Alumnae take aim at building a brighter future for women’s soccer
Countries from around the world will turn their eyes to Qatar in late November for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Thirty-two teams will compete to be crowned the top of the class in men’s soccer.
Even so, the playing field for women’s soccer continues to grow. Two alumnae of what is now the School of Communication at Virginia Tech are taking their own shots at goal with a mission to grow the women’s game.
Brittany Gropp '11 and Betsy Haugh '16 are scoring at building the game in unique ways.
Forming a future with FutboLISTAS
Gropp long has been a soccer fan. She grew up playing the sport competitively, claiming to hang with the best of them. While studying abroad in Malaga, Spain, in 2010, Gropp was shocked to learn that the idea of a girl playing soccer was foreign to most in the area.
“Everyone thought it was so strange that I knew so much about soccer,” Gropp said. “They didn’t believe that I knew how to play well. I was laughed at when I asked about playing co-ed. People thought it was so absurd that women would play with men.”
Still, Gropp loved the culture of Spain and eventually moved to Madrid for two years, where she taught English and participated in volunteer work to transition into the nonprofit sector. While there, the country’s women’s team competed in the World Cup for the first time in 2015. It opened a lot of doors for Gropp to begin planning the future of more girls playing soccer in Spain.
“I started planning the idea,” Gropp said. “I wanted to do something, not only because I love soccer, but because it’s a total injustice if we’re not allowing girls to play. You’re learning so many valuable life skills through the sport. It prepares them to do whatever they want to do in life, whether they go pro or not.”
The seeds of FutboLISTAS were planted. While still working for a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., Gropp started building the foundations of an extracurricular activity for Spanish girls ages 5 to 12 that would teach English and life skills through the game of soccer.
In the summer of 2018, Gropp found herself considering a move back to the U.S. in search of career advancement opportunities. She decided to embark on the Camino de Santiago, a renowned network of ancient pilgrim routes across Europe, and had her "aha" moment.
At the conclusion of the pilgrimage, it was clear that she didn’t need to leave Spain for her next career move. Her business venture, FutboLISTAS, became a reality, forever changing the trajectory of girls’ personal development in Spain.
“I was like, ‘You know what. I’m going to give this nonprofit a try,’” Gropp said. “I couldn’t see myself leaving [Spain] if I didn’t at least give it a chance.”
Gropp found a local business partner to navigate the bureaucracy and legalities. She launched a crowdfunding campaign in concert with the 2019 Women’s World Cup. With a successful campaign, FutboLISTAS’ first 10-week pilot program took place in 2019.
“There are so many other amazing skills that girls can and will learn if given a chance to play,” Gropp said. “Every parent should want their daughter to play because of these skills — leadership, teamwork, communication, perseverance - the list goes on and on.”
Plus, learning English is valuable.
“For those parents who aren’t convinced enough about how those life skills will help their daughters to develop into incredible humans, in Spain, the English language is huge.” she said. “School age kids under 12, 99 percent of them are in English-Spanish bilingual schools. Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows it’s so much easier to learn that language when you’re immersed in it and doing fun stuff versus in a classroom reading a textbook.”
The benefits don’t stop there. In addition to teaching the girls the basics of soccer, Gropp also invites professional women, including engineers, sports reporters, and neurologists, to inspire the girls to reach for their goals.
It’s clear FutboLISTAS is making a profound impact. In fact, FutboLISTAS was given the award for the Best Entrepreneurial Initiative in 2022 from PYMES Magazine, a Spanish digital magazine that highlights small- and medium-sized enterprises and freelancers.
Gropp has used her skills as a communication graduate to build a website for FutboLISTAS, write press releases, attract media attention, and create marketing materials, among other responsibilities.
In the future, Gropp wants to expand the programs for 13 -to 18-year-old girls so they can focus more on career development. She’s also looking for corporate sponsors who want to partner with her mission.
“We just had our biggest season yet,” Gropp said. “We had over 90 girls in the program and expanded to two new neighborhoods here. There’s a lot of brands right now that are paying attention to women’s and girl’s soccer. That’s our focus. We feel it’s important to keep growing at the pace we’re growing, but in a way that is sustainable and keeps our mission front and center.”
Opening opportunities for women in sports
Haugh always saw herself working in the sports industry. Much of her childhood was spent running from one field to the next, and she even played soccer collegiately at Marshall University during her undergraduate years.
While completing her master’s degree in communication at Virginia Tech, Haugh put all of her research focus into the context of sports, specifically looking at social media interactions between sports organizations and fans. She learned the data-driven decisions that have come to dominate the sports business.
After graduation, Haugh found her place in Minor League Baseball, beginning as a media relations intern for the Danville Braves before advancing to general manager of the Pulaski Yankees.
Through connections and conversations over the years, Haugh made her next career move to the United Soccer League (USL) in 2021. She’s now the director of the USL Super League, a professional women’s soccer league set to kickoff in August 2023.
“During my time in baseball, I was able to ascend into a new role pretty much every year with additional responsibilities and opportunities to learn,” Haugh said. “When I came over here to the USL, I was able to take those lessons from the club side and apply them at the league level, which has been really helpful in shaping our strategy and the way we interact with clubs.”
Haugh is keenly involved in the USL’s movement to advance women’s soccer in the United States. As director of the Super League, she’s also in a business strategy role for the entire women’s pathway — the academy structure for youth into the USL W League, a pre-professional women’s soccer league that had its inaugural season in 2022.
“The position has continued to grow and evolve, as has the company’s commitment into the women’s game,” Haugh said. “It’s been a rollercoaster, but a really exciting one.”
Virginia Tech midfielder and School of Communication master’s student Gabrielle Johnson competed in the USL W League’s inaugural season, playing for the Charlotte Independence.
“I am extremely thankful to have played in the USL W League this past summer for the Charlotte Independence,” Johnson said. “The W League is a wonderful opportunity for rising professional and current collegiate female soccer players to compete at a high level and connect with the soccer community. As a women’s soccer player, it is so encouraging to see the progress we are making. And as a Hokie, it’s even more exciting to see another Hokie, Betsy, leading the charge.”
These expanded opportunities in the sport aren’t just limited to the players. Haugh’s excitement comes from knowing that the USL’s commitment to women’s soccer provides more chances for women coaches, athletic trainers, referees, and executives.
“It’s a truly incredible time to be a part of the women’s sport industry,” Haugh said. “Everybody is so energized by women’s sports right now, especially in women’s soccer. There’s more opportunities for women to make a career in sports in ways that they probably didn’t think was possible. That’s one of the most exciting parts about what I do day in and day out is getting to help create those opportunities.”
Haugh is encouraging more women to follow in her footsteps. She wants female students, especially those at Virginia Tech, to continue reaching for their dreams of a sports career, despite it being a male-dominated industry.
“Just go for it,” Haugh said. “Get your foot in the door to begin getting that experience and begin building your network. It’s all about the ways in which you believe in and prepare yourself.”
Written by Cory Van Dyke