Women’s soccer boom, version 2.0

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen people ask aloud whether the Women’s World Cup will boost WPS. My rote response on Twitter: WPS has its own issues that no goal in Moenchengladbach can solve.

Perhaps I should explain in more than 140 characters.

1. Big events usually don’t build leagues. The buzz always dies down quickly. The overly ambitious WUSA couldn’t build a sustainable league in the wake of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and MLS needed to survive many lean years through patient business planning. (Yes, a book on that subject exists.)

2. WPS has had the deck stacked against it. The league launched during a recession, which is obviously bad for sponsorship and attendance. The downsizing mainstream media wouldn’t touch it. AP ignored it. A small band of beat writers (Craig Stouffer, Jeff Di Veronica, William Bretherton and others I apologize for missing) got out and paid attention.

The good news was that a hardy band of indie media — Jenna Pel, Jeff Kassouf and Jennifer Doyle, along with ESPN’s Jacqueline Purdy and the enterprising staff of Our Game magazine — jumped into the vacuum and frankly everyone’s concepts of women’s soccer. (Suffice to say I’ll be reading a lot more of Jenna’s Frauen-Bundesliga notes this year after touring Germany and seeing the league’s players in action on several national teams.) They’ll be around whether WPS sticks around or not.

3. We don’t know yet whether magicJack owner Dan Borislow is saving or killing the league. Borislow bought the Washington Freedom, moved it to South Florida an renamed it after his company. For that, he can’t be faulted — plenty of people in the D.C. area have the money and the supposed interest in women’s soccer to have stepped up to the plate and kept the Freedom in place, and they did not do it.

Borislow and the Sahlen family, which moved its W-League team up into WPS as the Western New York Flash, kept the league at a viable six teams. They also showed the will to splash plenty of cash on players. The Sahlens signed Marta and a sizable chunk of the Canadian national team. Borislow literally has the spine of the U.S. team — Hope Solo, Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach.

The Flash settled neatly into WPS. Borislow, on the other hand, has been feuding with the league all season over everything from maintaining a Web site to putting up signage for sponsors. (He says he’s willing to do both but that the league makes it too expensive or too difficult.) He has been defiant through multiple fines and suspensions.

And magicJack has not been a typical pro team in many other senses. Coach Mike Lyons was reassigned after a couple of games, and the head coaching role has been assumed by a revolving cast of assistant coaches, players and Borislow himself. (Borislow already is the team’s PR contact, and it’s unclear whether Briana Scurry, the GM at the start of the season, is still playing much of a role.) Players have been only intermittently available to the media, and when you talk with them, they all give pat answers about how their owner is a sweet guy who just has his own way of doing things.

The cynics would say they don’t want to rock the boat when they have perks such as nice condos near the beach. Borislow has been quite willing to send players packing when they fall out of favor for whatever reason, but so far, no one has left the magicJack organization and vented about anything.

WPS has expansion prospects. But the questions are these:

- Will anyone be put off by an owner who has demonstrated such contempt for the league office?

- Will anyone be willing to spend the money to compete with someone who spends like the New York Yankees of WPS? Even in the middle of the season, magicJack simply bought Megan Rapinoe — yes, the Megan Rapinoe whose crosses in this World Cup have become the stuff of legend — from Philadelphia, which has been a viable contender this season.

- Will some owners prefer the business models in the W-League and the WPSL? The main drawback in those leagues is the schedule, which is far too short because of draconian restrictions on the college players who must fill out the talent pool. But a couple of teams have tested professional models in those leagues, and perhaps there would be enough to break away and play a season of a reasonable length. Even back in the mid-2000s, players like England’s Kelly Smith and France’s Marinette Pichon hung around in the States to give the W-League a whirl.

MLS succeeded by imposing a top-down single-entity structure with a salary cap, containing costs and putting all owners in the same economic boat. That might not work for women’s soccer — it only worked in MLS because Philip Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft stuck with it after everyone else bailed out.

No matter which leagues and teams survive the Darwinian battle of business models now underway, someone has to have the patience (and deep pockets) of Anschutz and the practicality of Hunt to make this work. They paved the way for sensible owners who have made soccer work in Seattle, Portland and even the long-derided Kansas City market. A few owners opening their wallets with starry eyes after another Wambach goal or Solo save in Germany won’t translate into a sustainable league.

All that said, as Pia Sundhage says in nearly every press conference, the glass is half-full. The USA has shown it can fall in love with women’s soccer more than once. The ratings for Sunday’s final may well beat the ratings for baseball’s All-Star Game.

And if that attracts a wave of patient, rational investors with reasonable expectations, pro women’s soccer will be here to stay.

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6 Responses to Women’s soccer boom, version 2.0

  1. StarCityFan says:

    I’m hoping the WWC will be enough to get people to at least try a WPS match or two (and according to Boston’s GM, this is already happening). Some of them are bound to like it enough to stick around.

