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.