Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson.Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Thorns FC
The fact that Paulson did step up, at the behest of his friend and U.S. Soccer supremo Sunil Gulati, speaks to a new generation of owners and entrepreneurs who may make natural allies rather than obstacles for women trying to ensure that female athletes — and fans — are recognized.
Laura Gentile, whose ESPN W project last week hosted its fourth annual Women in Sport summit, said Paulson is "the type of thinker and the type of supporter (women's soccer) certainly needs."
"I think if you look at the new soccer league, everybody wants it to be a huge blockbuster success out of the gate," she added. "But with more people like Merritt behind it, who believe and have a longer-term vision, it's going to happen."
Gentile, a marketing and ESPN veteran, founded ESPN W in 2010, specifically to "create a destination for women who love sports." She wryly contrasts the male marketing stereotype of the sports fan ("He paints his face, he's crazy at the tailgate," she said) with the challenges her sport confronts in the depiction of female athletes and fans.
"We're showing women competing — and they're sweating, and they're hustling, and they're diving, and they're happy, and they're smiling, and they're winning, and they're losing," she said. "Women are complex, and we're really just trying to get into those layers and that complexity."
Part of that complexity comes not only in the sense of cooperative duty that senior female athletes, administrators and media leaders like Gentile feel toward one another but also in their sense of being part of a continuum. The generations of women whose struggles gave them a platform — and the next generation of young female athletes and fans — tend to be at the forefront of their thinking.
In part, there's a realpolitik of building and sustaining structures that permit the type of traction that women's soccer, for example, has historically been unable to gain and of ensuring that those achievements are recorded to be built on. In part, though, this spirit of cooperation comes from an idealism about sports that is an inadvertent effect of generations of institutionalized sexism.
"We have an innate respect and understanding for female athletes and where women's sports are," said Gentile. "So we know that it's kind of still a battle, if you will, for attention and resources and credibility. And a lot of us, you play at a Division I level even in this country, you don't get a lot of fans, and you don't get a lot of press, but you really play for the love of the game. So on some level we're still really celebratory of the purity of sports," she said with a laugh. "You don't see a lot of discussion on the pages of ESPN W about billion-dollar salaries and holdouts and drugs and things like that."
For now, there's some reason to celebrate. What remains to be seen is whether the interest in the new league can be sustained.
Looking at the Portland Thorns again, their success on the field in their debut season, in front of crowds averaging about 13,000, could still turn out to be the kind of geographical and temporal false start that has historically beset both the men's and women's game in the U.S. But the model of a club that regards the men's and women's teams as integral parts of the same organization could prove to be the most influential structural element for success in the long run.
"As an organization, everybody that we worked with has been incredible," said Buehler of her experience in Portland. "We shared a lot of Timbers staff, but they made us feel like we were their priority as well."
Or, as Paulson said, "It wasn't about 'This is women's' or 'This is different,' you know? We said, 'This is high-level soccer.'"