it they were all planted firmly on their two feet, flushed, perspiring … oblivious of everything except that ball.”

A crowd of 700 women cheered on the teams and, even though men weren’t allowed in the gym, many watched through the windows. Stanford won, and when they returned to campus they were greeted by crowds and the famous Stanford band.

There were pockets like this throughout the Bay Area during the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Rita Liberti, a professor of sports history at CSU East Bay. “Softball was huge among a range of communities across class and race and ethnicity,” she said.

Basketball was played in Chinatown and around San Francisco. Women’s swimming was big, especially in Santa Clara. San Francisco even had a pro co-ed roller derby team — called the Bay Bombers — who played mostly at Kezar Stadium and Cow Palace and, at one point, drew 1 million spectators a year along with television broadcasts.

And there was running. For example, the Dipsea Race, in Marin County, was popular for elite competitive women.

“From 1918 to 1922, it was really an incredible run, hundreds of participants, thousands of people watching,” said Liberti.

an older black and white photo shows a crowd of women dressed in old-fashioned athlete gear gathered at a start line
The Dipsea ‘Hike’ for women drew huge numbers from 1918–1922. (Dipsea Race Committee)

It was called a “hike” to get around bans at the time on women running competitively. But despite that, and even wearing long skirts and boots, the winning woman in 1922 covered the mountainous 7.5-mile course in one hour and 12 minutes. It’s a time that would place her in the top quarter of athletes at this year’s race. Her “hike” was most definitely a run.

“We’re talking about girls and women who were kind of everyday athletes. But we’re also talking about elite athleticism, women who were really skilled,” said Liberti. “And all of this is happening in the San Francisco Bay.”

For decades, we were a place for elite women’s sports. But then came the pushback.

A 50-year ban

Every time women found a place for elite athleticism in the first half of the century, there came periodic backlash. Just a few years after that first basketball game, Stanford put an end to all intercollegiate women’s sports for fear of the stress on women’s bodies. A conservative wave then pushed across the country starting in the 1920s, seen across all aspects of life. And, while small fringe pockets for women to thrive could continue to be found, the Bay Area was not immune to conservative fears.

“[T]he reason why the Dipsea Hike, the race, ended in 1922, is that community leaders felt it was too harsh for women to continue running that race. And so there’s still those combination [of] fears about female frailty, like their ovaries are going to fall out or something if they run up and down a basketball court, or that they’ll become too mannish,” said Liberti. “The Bay Area may seem intensely progressive. But it carries with it ideas about gender, and we’re not immune from that.”

After the last Dipsea women’s hike in 1922, the race wouldn’t open back up to women for five decades — until 1971.

This happened across many women’s sports, with many facing decades of being barred from participating.

When that finally changed, after so many years of being banned or limited, building a foundation back up for women’s sports was slow.

While Title IX — the landmark legislation that banned gender discrimination — passed a year later, in 1972, it wasn’t until 1982 that the NCAA even added women’s basketball. That’s nearly 90 years after that first Stanford-Cal game was played.

And by the 1970s, modern pro men’s sports as we think of them were really taking shape with money, sponsors, tickets and TV deals. This is when we first see an attempt at professional women’s teams, too. But they were on the back foot, having to catch up to the audience and investment that men’s teams had built.

Meet the SF Pioneers

It was then, in 1979, that San Francisco got a women’s professional basketball team: the SF Pioneers. They joined the brand new, first of its kind, women’s pro basketball league, which called itself the WBL.

“It was like a dream come true for me, because I never thought the United States would ever have a women’s league,” said Cardte Hicks, one of the women on that team.

Hicks had played for CSU Northridge and had a 42-inch vertical jump. She was recruited to San Francisco by the coach, Frank LaPorte, who had heard of her and her famous dunking.

“I never even knew that dunking was something spectacular. I just thought it was fun to be able to get up that high,” she said, “He had heard a lot about me playing in AAU. I played for my brothers, because they wouldn’t allow women to play, so they’d dress me up like a boy, tape my boobs down, what little bit I did have,” she said. “And people would come out because they’d heard about that girl that could jump.”

The Pioneers played at the Civic Center and were supported by Willie Brown.

“One thing I can truly say is that San Francisco showed some love, in the gay community, more so than any community. They were just so supportive. They wanted this to grow,” she said.

But the players didn’t get paid much and, after the novelty wore off, they didn’t get much media attention or marketing either. “We didn’t get marketed like they do with the WNBA. We didn’t have a lot of money. Me personally, I’d have played for nothing, as long as I can get out there and play,” said Hicks.

How much did she get paid? About $1,500 per month.

Black and white image of 4 women on a basketball court. Three of them wear dark uniforms, and one is in a white uniform. The 2 women in the middle ground are leaping into the air after a basketball that is above them out of frame.
The San Francisco Pioneers, a women’s professional basketball team, playing a game in the first national league on Dec. 30, 1980. (Steve Ringman/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The players were good, though, she said. Imagine if they’d had the opportunities available now.

