The Boston Breakers’ home in Somerville, Mass. is a ways away from the soccer pitches of England, where the sport is called football and its popularity borders on religious devotion. The country has thousands of football clubs and fans can’t get enough.
To hear Lee Billiard tell it, things aren’t all that different here in the culture of American women’s soccer and the team he runs as general manager, the Boston Breakers.
“That’s the way it is in England – your dad supported a team, his dad supported the team and that’s your team for life. That’s all you talk about with your friends,” said Billiard, 33, a native of western England.
“That’s what I’ve seen over the past 10 years here – 16-year-olds who used to come to Breakers games with their parents are now bringing their own sons and daughters to the games. Families are bringing their passion through the generations.”
It is Billiard’s own lifelong passion with the sport that brought him to the Breakers, where he started as sales director in 2011 before taking over as general manager last year.
At the age of 15, he left high school under a professional contract to play for Walsall Football Club. “Every young kid in England dreams of being a professional soccer player,” he said.
That dream was cut short when he was released from the club at age 18.
With a career on the pitch no longer an option, Billiard’s dream shifted. Instead, he went back to school with front office business in mind and eventually earned a degree in sports management and football studies from Buckinghamshire Chilterns University.
It’s a degree unlikely to be common in the university classrooms of Boston anytime soon. Lessons covered various aspects of running a professional soccer club, from how to serve as a club agent to the biomechanics of striking a soccer ball.
So with a degree in the country’s national sport, why leave the ubiquity of soccer fanaticism in England?
To explain, Billiard goes back to when he was 15. In school, he had to write down what he wanted to do when he grew up. He wrote he wanted to go to America and work in soccer.
“In England, soccer’s extremely popular and it is tough to get into,” he said for a phone interview with NWSL News. “But I knew the game was growing in Australia and America. I sleep, eat, breathe this sport and I have since I was very young. So I wanted to go somewhere where I could be part of helping it grow.”
He served for nine years as academy director for Mass Premier Soccer, a youth soccer program, before joining the Breakers.
The Breakers is the only franchise in the new National Women’s Soccer League that was part of the Women’s United Soccer Association, which was the first professional women’s soccer league in the world.
The Breakers came back with Women’s Professional Soccer again in 2009, and when NWSL kicks off in April, the Breakers will be the longest running franchise in the league.
Passion – which Billiard sees as a key ingredient in soccer culture – has been able to grow for women’s soccer in the Boston area since the WUSA started play in 2001.
“For the Breakers, we have fans renewing season tickets for this season that were purchasing tickets for the WUSA since day one. We’re building that passion and building a following. Families get attached to the team and they bring it to their sons of daughters. It grows.”
The next era for the Boston Breakers begins April 14, when the Breakers play their first NWSL match against Washington Spirit at home in Somerville, Mass.
When asked what he hopes to see from Breakers fans this first NWSL season, Billiard’s answer isn’t a surprise: “I want our fans to make sure they are buying tickets and bringing their families to games.”