In 2007, Alyse LaHue graduated from St. Ambrose University and set out to start a career in one of the worst job markets in a very long time. Even more challenging, her dream was to work in women’s professional soccer.
LaHue decided it was best to take some risks. First, she would offer to work for free, despite having a Master of Business Administration degree. Second, when she met Red Stars General Manager Marcia McDermott for the first time, she would be very honest.
“She asked me what my goals were and I said, ‘I want to be a GM,’ ” LaHue said.
Call it luck that McDermott was receptive to LaHue’s boldness. LaHue would take over as Red Stars GM in time to see the team be a founding member of the National Women’s Soccer League, set to begin this spring.
But first, LaHue would intern with the Red Stars for three months – before the team even had a name. Then she would be one of the first staffers hired in 2008. And McDermott primed LaHue for the future, making sure she gained work experience throughout the organization.
“She took me seriously when I said I wanted to be a general manager,” said LaHue, an Iowa native. “Part of that was being very lucky, but then I worked as hard I could in every department to learn as much as I could.”
As it happens, that’s exactly what the Red Stars need out of a GM. Learning from the lessons of the Women’s United Soccer Association, which folded in 2003, and Women’s Professional Soccer, which suspended operations early last year, the NWSL is starting smaller than its predecessors.
It’s a smaller budget, a smaller staff and a bigger job for LaHue, who spoke to NWSL News for an interview last week. LaHue, 31, and owner Arnim Whisler pitch in on ticket sales, merchandising, player scouting, social media, setting up venues – everything it takes to run a professional soccer club.
“From my perspective, I have to be very on-the-ground, just because of our limitations and the amount of staff we can hire early on,” LaHue said.
LaHue is, of course, referring to the NWSL’s inaugural season. The Red Stars will be one of the most established teams to be part of the new league, having been founded in 2008 for WPS’ inaugural season the following year.
Talk from the players and coaches about the new league reflects a cautious optimism that perhaps this time around a professional women’s soccer league will thrive and things will be different.
LaHue insists it’s not all talk.
“It’s not that it will be different,” she said. “It’s that it actually is different.”
The soccer federations for the U.S., Mexico and Canada are providing salaries for national team players from their respective countries. U.S. Soccer, which is overseeing league operations, is keeping a keen eye toward leanness and sustainability, with such measures as a tight salary cap.
“The league has put in a lot of functions that, at times, may feel frustrating,” LaHue said. “But when you step back and look at the bigger picture, we understand it’s important for the longevity of the league. U.S. Soccer’s involvement at the league level is to help keep budgeting under control.”
The key challenge for GMs, then, is building a team that can both win a championship and attract fans to games.
Just months into NWSL’s existence, the Red Stars faced their first public setback – U.S. Women’s National Team defender Amy LePeilbet would need surgery for a worsening knee injury and could not play in the inaugural season.
The Red Stars have vowed to support LePeilbet and look for the gold medalist to return in 2014. LePeilbet, who will begin post-surgery physical therapy soon, will still be available to the team for marketing and support in the Chicago area, LaHue said.
The league gave Chicago an extra free agent slot, and LaHue is confident the team has filled in the gaps to build a solid foundation – especially in light of speculation that followed the national team player allocations distributed by the NWSL.
“I think people were early to jump the gun and start ranking teams and say who will win the championship based on the allocation,” LaHue said. “After multiple drafts and free agency, now we’re getting a bigger picture of how teams are coming together and I think perceptions may have changed.”
No matter what happens on the field, it appears LaHue has her work cut out for her. Game attendance will be an important driver for the team and the league.
Circumstances look favorable. The U.S. Women’s National Team is filling stadiums with more people and more consistency than ever before. But for women’s soccer to have a place in the U.S. on a professional level, LaHue is just as honest with fans as she was with McDermott in 2008: “Put your money where your mouth is,” she said.
“Come to the games and buy a ticket. If you can’t do that, volunteer time,” she said. “Not everybody has the money to purchase tickets, that’s totally understandable. But if you have a team in your market, every team needs game day volunteers and interns.”
There just might be another GM in the making.