Among all the rumblings in the soccer community that the NWSL marketing contains a sense of entitlement and is coming over as arrogant, comes a localized controversy which in the eyes of some, is sending out the wrong message about women’s football.
Eight clubs are set to take the field in the new league which has the backing of US Soccer, the Canadian Soccer Association and the FMF (Federación Mexicana de Fútbol).
The Portland franchise named its club the Portland Thorns to a general acclaim that the name had been well chosen, given the city’s nickname as ‘the Rose City’.
The Thorns franchise is owned by Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson and has seemingly hired the entire executive and marketing staff as the MLS Timbers in an eerie recurrence of 2008, when Seattle Seahawks staff mysteriously appeared in every available post at Sounders FC.
That perhaps would be less of note as events in Seattle as one may think women’s soccer is more similar to men’s soccer than NFL is to Major League Soccer.
However the ire of some in Portland has been raised by the merchandising of t-shirts for the NWSL club with the logo ‘Feelin Thorny?’ which some are considering to be sexist.
A Facebook Page has been set up by fans who object and wish to have the product discontinued.
One poster on that page Catherine Hartman Watts considers it inappropriate for the Front Office to be conjuring the imagery:
“It is one thing for the supporters groups to have a laugh and create something like this. Entirely another for a professional organization to do it.”
Another poster, Courtney Berry juxtaposes whether the Timbers would equally sexualise their male athletes:
“What makes you think that producing a t-shirt with the phrase “Feeling Thorny?” is a good idea? Why the need to sexualize merchandise for a women’s sport, or any sport for that matter?
It’s as tasteless as selling a shirt at Timbers games that says “Got wood?” This is such a disappointment and missed opportunity to promote the strength and ability of these women. I hope you’ll reconsider the design and replace it with something more empowering and tactful.”
Another poster on that page, Jodi Burckhart, was not too aggravated about the matter until Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson took to twitter but did not defend the t-shirts, opting instead to attack the protestors.
“Wasn’t actually super aggravated until I read MP’s Twitter feed regarding this. Just silly that instead of taking a few minutes and considering that someone else’s opinions might have validity even though different from his own, he immediately becomes defensive and dismissive. Now I have to write a letter. *sigh*”
The tweet that annoyed Ms Burckhart read:
“not worth engaing with someone who thinks a t-shirt is a statement. my statement on women’s sports was launching the Thorns”
Paulson did invest heavily in the franchise and may feel that his money has made the statement of support for the women’s game. To also be fair, he’s certainly posted more dismissive tweets at Timbers fans in the past.
He also responded to one fan by recommending she wear an equivalent t-shirt during a Timbers game:
“and you can wear a “got wood?” shirt if you’d like for your PTFC capo’ing. coming soon ”
adding in another tweet:
“I was unaware we have such prudes for supporters.”
It is not just female Timbers fans who are unhappy. A male Timbers fans messaging Paulson on Twitter wrote:
By having that in thornsfc store, you’re saying you’re happy with tits & ass being draw for your fanbase.
The bone of contention appears to be that the word thorny rhymes with horny and sexualises the product in an environment where a predominantly male controlled sports media often considers more than the sporting ability of female athletes in their coverage.
Although the issue may be localised here, it is not the first time that male attitudes to female football players has caused offence.
In 2004 FIFA President Sepp Blatter recommended that female players wear tighter and skimpier outfits to increase interest in the sport, remarks which were described by England and Charlton goalkeeper Pauline Cope as “typical of a bloke”.
The Discontinue Portland Thorns “Feelin’ Thorny?” Merchandise Facebook Group page began at just 3pm on Thursday and so far has accrued 35 Facebook likes in its first two hours, but these matters have a habit of reaching large numbers of people virally at great speed.
Paulson has also pointed out that the idea ‘came from prominent female staff member of the Thorns’ in another tweet.
A club press release this evening made no mention of the controversy but pointed out that Portland Thorns FC and Girls, Inc. joined forces recently to help celebrate International Women’s Day.
Portland Thorns add Girls, Inc. to the team at Power of the Purse event (Portland Timbers website)
Bring Back the Feelin’ Thorny T-shirts (Facebook Page)