Gender equity becomes a flashpoint in council’s MLS discussion

Jackie Acevedo Pope stood in front of the Austin City Council on Thursday evening and articulated the benefits a Major League Soccer franchise could bring for soccer-playing girls and women in Central Texas.

Precourt Sports Ventures “will support Lonestar girls developmental academy,” said Pope, a coach at youth soccer behemoth Lonestar Soccer Club who grew up in the Texas capital and played professionally in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“Without a stadium deal in Austin there is no MLS team. And without an MLS team there is a smaller chance of an NWSL team and a girls pro academy.”

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It was seemingly a positive start to a conversation that quickly turned combative. On the topic of gender equity, the owners of the MLS team seeking to build a stadium on city-owned land in North Austin had some explaining to do. PSV has been exploring a move of Columbus Crew SC to Austin since October.

The term sheet that the council was considering — and will now vote on Wednesday — has a list of community benefits. One of them is a player development academy exclusively for boys, valued at $36 million over 20 years.

“Thank you for bringing it to our attention, because frankly we didn’t even think about it,” said Precourt lobbyist Richard Suttle, responding to concerns voiced by several council members Thursday.

Suttle suggested that the academy — a league requirement — be removed from the community benefits. But the damage had already been done.

“Quite frankly, I think the problem was in the way that you presented it,” said Mayor Steve Adler, the most vocal supporter of the stadium deal. “You presented it as a community benefit when a development academy is required of you by Major League Soccer. It’s true that provides a considerable benefit to the community. … The problem is that it’s part of being an (MLS) team.”

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PSV has agreed to fund elite girls programs in the city, along with its own development academy, and put millions of dollars into youth clinics, camps, scholarships and equipment donations.

On Thursday, Lonestar SC President Buck Baccus disclosed that the club — the designated U.S. Soccer Development Academy for boys and girls in the region — had signed an agreement with PSV.

Under the agreement, PSV would pump funds into the Lonestar academies, its initiative to grow soccer in East Austin and its Women’s Professional Soccer League pro-am team. Those funds would go toward scholarships, travel fees, equipment and other expenses. Baccus said yearly fees for players in its academies reach as high as $2,600.

Baccus did not go into specifics about how much money PSV had committed. Asked if it solved the gender equity issues for elite players, Baccus told the American-Statesman, “For us it does.”

Danny Woodfill, the general manager of FC Austin Elite, a pro-am team in United Women’s Soccer, also spoke on the gender equity issue to the City Council.

“In this deal, we need a place to play soccer,” he said. “We don’t need a new girls soccer academy. We don’t need a new girls soccer team.”

Suttle said that PSV was in the beginning stages of conducting a feasibility study about bringing a team in the NWSL, the top women’s league in the U.S., to Austin if it is able to secure the stadium deal and relocate Columbus Crew SC.

Still, several council members appeared less than impressed with the tone of the conversation.

“We have a responsibility as women elected leaders to do what we can, when it’s appropriate, to address inequities,” said Ann Kitchen, one of seven women on the 11-member council.

If the MLS team does come to Austin, it will provide a direct path for local boys to work their way onto the roster. The same cannot be said for girls.

“I don’t know what your deal is with Mr. Baccus, but I’d be willing to bet it’s not $37 million,” Adler said.

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