You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one – John Lennon
I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute. – Rebecca West
I had been planning to write about the underlying business-model dispute in WPS today, and then I saw that Fake Sigi had already chimed in on the topic of marketing WPS as a “cause.”
I’ve said before that there are plenty of reasons to own a sports team or invest in it. You could argue that Barcelona is a “cause,” and it’s sometimes hard to tell if that cause it the “more than a club” philosophy or Keynesian theory on economic debt. (Yes, econ nerds, I know I’m oversimplifying. Bear with me here.)
What we saw in 2011 wasn’t so much “cause” marketing as a different type of ownership. Dan Borislow and Joe Sahlen differ on a few things, but they had some similarities. They were willing to spend money on talent. And their teams were, in part, outlets of their brands. Borislow named the team after his product; Sahlen bought heavily as a league sponsor with naming rights on their stadium.
So when we ask why Abby Wambach has sworn allegiance to Borislow or why other national team players haven’t spoken up about the current legal mess or Ella Masar’s incendiary blog post, are we really asking what these players believe is possible in WPS?
That idea, beyond anything Borislow has done, is seductive. Just find enough wealthy people who are willing to spend money with little in return — at least for now — and you have a league of people enjoying competitive play and relative comfort between World Cup/Olympic cycles.
The question those investors might ask: How long am I expected to lose money, and how much? Anschutz and company sank tens of millions into MLS, but even with their accounting as private as it is, you have to figure they’ve earned a good bit back by selling a lot of teams as their value was soaring.
And future owners likely will need to spend more on a front office staff and other ancillaries than Borislow has. Critique the league’s front office all you want, but the fact is that magicJack benefited a great deal from having an infrastructure in place and from other teams’ marketing efforts. Abby Wambach would’ve drawn just as many fans to her hometown of Rochester if she had been playing for the Washington Freedom or Atlanta Beat or Chicago Red Stars as she did playing for magicJack.
The league also had smartly reached out through social media, a byproduct of the great decision to bring in Amanda Vandervort. The players’ Twitter presences exploded after the World Cup, but you can thank the league’s former management for building up the efforts on that front.
Now a lot of that infrastructure has been depleted by budget cuts. It’s not exactly going to build up during a season with no games and a lot of legal fees.
So when Wambach goes to Kansas City and speaks to a crowd larger than the announced attendance at many magicJack games, then says the league needs a bunch of positivity and wealthy people, is she dreaming?
Signs point to yes. The Washington Freedom, which once boasted Wambach, Japan’s Homare Sawa and France’s Sonia Bompastor, had to move because they didn’t find anyone willing to do what Borislow did. Not even in the wealthy enclaves of McLean and Bethesda, where the Freedom had done outreach for years with the powerful youth soccer clubs. If you can’t get some D.C.-area tech entrepreneur or Capital One executive to gamble a few million on a pro team that would provide coaches and inspiration for a couple of youth juggernauts, what are the odds of finding someone elsewhere?
And Wambach’s plea for unity may come across as a little tone-deaf. Fans are in an uproar: See StarCityFan2’s comment here saying she didn’t seem to care how her teammates were treated. And league backers could respond to her “can’t build something from negativity” comment by asking, “Wait a minute — who’s suing whom here?”
But should we question Wambach’s desire to dream of a time in which WPS gets such backing? Is it really wrong to hope that some combination of Nike, Ellen DeGeneres and some youth soccer phenom-turned-tech CEO will swoop in to build a better league? Do we have to go to Peter Wilt’s souped-up semipro model already?
Perhaps not. But the question in the meantime is how you keep today’s arguments from sweeping away the platform from which tomorrow’s soccer can be launched.