“When the league folded, it was a heartbreaker for all of us,” she said. By 1981, the WBL was done.

A few years ago, many of those players, including Hicks, were honored by the WNBA and inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. But back in the early ’80s, without enough capital or coverage, the WBL couldn’t last. The team and league shut down and Hicks went back to playing overseas where there were more opportunities.

This happened to a lot of the newly formed women’s pro teams during the ’70s and ’80s. They keep getting shortchanged and shut down, struggling to catch up to the head start the men’s teams had.

“All of these women’s pro sport leagues are short lived,” said Liberti, “Like they come and they go, they’re in and they’re out. They don’t have funding. There’s no capital. There’s no media following them at this point.”

This pattern continued for decades. There was the San Jose Sunbirds, a pro softball team, which was later followed by the California Sunbirds in Stockton, which were part of the on-and-off National Pro Fastpitch league. There was the FC Gold Pride, part of one of the early women’s pro soccer leagues, who played in Hayward.

There have been a number of different women’s pro teams in the Bay Area over the years, but they haven’t lasted.

Are things finally changing? Has the time finally come for one to succeed here?

A shift happening

Back to the launch of the new women’s pro soccer team.

“I just think sometimes people are resistant to understanding what is possible if they haven’t seen it done before,” said Aly Wagner, another one of the four founders of the Bay FC. Wagner also played on the national team and in previous women’s pro leagues — none of which lasted. “We’re in a very different place now than where we were then. And one of the things that I keep coming back to is that there were always gatekeepers.”

What Wagner means is that for a long time the people who make the decisions in regards to sports funding kept saying: “No point in investing in women’s sports; no one wants to watch women’s sports; don’t put them on TV.” And so nothing happened. There was no investment, media or marketing.

Right now, though, in July 2023, as the Women’s World Cup and Tour de France Femmes draw millions of viewers, it’s hard not to notice a shift happening globally. Almost 10 million people tuned in for the women’s March Madness final. WNBA opening weekend viewership was up 100%. The three most attended soccer games in Europe last year were all women’s matches.

It’s clear there is money to be made — and that’s what’s changing. Investors now see there’s a market, an audience, an entire base of women’s sports fans who are not being served. And with the potential for profit, comes funding, which brings broadcast TV deals. And since you can’t be a fan of what you can’t see, that brings more viewers and more fans.

“Now I think that people are starting to understand that the momentum is there, the data is there. Everything is signaling that this is the right time,” Wagner said. “It might have been the right time before, but now it’s really the right time.”

A row of people smile at the camera, they are all wearing items of clothing with the logo for a women's soccer team called "Bay FC."
Sheryl Sandberg, Danielle Slaton, Brandi Chastain, Leslie Osborne and Aly Wagner pose for a photo with other attendees at a kickoff event for Bay FC, the Bay Area’s first team in the National Women’s Soccer League, at the Presidio in San Francisco, on June 3, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

At the Bay FC team launch event, fans were excited too.

“Oh, I’m so excited,” said Deepa Patel. “I started watching the NWSL after the 2015 World Cup and since then I’ve just been waiting for a team.”

“Finally we have a women’s team in Northern California. We don’t have to fly to Portland, we don’t have to go to L.A., we don’t have to fly to San Diego. Finally we have something representing Northern California, and the Bay Area,” said Monica MacMillan.

There have always been women’s sports in the Bay Area. There are professional runners, cyclists, tennis players, swimmers, and ice-skaters. There are semi-pro teams here, too. But now it might really be time for a fully-fledged, fully-funded major pro team that lasts.

There’s just one last obstacle.

There are also efforts to bring a WNBA expansion team here, though the commissioner has said “not yet.”

At issue is another factor that answers Afifa Tawil’s original question. It can be tough to start teams in the Bay Area.

It’s often easier to start out and build in smaller markets, especially during the survival mode women’s sports have historically existed in. In small markets, you can sometimes build women’s teams as a kind of homegrown oddity attraction. The Bay Area, by contrast, is a little hard for people to get their heads around, a little hard to conquer for any one new team.

“I think the Bay Area is perhaps daunting to a lot of people because we have so much going on there,” said Wagner.

It’s so spread out, so diverse, there’s so many other things to do besides sit inside and watch sports on TV. We’re not always considered a great sports market. But Brandi Chastain disagrees.

“The Bay Area is the best sports town and we’re going to prove it,” she said.

The Bay FC starts play in the spring and after that, who knows. Maybe a WNBA team in Oakland. Or dream big: A softball team in Hayward; a women’s hockey team in San José. Momentum is building. As the women’s soccer fans like to say: LFG.

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