Alyse LaHue: Women's pro soccer is ready to ride the wave of a big cultural moment

Shortly after serving as an assistant coach at St. Ambrose University while earning her MBA, Alyse LaHue  joined the front office of the Chicago Red Stars as they ramped up to play in Women’s Professional Soccer. When the Red Stars dropped from WPS to the WPSL, she moved to the West Coast and spent a year as general manager of L.A. Blues, a club fielding a powerhouse women’s team as well as men’s teams.

When WPS collapsed, the Red Stars moved into the stopgap WPSL Elite League, featuring a couple of pro teams that wanted to bridge the gap between leagues along with some top amateur teams. LaHue returned to Chicago as general manager and stuck with the club through its WPSL Elite League and its first four seasons in the NWSL.

After a year with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, she moved to Sky Blue FC, whose off-field difficulties had been widely chronicled. She has overseen the team’s successful debut at Red Bull Arena and endeared herself to fans by making a beer run at an earlier game at Rutgers when the university had an issue with its liquor license.

She’s also the co-founder, with former WUSA All-Star and Mexican national team player Monica Gonzalez, of Gonzo Soccer, a nonprofit that empowers girls through soccer in Latin American communities in the USA, Mexico and Colombia.

She’s also an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University.

SOCCER AMERICA: Do you find other people in women's soccer club management are MBAs?

ALYSE LAHUE. I don't think so, but I've honestly never asked. I don't think it's common in the sports world to have an MBA. I think most people that get an MBA then try to go on and get a nice high-paying job. But my passion is in women's sports.

To be totally honest, I graduated as we were heading into a recession, and I actually kind of liked school, and it gave me an opportunity to be a grad assistant coach for a while. So for me getting an MBA was actually just delaying the real world a bit and having an opportunity to coach, which is something that I actually thought I was going to get into. But I really fell in love with the business side of sports. Luckily, shortly after I graduated with my MBA, I knew that there was -- I think they called it Women's Soccer Initiative II taking place, which eventually became WPS. So I always had my eyes on the league and knew that was something that I was going to try to target after I graduated.

SA: So then you went to the Red Stars. I recall visiting the trailer that was in the Toyota Park parking lot, and that office had you, Peter Wilt and Amanda Vandervort -- all fairly heavy hitters in women's soccer and soccer in general. What was that experience like?

LAHUE: Yeah, and Marcia McDermott as well. I started as the first intern, so even before we got to the trailer, I was working out of a lawyer's office just sitting at a table with Peter Wilt and Marcia McDermott every day for the first few months. That's a pretty good way to kick off your soccer career, to be sitting at a table with those two.

I hear so many people saying some of the things I do remind them of Peter and the way he operates. I'm a sponge -- I took as much as I could from both of them. I believe that I've taken stuff from both Peter and Marcia in my career and use it daily. Then obviously Amanda Vandervort went on to an absolutely illustrious career and has done amazing things across all soccer -- not just women's. And she and I stay in touch as well.

SA: The Red Stars dropped out of WPS after the 2010 season and went to the WPSL. Were you optimistic that they would return to the top league, whatever that might be?

LAHUE: Yeah, I basically knew from the time that WPS really started to look like it was on its last legs, there were already conversations happening and Arnim [Whisler, the Red Stars' owner] at the Red Stars I think was very integral in those conversations and wanting to bring back another professional league and a different iteration, with a different format. And he and I had always stayed in touch, even when I did move out to L.A. for the year that the Red Stars weren't in the professional league. So I knew that that's what they were trying to do, and obviously things moved very quickly from WPS into what's now the NWSL.

SA: You came back to Chicago as the Red Stars moved into WPSL Elite. What was that season like?

LAHUE: To be honest, it was probably one of the funnest seasons I've ever been a part of. We really had no staff. It was just me and Arnim. He was very hands-on. We were playing in what was essentially a semipro league, but you had some of the top players playing in it. So it was a pretty incredible experience to go through on a short summer season to have players like Lori Chalupny playing on your team and it being very bare-bones to an extent. But it was a way for us to stay in touch with the fans to keep them coming out to games to keep them engaged.

So I actually think that league was very important for the Red Stars as an organization because we didn't necessarily have a long gap year. We were able to keep fans on board and keep them engaged with really high-profile players and great performances and help fill that gap before another pro league came back.

Photo by Jesse Louie courtesy of Sky Blue FC.

SA: So during the WPSL Elite season, the Red Stars played in the Women's Open Cup. What would it take to revive that competition?

LAHUE: Now we don't have the W-League anymore. So it's either the WPSL and UWS at the amateur level and then obviously the NWSL, which is one of the best leagues in the world in terms of parity and quality of games, day in and day out in competition. I think it would be incredibly interesting to look at a Women's Open Cup competition. There are certainly such a great number of WPSL teams scattered across the country. To be able to have those opportunities to play against a NWSL team, I'm sure it would be very interesting.

