Women’s pro sports in Colorado: What will it take to bring in teams?

Colorado routinely produces elite female athletes, even world-class standouts.

But many of those same women don’t have the option to compete professionally for their home state. While “individual” pro sports such as alpine skiing make annual stops on Colorado’s slopes, the state is not represented in the National Women’s Soccer League, the Women’s National Basketball Association, the Premier Hockey Federation or any other major women’s sports league.

That absence is especially glaring in soccer with four homegrown talents — Lindsey Horan, Jaelin Howell, Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith — featured on the U.S. Women’s National Team. But each plays professionally well outside Colorado’s borders.

“I wish that when I was growing up there were games I could go see,” said Smith, a Windsor native, now playing in her third NWSL season (Portland Thorns). “The only time I could see them play was the few times when the national team came to Denver. One thing that could be said is how successful Colorado could be if there was a team for young kids to go watch and get inspiration from.”

Lessons from the past help explain why the state is missing out today.

Colorado Xplosion

In October 1996, the state’s first women’s professional sports franchise tipped off when the Colorado Xplosion of the American Basketball League played its season-opening game. The team later won a conference title and produced a rookie of the year, defensive player of the year and slam-dunk contest winner.

Its popularity peaked in 1998 when the Xplosion was picked to host a nationally televised home game. Pressure mounted from league owners to sell out the building when Lark Birdsong, now 71, was the Xplosion’s general manager. Birdsong said she spent the team’s entire $40,000 marketing budget on that one game — newspaper/radio ads, public service announcements — to drum up local interest.

It worked. More than 13,000 fans showed up at McNichols Arena.

“It showed us the resources we need to make things like that work,” Birdsong said. “We needed more than a couple of thousand dollars per game.”

The ABL folded midseason in 1998 amid lagging attendance, financial concerns, and the emergence of the WNBA. Birdsong said the Xplosion had spent at least $2 million per season on arena leases, office space and advertising. But sponsorships, ticket sales and merchandise only brought in roughly $1.5 million.

“Today, that would be a drop in the bucket of what you need,” Birdsong said.

In 2004, the National Women’s Basketball League entered the state with the Colorado Chill, based in Loveland. But two years later, just like the Xplosion, the Chill went under.

Birdsong is hopeful they won’t be the last women’s professional sports teams to call Colorado home. It all comes down to ownership.

“It would have to be somebody who had a lot of resources and passion for the game,” she said.

Expansion opportunity

There are currently two major women’s professional sports leagues on the verge of expanding.

The WNBA is expected to identify one or two cities for new team by the end of the year. But it does not appear Denver is a leading candidate. The NWSL, however, is considering a “long list” of expansion candidates that includes Denver.

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman is bullish on league growth into new markets, telling reporters last month: “The time is now.”

“It’s going to be a challenge to figure out who we admit into the league with so many qualified and interested investors,” Berman said. “We are going to have to come up with some filter for what our priorities are in terms of growth. Looking at different factors like the market, the facility, media, resources, and experience inside and outside the sports industry. All of those things are going to be important.”

Michelle Lomnicki, an associate general manager for the Chicago Red Stars, is a Colorado native who starred in soccer at Smoky Hill High School and the University of Colorado. She played in the NWSL before transitioning into a front-office role. Lomnicki supports the idea of an expansion team in her home state.

“That opportunity for Colorado, at some point, that’s always been something I’ve had passion about,” said Lomnicki, a four-year starter for the Buffs (2005-08). “You need an ownership group that’s fully invested and excited that will continue to knock on the door and make it happen.”

The Colorado Rapids MLS team might provide a framework for expansion. A new NWSL franchise, if owned by Stan Kroenke, has a soccer stadium available in Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. The venue is expected to be a sellout (18,000) on June 25 when the USWNT team hosts a friendly against Colombia.

Kroenke — with an estimated wealth of $10.7 billion (per Forbes) — has the resources to add an NWSL team to his sports ownership portfolio. But it’s unclear if he is interested. Requests for comment to Kroenke Sports and Entertainment about possible NWSL expansion in Denver were not returned.

“We have all the sports teams and it’s a big sports town,” said Lorne Donaldson, executive director of coaching at the Real Colorado soccer club in Douglas County. “It should have happened a long time ago. Soccer would definitely do well. We all know it.”

Angel FC embarked on its inaugural 2022 season in Los Angeles founded by actress Natalie Portman with significant investments from female sports stars such as Mia Hamm, Billie Jean King and Serena Williams. Denver could follow a similar model to draw NWSL investors. Who will step up?

“There is a huge market for the club game there that feeds into a potential outlet of pro soccer,” Lomnicki said. “We have multiple (NWSL) players from Colorado, which shows that we’re doing the right things in the state with development. Being able to bring in those players, I think that also creates a lot of buzz for the fanbase.”

Birdsong, the former Xplosion general manager, has seen a wave of change for women’s sports over five decades since Title IX. But establishing a professional sports team in Colorado, with staying power, will require a major shift in fan perspective.

“People’s attitudes about women’s sports still need to change,” Birdsong said. “They have to see it’s not a competition with men. It’s an opportunity for women. It’s a fun game to watch.”

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