    My primary hope, though, is that it will be enough to inspire some potential owners to get off the fence and start up a team. (Including someone in the DC area, please.) After all, the key isn’t the fans so much getting and maintaining people to underwrite teams.

  2. Terry Lash says:

    Unfortunately I doubt the success of the WWC will translate into better attendance at WPS games in the short run. On the other hand, USWNT games would see good attendance as a result of the team’s success in the WWC: think a German-USA game, for instance, in a major market.

    Borislow & Sahlen created the conditions for the current, third WPS season. But Borislow in particular does not seem to be laying the framework for the future. Will he continue to support a team next year given the extyremely low attendance at magicJack’s home games and the many negative comments about his unprofessional behavior? Is the team helping or hurting his business interests?

    It seems to me that more supporters of the women’s game need to make an investment for the long term. In addition to wealthy individuals MLS teams could sponsor WPS teams. Why isn’t there more of a push to get MLS teams behind the WPS. In the longer term I believe MLS would reap a return on such an investment.

  3. John Lockwood says:

    Fortunately for the WPS, the Women’s World Cup will undoubtedly have a boon on attendance–regardless of how the final turns out. For evidence, look no further than the players’ own twitter feeds: Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe went from having approximately 1,500 followers each, to over 10k+ overnight (Rapinoe, at last check, was steadily closing in on 20k–http://twitter.com/#!/mPinoe). This will inevitably push certain owners to accommodate larger audiences—else running the risk of turning away a significant amount of their primary source of revenue.

    Unfortunately for the WPS, a surge of support from the WWC is hardly a solution to the deeply flawed issues plaguing the league. Luckily, and unfortunately, for the WPS, one of the league’s biggest issues–trying to sustain a bi-coastal league (and the exorbitant costs associated with it)–was resolved by the market (i.e., the teams folded), significantly cutting the WPS’ costs in the 2011 season. While the entrance of Sahlen and Borislow seemed a saving grace for a league on the verge of collapse, the latter has proven to be incorrigible: running his team of world class talent as if an amateur club side, and thus earning the ire of a league desperate to be viewed as professional, and treating his team more like a billionaire’s charity than a sustainable enterprise. Although Sahlen’s contributions have been far more beneficial to the league as a whole, the fact remains that dependency on any mogul, hot dog or telecom or any kind, is a flawed long-term solution.

    Now, despite flawed regulatory measures and weak franchising governance, the league’s biggest set-back so far has been its relative short-sightedness with regards to a revenue-sharing scheme. As it stands, there is no revenue sharing process in the league and no luxury tax (although that would actually hurt rather than help the league at this point). What the WPS ought to do (read: needs to do) is institute a tax on player salaries, allowing Sahlen to purchase Marta for $400,000 a year and Borislow to outright buy Rapinoe from Philadelphia for $100k, but at expense of returning a share of the money-spent back into the league. Without it, the temporary fix of billionaire moguls spending widely on the best players will ultimately hurt the league by thinning out talent on the other four teams. And, to state the obvious, an uncompetitive team is the last thing a club struggling to sell tickets needs.

    Terry, you hit the nail on the head: No professional team can be successful without the sustained and long-term commitment and support of the community, MLS and the team’s city. In the case of the MLS, their commitment may be a few years off as although the recent success has brought the league more attention, it is slightly unrealistic to expect these teams to invest in a league that could possibly (although I doubt it, they probably have this view) compete with their market-share. What the WPS should have had the foresight to do was to gain buy-in from the cities in which the team’s play, to gain a long-term commitment to support the team into the future. Poor stadium locations, lack of commercially-viable facilities, and dependency on walk-up ticket sales have been issues which have both hurt the financial viability of teams as well as undermined the WPS’ appearance as a “professional league.” What the WPS should have done was follow a model for the teams analogous to Mandalay Entertainment’s (owner of several minor league baseball teams in U.S.) model for their professional franchises. (There was a great article in the New York Times profiling Mandalay’s model of success recently. The article can be viewed here.) Or else just revert back to a semi-pro league a la the WPSL or W-League, in which case we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    Of course, without the support of the community—the teams’ fan-base—all of this is moot. But I have a feeling that the fans will fill the stands for the remainder of the 2011 season, and force the WPS to rethink their strategy going forward.

    Sorry for the lack of brevity, it needed to be said.

    -John

  4. arnim says:

    won’t spend as long on this as i should but, as long as the spending in WPS looks irrational (magicjack salaries, workers comp, etc, etc.) what rational investors will invest? There is always a chance that a string of ‘irrational’ spending can keep it alive, but until there is a sustainable, rational business plan for a team its just a charity or hobby. Playing in other leagues (W-league, WPSL) the teams can construct truly rational sustainable models, fans can’t be jerked around. So sustainability is the real key. WPS moving to sustainability model is essential or strapping other WPS qualities to the other leagues will work just fine if it has to.

  5. Pingback: Women’s World Cup: Small step for Japan, giant leap for women’s soccer

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