The challenge we have is that our seasons, especially when it's a World Cup year or an Olympic year, we're trying to cram so many great games into a really tight schedule. I see the wear and tear on players at times -- we came up with a stretch at Sky Blue where I think we had four games in what felt like, I think, two and a half weeks. It was incredibly trying for the players to get through that.

So I think adding additional competitions and games in a really tight calendar is a challenge, but certainly looking at it and perhaps in the two years we're not in the championship cycle, when there's not a World Cup or Olympics, I think it could be incredibly interesting to engage in something like that.

SA: What led you to work with a WNBA team, and did you find any practices that can be applied to a women's soccer team?

LAHUE: Yeah, I've always admired the WNBA. Certainly they've been around much longer than our women's leagues have, and they've had quite a bit of staying power. So for me, I'd really targeted Seattle. It was an interesting market to me. It's much smaller than the markets that I had worked in in women's soccer, which were places like Chicago and L.A. I liked the concept of working for a team in a smaller market and seeing what that looked like.

Obviously they have a little bit of a big brother model with the NBA. So being able to be a part of that and see the economies of scale that you can tap into from a league perspective while also retaining your independence as a team, which is what the Seattle Storm are -- they're owned by three women, one of the only all-women professional ownership groups in the country -- for me that was incredibly intriguing. I've always admired them as an organization. I think they're really progressive.

So for me to have the opportunity to go into a role there -- again, I was a sponge. I was there to learn as much as I could and to observe as much as I could in the process. It was absolutely invaluable to me to have that experience. They were a team that essentially broke even, which is kind of the Golden Goose in women's sports, to be able to not lose a bunch of money. That was incredible to be a part of and to watch how they they manage their business model beyond just women's pro basketball. They really look at a variety of opportunities in order to maximize the revenue as an organization and then capitalize on the tremendous staff that they have. There were so many lessons that I took from my year out there that are going to be invaluable in my career as I go on now.

SA: So how do you manage to do all this and teach a class at East Tennessee State?

LAHUE (laughs): I was telling myself that at midnight last night when I was finishing getting things ready for the course.

That was an opportunity that actually came about through women's soccer as well. When I was getting started in my career in Chicago, one of my colleagues, Natalie Smith, was actually working at Sky Blue as operations manager, and she and I became very good friends who stayed in touch through the years. She went on to become a college professor, and they had an opening for an adjunct course in fundraising in sports, and she just asked if I was interested. I've always loved the concept of teaching, so I leapt at it.

I've been doing that for a couple years now, and it is so great to be connected to young people in college that are looking for careers in sports. I think it keeps me really grounded to have that connection to young people and seeing how they're navigating the process of trying to break into sports and be a part of it.

It just gives me another opportunity to learn, to be honest.

SA: Do you have to commute to East Tennessee State, or are you connected virtually?

LAHUE: It's an online course. There's a lot you can do online. So I try to stay as connected to the students as possible. But yeah, I don't have to travel, which is nice.

SA: So did you go to Sky Blue because you relish the challenge?

LAHUE: I always thought I would come back to women's soccer. It's really what I'm most emotionally connected to. I think it's what I know the best.

Sky Blue really came about when Denise Reddy became the head coach here. She and I had always talked about working together again -- she was an assistant in Chicago when I was there during WPS and is somebody that I've always admired and stayed in touch with. So once she came out here, we opened the conversation. I was really content in Seattle at the time and had no intentions of coming to Sky Blue.

I knew some of the challenges of this club from working in NWSL and seeing the club through the years, but eventually she got her way and I decided to come out here. It's been absolutely whirlwind out here. I certainly would have never written the script. I certainly didn't see myself being here without Denise, to be totally honest.

(Editor's note: Reddy was fired in June.)

It's been an interesting journey, but I've really enjoyed being back in the NWSL with all challenges and seeing how we can continue to drive not just women's soccer, but really women's sports as a whole. I think the U.S. women's national team is the standard-bearer for what we can do in women's sports and the media attention it draws to the game and how that can have a positive effect on our women's pro leagues as well. So I'm just really happy to be back and be a part of it in spite of some of the challenges. I certainly feel like being back in the league is where I'm supposed to be right now.

SA: So what's the story behind the beer run?

LAHUE: It's one of those things where it started out as a what was a terrible story, and we turned it into something positive. Long story short is that Rutgers was going through a potential concessionaire switch, and with that switch, they were obtaining essentially a different liquor license, and they didn't manage the timing of getting that license around our games. So we essentially were left hanging without having a liquor license for our game, so we couldn't sell beer in the venue.

We've had a beer garden at our games for years. The fans expect that. It's a part of the fan experience. Obviously, we want to cater to adults as well as part of the experience. So it was devastating to lose that over one of our games.

So it was one of those moments where you just sort of spring into action and you try to figure out what you can do to make fans happy. It was our World Cup return game that we were having. So we certainly didn't want to let fans down. So we just sprung into action, and in those moments, I think you just do what you can do.

