Women's sport needs to rise like Phoenix
A recent trip to a basketball game in Wisconsin left Dean Goodison with a tinge of sadness in relation to how some women's sporting bodies in Ireland promote their products to the public
I sit here in this darkened Aer Lingus cabin, disobeying the red-eyed tendencies of the transAtlantic night flight. I'm on my way home from a trip to Wisconsin; I've done the jaunt before but this was a little different.
I've seen the Green Bay Packers play about a dozen times now - people might spot me sporting the green and gold bobble hat around the county. It's something I really enjoy at the end of a long season here, as it's nice to put the notebook down for a game or two and just watch.
American football has been moving up my list of preferred sports since the turn of the century and there was immediately something about the homely, small-town Packers that drew me in. I won't go into it but their history is worth a Google.
As sportswriters we have a responsibility to withdraw ourselves from the role of fan and report in a professional, unbiased manner. I personally think this newspaper has done a fantastic job of that over the years.
But following the Packers has allowed me to be a fan again, which is nice. What I didn't expect was to gain an affinity for the area. I guess holidays are about getting out of your comfort zone but Wisconsin is comfortable for me and I'm really not a leap into the unknown kind of person.
My affinity got me into researching the other teams in the area. I've been trying to squeeze in a Green Bay Gamblers game for a couple of years but the scheduled just hasn't fallen right. They play ice hockey in the United States Hockey League, just below the NHL.
While the Gamblers door remained shut for me, I had noticed the recent success of the Green Bay Phoenix, both in men's and women's basketball. The local college is an offshoot of the University of Wisconsin. It's a mid-major school, paling in comparison, size-wise, to the big powerhouse programmes.
As it happened, two home games for the women's team fell perfectly for me. As some of you readers will know, I have massively enjoyed covering women's sport in this county for the last number of years; be it camogie, football or soccer, it's been a pleasure.
My history covering the county teams, and Wexford Youths women, added a real intrigue when it came to the Phoenix. Turning up at the Kress Center, on the UWGB (University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) campus, I didn't know what to expect. I guessed it would be mostly students in attendance, but I was badly wrong.
I did a little research on the numbers, just under two thousand for their first home game of the regular season. Impressive. Green Bay had started the season in fine fettle and already had two wins under their belts before they made light work of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in that first game.
The Phoenix and I went our separate ways. After watching them fall badly at home to Baltimore, I headed east to Pittsburgh to watch the Packers lose a heartbreaker against the Steelers.
The Phoenix went to Cancun in Mexico for a Thanksgiving mini-tournament. They beat a ranked opponent in Arizona State but lost to number seven in the country Mississippi State (at the time of writing, their only loss this season).
We crossed paths again in the Kress Center with the Phoenix facing number 23-ranked Marquette. Green Bay led all the way, won and jumped into the Associated Press Top 25 in the country, displacing their opponents at 23. Admittedly, I'm not a huge basketball fan but it was thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.
In front of 2,865 fans, Jessica Lindstrom provided no-frills leadership, Jen Wellnitz flew around the court making plays, Laken James sprung from the bench to put in a serious shift, Karly Murphy played with the exuberance and fearlessness of youth, and Allie LeClaire was everything a hometown heroine should be.
While spellbound by the show, on and off the court, it was impossible not to be sprayed with a tinge of sadness. Those girls mentioned above are instantly recognisable, mini-stars around the Kress Center - the Packers players like and favourite their tweets and Instagram posts.
For every Lindstrom, Wellnitz, James, Murphy or LeClaire there is a Linda Douglas, a Kylie Murphy, an Emma Hansberry, an Orla Casey or a Rianna Jarrett.
But the system is flawed here; there's no 2,865 people in Ferrycarrig Park. The league title decider, a huge game, didn't even get close to a thousand and some were happy with that. How? Why?
Let's not kid ourselves, the FAI have very little interest in the WNL. The website is updated when they can be bothered, the input of wrong results leading to incorrect tables published on the official site for weeks on end. It's a complete embarrassment but it's replicated at the bottom too.
