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Alohagate and the USWNT: Far More than a Turf Issue

16 Dec, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
It's No Secret to Sports Event Planners What Went Wrong with The Victory Tour

In the days that followed the cancellation of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s Hawaii match against Trinidad and Tobago because of poor field conditions (and the finger-pointing that came with it), a new nickname emerged: Alohagate.

The biggest loss was dealt to the fans, many of whom had traveled to Oahu for the match. Although refunds for tickets were given, travel costs were something that could not be recouped.

"They've been saving for this and all of the parents agreed this was their Christmas present," Big Island fan Jesse Kerr said of the group of seven fans who were out thousands of dollars in air fare and hotel expenses. A local Soccer Locker store ordered $6,000 in official jerseys for fans to wear to the match. Some supporters wanted refunds. "We're going to get stuck with probably half of that," said store owner Bob Picerno.

Some fans, in fact, have mounted the charge of having a class-action suit seeking reimbursement from the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Aloha Stadium Authority for airfare, hotel and parking expenses.

While it’s easy to point the finger at the facility (the surface of which was subpar) and to make accusations about turf as a playing surface, it’s actually more important to look at all the ways this went wrong. Many of these are immediately evident to the sports event planning community.

No site inspection: The fact that an international-level match was scheduled months in advance without one look at the facility is something that has everyone in the sports planning world scratching their heads. According to an article in Hawaii News Now, former US Women's National Team Member and current commentator Julie Foudy stated that, according to her sources, the U.S. Men's National Team sends “a rep...to venues months in advance, but no representatives were sent to inspect Aloha Stadium.” Foudy also tweeted that US Soccer is now reportedly working toward a protocol that will be similar to the one in place for the men's team, but no such protocol is currently in place.

Aloha Stadium officials and a representative from US Soccer confirmed that the field was not inspected in person until just three days before kick-off was set to take place. At that point, the event had already been promoted and tickets had been sold. (An official from US soccer said that because the field is used for the Pro Bowl and by a Division I football team, they assumed the surface would be up to a certain standard which they quickly realized it was not.)

The practice facilities granted to the USWNT were apparently no better. The grass field the team was supposed to train on was such a problem that coach Jill Ellis cut practice short.

Image problems: FIFA in general and US Soccer in particular have long been accused of unfair treatment of its women’s teams and the current situation is simply more proof.

“It’s no secret that FIFA is stuck in the 1950s when it comes to women’s soccer.,” wrote Nancy Armour of USA Today. “As champions, the Americans got $2 million, a whopping $33 million less than Germany did for winning the men’s tournament in 2014.”

In addition, Armour noted, “it wasn’t until 2013 that FIFA’s powerful Executive Committee had its first female member. Two years later, there are only three.”

The Victory Tour looks more like The Money Tour: The tour is certainly a showcase for the current USWNT, and it marks the last time many of the World Cup victors will play together; Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny are retiring at its conclusion. But honestly, the sporting purpose of the tour itself seems questionable and at this point, it’s looking more like an Ice Capades show that features Olympic champions than it does a series of actual competitions. Many of the matches have been blowout wins. Only two have been draws (and one of those was the recent ill-fated match in Hawaii). The competition has been less than stellar. Haiti sent a team of teenagers and Trinidad and Tobago is a national team in disarray.

At the end of the day, the Victory Tour is a money maker, a big money maker for US Soccer and the players, according to Soccer America Daily. In addition to their salaries and bonuses, the Chicago Tribune reported that the players share $1.20 per ticket sold on the tour. Attendance for the first six games totaled 191,304 fans, so that's almost $230,000 for the players. Advance ticket sales for the Hawaii game were reported to be about half of the average for the first six games, but U.S. Soccer was going to come out of the deal in fine shape. The stadium contract called for US Soccer to keep all ticket revenues and pay no rent. The Aloha Stadium authority could keep parking and concessions.

The Victory Tour also raises the question of what is the mission of US Soccer. Is it to develop winning national teams? To promote soccer? To manage events? To make money? If US Soccer is in the event business, it failed its players and fans in Honolulu.

“We had a series of mistakes involving this game,” US Soccer president Sunil Gulati told the New York Times. “We screwed up. It won’t happen again.”

It better not. US Soccer has three women's games scheduled in December and more women's matches before and after next year's Olympics.

Too many people will chalk this incident up to the facilities and forget about the rest: Unfortunately, the debacle in Hawaii will ultimately be remembered as an artificial turf issue, which it is not, according to the players.

“This decision wasn’t about `turf vs. grass.’ This was about field conditions and player safety,” the players wrote. “It’s as simple as that. Soccer is our job. Our bodies are our jobs. And nothing should ever be put in competition with our protection and safety as players.”

Unfortunately, the bad news just keeps coming. Midfielder Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL in practice in Hawaii, adding to the USWNT’s woes. (Don’t blame that injury on the facilities, though; this is the third ACL injury Rapinoe has suffered in her soccer career – she tore the ACL in her left knee twice while at the University of Portland. And by the way, her most recent injury came on natural grass, not on turf.) Still, the resulting surgery and rehab for this particular injury likely will cause her to miss the team's Olympic qualifying tournament in February and her participation for the 2016 Games in Rio is in doubt.

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