SA: And you've been through the boom-and-bust cycle before. You saw the crowds in 2011, only to see the league fold. You saw the league get a temporary bump in 2015 only to recede. What's different this time?

LAHUE: What I see is that we're in a different cultural moment right now. I think the last World Cup [win for the USA in 2015] was exciting because it had been the first one in a long time.

Right now, I think we're seeing certainly some challenges in our own society and in the way we treat each other as human beings right now. Obviously, there's a lot of content politically happening in this country. We've seen a lot of movements taking place around gender equity, women's empowerment, certainly some big moments like MeToo. You saw the gymnastics scandal. So what I see is there's just a lot more content out there right now. I think this is a really big cultural moment for us that I'm seeing, and certainly for women.

So I think what makes this moment bigger is that we're in the midst of a much different cultural moment in 2019 than we were in 2015. And with that, it's provided a tremendous amount of opportunity for women's sports in general and the conversation around women's sports and the conversation around the lack of media attention that we get.

The World Cup, of course, is always covered. People really tune in. I've always said it becomes a pop culture moment where you have celebrities tuning in and you'll see it covered in newspapers. You do the media talking about it every day. That's not normal for women sports. We don't generally get that coverage. But we see that when the media does get behind it and get more attention, obviously the fan attention spreads. We gain more viewership. We gain more fans at our games.

So it's a correlation to me. It goes hand-in-hand, and I think we're in the midst of a really big moment right now that we also have to capitalize on. Obviously we've seen the bumps around the league. It has been absolutely tremendous seeing so many teams break their own club attendance records right now.

It's really up to us as teams to keep that momentum going -- to take care of fans, to make them feel valued, to make sure they're going to come back to games, but we can't do it alone. We really have to continue to have robust media coverage. We need to continue to have sponsors engage in the game because sponsors do help push the conversation. They help draw a lot of attention to the team. So for me, obviously the teams individually have to do the work, but we also need help at the end of the day. You need support from a variety of outlets as well to keep it going.

SA: There are a fair number of people in the media -- some of them fairly prominent TV pundits or newspaper columnists, and many of them female -- who hop on to, say, the Equal Pay bandwagon. They don't look into the details of it to see what needs to be done, and then they disappear. They don't write about soccer again until the next Olympic final or the next World Cup. Is there any way to get them engaged?

LAHUE: This is the question we continue to ask: Why don't we get media coverage? I think the narrative has to change. The narrative that I've always seen and heard is that people don't watch women sports, so why would we cover it if nobody's watching it. And that means our articles are going to get hits, nobody's going to tune in, and obviously media now is a numbers game -- a question of hits. I think it's why we're in this political moment that we're in right now quite frankly.

That's always been the narrative, and it's really hard to change a narrative that is so deeply ingrained in fans and media to be able to change that to say, "No, it's actually because we're lacking such coverage -- it's part of the reason why we struggle to get more fans out at the game." Because it's just an awareness issue.

So it's hard to be the first reporters that are going to jump in and say, "Yes, this needs to be covered; we have to do this. This will help change the game."

It's not going to be overnight. It's going to take time. So it really does take everybody saying, "Yes. this is valuable, getting more folks to tune in."

Just recently, I created a newsletter that goes out weekly just called Women X (by) Sport. For me it came out of this notion that I wanted the people that are writing the articles about women's sports and women's sports business to get coverage because I that's what we need, right? They need to be able to write an article and say, "Yes, people tuned into this." Or I hear so many times from reporters that say, "My bosses aren't going to let me cover this if it doesn't get more attention." The newsletter is really just an aggregate to bring content articles about women's sports business into one place and get more people to click on it, to get more people to read about it, because I think that does have a major effect on where this goes and making sure that these reporters continue to cover us.

SA: And finally, did you ever imagine something like the Red Bull Arena game?

LAHUE: In my role, I have to imagine it because you have to strive for the biggest, most important moment, no matter where the club has been or where it comes from. Certainly it was magical. I don't have another word for it. It was a magical day for Sky Blue as a club. It was a long time coming.

It was not easy to pull off, but the fan response was absolutely incredible. I think it was simply long overdue. This is something that I believe should have should have happened years ago. The process to finally get there to give those players that moment, the fans that moment, it was really tremendous and I think it gives us a really good launchpad for what this club can be and where this club should be going.

2 comments about "Alyse LaHue: Women's pro soccer is ready to ride the wave of a big cultural moment".
  1. Bob Ashpole, August 30, 2019 at 5:08 p.m.

    Interesting person. Interesting opinions.

  2. Sean Mccarthy, August 31, 2019 at 9:17 a.m.

    Just refereed an exciting 5-5 school game. The women’s game has got musicality, selfless team play, individual technique skills...a veritable spiritual journey that brings entertaining joy.

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