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Virginia Tech graduates are dedicated to building a brighter future for women’s soccer

Football LISTEN
FutboLISTAS, led by Founder and CEO Brittany Gropp ’11, is an after-school activity for Spanish girls aged 5-12 that teaches English and life skills through soccer and mentoring. Photo: Brittany Gropp.

Through Cory van Dyke

Countries from around the world will set their eyes on Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup at the end of November. 32 teams compete for first place in men’s football.

Despite this, the playing field for women’s football continues to grow. Two alumnae of what is now Virginia Tech’s School of Communication shoot at goal on their own to promote women’s football.

Brittany Gropp ’11 and Betsy Haugh ’16 score in unique ways when building the game.

Shaping the future with FutboLISTAS

Gropp has been a football fan for a long time. She grew up around the sport and claimed to keep up 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 alien to most in the area.

“Everyone thought it was so strange that I knew so much about football,” said Gropp. “They didn’t believe I could play well. I got laughed at when I asked if I could play co-ed. People thought it was so absurd for women to play with men.”

Still, Gropp loved the culture of Spain and eventually moved to Madrid for two years, where she taught English and volunteered to transition into the non-profit sector. It was there that the country’s women’s team took part in a World Cup for the first time in 2015. It opened many doors for Gropp to start planning the future of more girls playing soccer in Spain.

“I started planning the idea,” Gropp said. “I wanted to do something, not just because I love football, but because it’s totally unfair when we don’t let girls play. You learn so many valuable life skills through exercise. It prepares them to do whatever they want in life, whether they go pro or not.”

The seeds of FutboLISTAS have been planted. While still working for a non-profit organization in Washington, DC, Gropp began laying the groundwork for an after-school 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 considered moving back to the USA in search of career advancement opportunities. She decided to embark on the Camino de Santiago, a well-known network of ancient pilgrimage routes across Europe, and had her “aha” moment.

At the end of the pilgrimage it was clear that she did not have to leave Spain for the next step in her career. Her company FutboLISTAS became a reality and changed forever the personality development of girls in Spain.

“I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to give this nonprofit a chance,'” Gropp said. “I couldn’t imagine leaving [Spain] If I hadn’t at least given it a chance.”

Gropp found a local business partner to help navigate the bureaucracy and legalities. On the occasion of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, she launched a crowdfunding campaign. With a successful campaign, the first 10-week FutboLISTAS pilot program took place in 2019.

“There are so many other amazing skills that girls can and will learn if they get a chance to play,” Gropp said. “Every parent should want their daughter to play for these skills — leadership, teamwork, communication, perseverance — the list goes on and on.”

Also, learning English is valuable.

“For those parents who aren’t confident enough in how these life skills will help their daughters grow into incredible people, the English language in Spain is vast.” She said. “99 percent of school-age children under the age of 12 attend English-Spanish bilingual schools. Anyone who has tried learning a foreign language knows that learning that language is so much easier when you’re immersed in it and doing fun stuff than it is in a classroom reading a textbook.”

The benefits don’t stop there. In addition to teaching the girls the basics of soccer, Gropp invites working women, including engineers, sports reporters and neurologists, to inspire the girls to achieve their goals.

It is clear that FutboLISTAS is having a profound impact. In fact, FutboLISTAS was awarded the Best Entrepreneurship Award in 2022 by PYMES Magazine, a Spanish digital magazine that highlights small and medium-sized businesses and freelancers.

Gropp has used her skills as a graduate communications scientist to create a website for FutboLISTAS, write press releases, attract media attention and create marketing materials, among other things.

In the future, Gropp wants to expand the programs for girls between the ages of 13 and 18 so that they can focus more on career development. She is also looking for corporate sponsors who would like to get involved in her mission.

“We just had our best season yet,” said Gropp. “We had over 90 girls in the program and expanded here into two new parts of the city. There are currently many brands dedicated to women’s and girls’ football. This is our focus. We believe it is important to continue to grow at the pace we are growing, but in a way that is sustainable and keeps our mission at the core.”

Opening up opportunities for women in sport

Haugh always saw himself working in the sports industry. She spent much of her childhood running from field to field and even played college football at Marshall University while she was a student.

While completing her master’s degree in communications at Virginia Tech, Haugh placed all of her research focus in the context of sports, specifically looking at the social media interactions between sports organizations and fans. She learned about the data-driven decisions that dominate the sports business.

After graduating, Haugh found her place in minor league baseball and began as a media relations intern with the Danville Braves before rising to become general manager of the Pulaski Yankees.

Through connections and conversations over the years, Haugh made her next career move into the United Soccer League (USL) in 2021. She is now the director of the USL Super League, a women’s professional soccer league due to start in August 2023.

“During my time in baseball, almost every year I’ve had the opportunity to advance into a new role with additional responsibilities and learning opportunities,” Haugh said. “Coming here at USL allowed me to take those lessons from the club side and apply them at the league level, which has been very helpful in shaping our strategy and the way we interact with clubs.”

Haugh is heavily involved in the USL movement to advance women’s soccer in the United States. As director of the Super League, she also serves in a business strategy role for the entire women’s journey – 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 to women’s football,” said Haugh. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but a really exciting one.”

Virginia Tech midfielder and School of Communication graduate student Gabrielle Johnson competed in the inaugural season of the USL W League, playing for the Charlotte Independence.

“I’m very grateful to have played for the Charlotte Independence in the USL W League last summer,” Johnson said. “The W League is a wonderful opportunity for aspiring pro and current collegiate soccer players to compete at a high level and connect with the soccer community. As a women’s soccer player, it’s so encouraging to see the progress we’re making. And as a hokie, it’s even more exciting to see another hokie, Betsy, leading the charge.”

These expanded possibilities in sport are not just limited to the players. Haugh’s excitement comes from knowing that the USL’s commitment to women’s football offers more opportunities for women coaches, athletic trainers, referees and leaders.

“It’s a really incredible time to be a part of the women’s sports industry,” said Haugh. “Everyone is so energetic from women’s sport right now, especially women’s football. There are more opportunities for women to pursue a career in sport that they probably didn’t think were possible. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of my day-to-day work, which is to help create these opportunities.”

Haugh encourages more women to follow in her footsteps. She wants female students, especially those at Virginia Tech, to continue pursuing their dreams of a sports career despite it being a male-dominated industry.

“Just do it,” Haugh said. “Put your foot in the door to get this experience and start building your network. It’s all about how you believe in yourself and how you prepare.”

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