Colorado regularly churns out elite female athletes, even top-notch world-class female athletes.
But many of those same women don’t have the opportunity to compete professionally for their home state. While “individual” professional sports such as alpine skiing make an annual stop on the slopes of Colorado, the state is not represented in the Women’s National Football League, Women’s National Basketball Association, Premier Hockey Federation, or any other major women’s sports league.
This absence is particularly conspicuous in football, where four homegrown talents — Lindsey Horan, Jaelyn Howell, Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith — feature on the US women’s team. But everyone plays professionally well outside of Colorado.
“I wish there were games when I was growing up that I could go see,” said Smith, a Windsor native who is now playing in her third season of NWSL (Portland Thorns). “The only time I could see them play was a few times when the national team came to Denver. You could tell how successful Colorado could be if little kids had a team to look at and draw inspiration from.”
Lessons from the past help explain why governments miss opportunities today.
In October 1996, the state’s first women’s professional sports franchise kicked off when the American Basketball League’s Colorado Explosion played its season-opening game. The team later won the conference title and produced Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Slam Dunk Contest winner.
Its popularity peaked in 1998 when Xplosion was chosen to host a nationally televised home game. Pressure from league owners increased to sell the building when Lark Birdsong, now 71, was Xplosion’s general manager. Birdsong said she spent the team’s entire $40,000 marketing budget on this one game – newspaper/radio ads, social ads – to generate local interest.
It worked. Over 13,000 fans came to McNichols Arena.
“It showed us the resources needed to make things like this work,” Birdsong said. “We needed more than a couple thousand dollars a game.”
The ABL folded midway through the 1998 season due to low attendance, financial problems, and the emergence of the WNBA. Birdsong said that Xplosion was spending at least $2 million per season on arena rentals, office space, and advertising. But sponsorships, ticket sales and merchandise only brought in about $1.5 million.
“Today, that would be a drop in the ocean 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, like Xplosion, Chill went bankrupt.
Birdsong hopes they won’t be the last women’s professional sports team to call Colorado home. It all comes down to ownership.
“It has to be someone who has a lot of resources and passion for the game,” she said.
Currently, the two major women’s professional sports leagues are on the verge of expansion.
The WNBA is expected to identify one or two cities for the new team by the end of the year. But it doesn’t look like Denver is a leading candidate.. However, the NWSL is considering “long list” expansion candidates, including Denver.
NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman is optimistic about the league’s entry into new markets, telling reporters last month: “The time has come.”
“It will be difficult to figure out who we accept into the league with so many qualified and interested investors,” Berman said. “We will have to come up with some kind of filter for our priorities in terms of growth. Consideration of various factors such as the market, facility, media, resources and experience within and outside the sports industry. All of these things will be important.”
Michelle Lomniki, assistant general manager of the Chicago Red Stars, is a native of Colorado and has played a major role in football at Smoky Hill High School and the University of Colorado. She played in the NWSL before moving to the front office. Lomnicki supports the idea of setting up an expansion team in her home state.
“This opportunity for Colorado always made me passionate at some point,” said Lomnicki, a four-year Buffs player (2005–08). “You need a group of owners who are fully invested and enthusiastic, who will keep knocking on the door and succeed.”
The Colorado Rapids MLS team could be the basis for an expansion. The new NWSL franchise, if owned by Stan Kroenke, has a football stadium at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. The venue is expected to sell out (18,000 people) on June 25 when the USWNT team plays a friendly against Colombia.
Kroenke – with an estimated net worth of $10.7 billion (according to Forbes) – Has the resources to add an NWSL team to your sports portfolio. But it’s not clear if he’s interested. Inquiries from Kroenke Sports and Entertainment about a possible NWSL expansion in Denver were not answered.
“We have all the sports teams and it’s a big sports city,” said Lorne Donaldson, executive director of coaching at Real Colorado Football Club in Douglas County. “This should have happened a long time ago. Football will definitely help. We all know that.”
Angel Football Club kicked off its inaugural 2022 season in Los Angeles, founded by actress Natalie Portman with significant investment from female sports stars such as Mia Hamm, Billie Jean King and Serena Williams. Denver may follow a similar model to attract NWSL investors. Who will rise?
“There is a huge market for club games there that could potentially be an outlet for professional football,” Lomnicki said. “We have a few (NWSL) players from Colorado which shows we are doing the right thing in the development state. I think the ability to bring in these players is also causing a lot of buzz from the fans.”
Birdsong, the former general manager of Xplosion, has witnessed a wave of change in women’s sports in the five decades since Title IX. But building a professional sports team in Colorado that can endure will require a major shift in the mindset of fans.
“People’s attitudes towards women’s sports still need to change,” Birdsong said. “They have to see that this is not a competition with men. This is an opportunity for women. It’s a fun game to watch.”