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Chicago Red Stars target attendance record with Wrigley Field game, and lead fight for public funding

Chicago Red Stars and Bay FC will square off at Wrigley Field on Saturday in a history-making matchup. It’s the first-ever women’s soccer event to be held at the historic major league baseball stadium, and and could be a measuring stick for future one-off events in NWSL. 

Ticket sales have been positive and there is an expected record crowd for the event. The NWSL recently set an attendance record of 34,130 during the 2023 season when Seattle Reign FC held a celebration game for Megan Rapinoe. Wrigley Field holds a capacity of roughly 41,000, setting up a must-see marquee event to kick off the summer.

Here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming match:

Viewing information

  • Date: Saturday, June 7  Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
  • Location: Wrigley Field — Chicago, IL.
  • TV: iON  

How an idea became reality

The Chicago Red Stars are navigating their first season under new ownership, an investment collective primarily made up of women led by Chicago Cubs Co-owner and minority investor Laura Ricketts. 

Ricketts, who is also a minority investor of the Chicago Sky, immediately set out to implement changes ahead of the Red Stars 2024 season, the first was making sure she had an introduction to players to build trust, the next was making hires to support the club moving forward. Club President Karen Leetzow, head coach Lorne Donaldson, and General Manager Rick Feuz were added to steer the Red Stars ahead in 2024 and beyond.

The connection between the Red Stars and the Cubs is now linked, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a Wrigley Field game was going to happen in year one of new ownership. The effort to change the date and venue of the match was done with both clubs, league, and cooperation from the NWSL Players Association, and the response since the announcement has been met with excitement.

“It is hopefully, a realization for this team, that we can in fact, and do in fact, have tens of thousands of fans in the city who just can’t make it out [to Bridgeview] on a regular basis to see us,” said Leetzow.

“It’s a proof point to the league that when we’re not selling tickets, it’s in part because of the difficulty of our location for our young urban fans who work and it’s a $30 Uber ride out and a $30 Uber ride back and that feels unaffordable on top of ticket prices.”

The Red Stars currently play their games at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, IL –- a facility they’ve never been the primary tenants of – and the new ownership group is looking at unique ways to show the attendance metric for Chicago women’s soccer does exist. Past partner events have been alongside Chicago Fire FC, as a doubleheader, where attendance is measured over two games.

This time when several thousand are in the stands at Wrigley, it will be undeniably for women’s soccer. 

“And it’s a proof point to the players that they do have a lot of support in the city. It’s also a brand-building exercise … there’s just a whole population of people who haven’t been exposed to our sport. So for us, it’s so much more than a game. It is really this proof that we deserve to be here. We deserve to be invested in. We really, really want people to come out, not just for good time, but to show their support of women’s sports. And if we can do that, it’ll be a successful day.”

A new frontier for women’s sports in Chicago

The Red Stars are no strangers to managing facilities that are not their own. There is only one club, Kansas City Current, that owns its own, dedicated stadium and training grounds. It’s market real estate and NWSL-specific grounds that are the next frontier for the league. It’s become a unifier for clubs, a collaborative perspective that Leetzow says isn’t often found in men’s professional sports.

“In other leagues, it feels very competitive to one another. In this sport. It feels very collaborative. So people are talking all the time about ‘what’s the right way to sell the sport?’ and they pick up your call like ‘how are you thinking about this?’ and a lot of relationships out there between us and others, and they’ve been super helpful, super kind, really patient – and we try and reciprocate, obviously whenever we can.

But that is something that I think is unique in women’s sports is this idea. It’s a little bit of us against the world. Because we’re building something, in an infrastructure that exists, sort of sports in America, but we are definitely the underdog. People said we’re a challenger sport, and we know it. And so helping one another get all the opportunities we deserve is sometimes really about collaboration and there’s really just a ton of that in this league, which I love.”

Including women’s sports in funding discussions

Chicago is obviously home to several sports teams and professional leagues in the men’s and women’s sports business, so there’s not one singular fight for the Red Stars at this moment in time. They find themselves fighting in many arenas for equity in women’s sports, the visibility of their team, and the sport in the city.

Men’s professional sports have dominated the city and its local media for generations. Even as the Chicago Sky is feeling a breakthrough in brand recognition and fan engagement, it’s been a steep climb from its beginnings as a franchise in 2006. Oftentimes, women’s sports teams have to prove their worth before receiving any kind of recognition or investment, in a sports-saturated city like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, it can feel tenfold.

Many iconic brands like the Chicago Bears and Chicago White Sox have no problem getting the eyes and ears of public officials when it comes to the brand new state-of-the-art facilities that may require the use of public funding. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when those organizations made recent headlines around potential future projects, women’s sports in Chicago were a complete afterthought. 

Though the Red Stars found themselves initially missing from those headlines, they’re now firmly a part of those ongoing discussions. 

“I would like to say that we invited ourselves,” said Leetzow on whether or not public officials and political representatives reached out to the Chicago Red Stars on meetings regarding public funding for stadiums.

“When we learned this was happening…I’m not from Chicago originally. So I literally [asked] what is this mean and why is this happening? And why aren’t we being discussed? At which point Laura [Ricketts] said, we need to make some noise here which we did. So we have now really, politely firmly, quietly spoken to anybody who would listen to us in the legislature and whoever will listen. This should not be happening without women having a seat at the table and we’re not even, in our conversations

“We’re not even talking about just the Red Stars. When you have a bucket of public funding taxpayer funding. 50% of the taxpayers are women. Women are usually the pocketbook of the household. They decide most consumer spending and decisions are being made about men’s sporting franchises, in a way that doesn’t include women’s sports.”

It’s just another item that the Red Stars front office and ownership that they’ve taken on in year one, and something that is likely going to be a longer fight than other ongoing issues in women’s pro sports. 

“We’ve talked to anybody and everybody who will listen and will continue to do that around this topic in order to make our case –  which is that you can’t you just can’t divvy up public money if you’re gonna do it. And a lot of states have decided not to do it, but if you’re going to do it, then women should have both a seat at the table and a piece of the pie.”

In the history of men’s pro sports, nearly 89% percent of men’s “Big Four” leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) have received some level of public funding toward stadiums that have eclipsed the $30 billion mark. The statistics of women’s sports franchises that have received any level of public funding are easy. It’s zero. It’s a stat the Red Stars have included as part of a presentation they make when they find themselves in the discussions of public funding.

“It’s stark, it’s shocking, it’s infuriating, but it’s also a chance for us to teach and educate how we think people should be thinking about sports. I mean, if you’re a sports fan, more sports is awesome. And so here we have all these amazing women’s leagues who are now ready, willing, and able to produce these amazing athletes to showcase these amazing events and no place to play,” Leetzow reiterated.

“We have title nine that gave us equal footing in the amateur game, when you get to the professional world, and all of the subsidization is going to men’s teams? It’s crazy to me …S o I’m happy that at this point in my life, I’m you know, sort of more towards the end of my career. I can say what I think usually politely but I can say what I think and I think this is wrong, I just think it’s wrong. And it’s high time.”

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