Ferrycarrig Park is as uninviting an environment as you'll find. It's a miserable, cold place that makes it impossible for casual observers to enjoy a game. A warm welcome? Forget about that, it's not warm because everyone is going through the motions.
A muffled tannoy and no sense of occasion. It's the clubs, as much as the FAI, that need to up their game. The amount of back-slapping around the league means someone is surely going to end up with a broken rib sooner or later - a few tweets seems to be enough publicity for most clubs.
Back in Green Bay, this college team is on TV, their games are available to watch online too, there is a running commentary of every play linked to their website, constantly updating scores and stats. If you are not there you can still know exactly what's going on.
At the Kress Center you park and walk inside the building, you are greeted by a line of ticket booths. You immediately see the court to your left. Students man the doors and scan the barcodes on the tickets.
You are then greeted by a impressive selection of merchandise, jerseys, hoodies, tracksuit bottoms, hats, foam fingers, travel mugs and more. Everything branded.
When you leave the shop the man selling the game day scorecard passes you his wares for a dollar (actual card, not paper). On one side is handy tidbits of information, a place to keep score and stats for the game, information on the players etc. On the colour side is a large poster of a player in full kit (LeClaire graced the Jackrabbits card, Lindstrom the Marquette equivalent).
You go to your seat, numbered clearly of course. Even half an hour before the game there are things happening.
A couple of girls bob around the crowd and look for participants to take part in the several games that take place during breaks, a chance to win prizes but more importantly a great way to get the audience involved.
The band stationed behind the basket at the entrance side of the 4,018-seat Kress Center are cranking up their tunes, already making the atmosphere electric as the players warm up on the court.
The cheerleaders move through the gears with each lift delving deep into their practice hours as they edge closer to perfection. They'll take their show to Lambeau Field the following day as the Packers are one of six NFL teams without professional cheer squads.
The crowd seep in and the make-up is a little surprising. Very few are current students in UWGB, a few high school teams from around the state are dotted around and easily spotted.
Otherwise, the vast majority of the almost 3,000-strong crowd are over 50 years of age - a group ignored when attempting any wayward promotion of a sport in Ireland.
They are into it too, this is local pride, it might be a college team but it's their college team. The national anthem almost bursts through the ceiling as the Phoenix girls lock arms. When it starts, the action is quick.
Occasionally there's a chance to catch coach Borseth calling in the plays; he looks a little like Monty Burns confusing Homer with signals in The Simpsons episode 'Homer at the Bat'.
When the action stops, media time-outs (for TV breaks) are filled with the games and contests prepared before any ball is thrown at the basket in anger. But watching the bench is at least as interesting as what's going on. The two hours from tip-off to game's end motor by in a haze of exciting action and all-inclusive activity.
The whole package was superb, from start to the end. I'm sure everything doesn't always go as planned but it looks pretty polished as an outsider. This is a college team, drawing huge crowds in the 286th biggest city in America, just behind Hillsboro, and ahead of Tyler, Texas.
The fact is, Wexford against Tipperary in the ladies' football quarter-final was exceptional fare, while Wexford Youths against Peamount in the Continental Tyres WNL title decider was nail-biting, crazy tension with real excitement. Too many people didn't see those games, weren't enticed in.
Let's not pretend any different; the product is not the problem, in any way, shape or form, the problem is those tasked with promoting the product. They are falling so far short of acceptable it's depressing, and the saddest part is that there seems no way out of this spiral of mediocrity.
Money is often blamed but is money really the problem? The Camogie Association has multiple full-time staff, can afford to send most of them off on an All Star holiday to Spain, but can't have an All-Ireland fixture confirmed for local newspapers six days before it's scheduled to take place.
Basketball fans have been drawn to the Green Bay Phoenix because the package is first class all the time, not just for a day here and there, when the occasion is deemed to merit it.
Until the whole offering closes in on what's offered Stateside, women's sport in this county and country is going nowhere, no matter how many hollow pats on the back there are to go around.