This week, I participated in a roundtable discussion (sort of — we didn’t see anyone else’s answers until today) on WPS’s demise, and Julie Foudy sent us scrambling down Memory Lane with an espnW column about the next steps in pro women’s soccer.
Taking the roundtable first: It’s a little humbling to answer a question and then have someone closer to the situation give a diametrically opposite answer. That’s what happened when I was asked about the effect the WPS’s folding will have on youth soccer. I said none. Melissa Henderson, who actually plays, said millions of little girls will have their dreams crushed.
In the tangible sense, I’m right. Millions of girls play soccer, and even if WPS had eight healthy teams, only a couple hundred of them would be playing in the league. In WPS’s last season, I think the league had fewer American pro players than my local club had at the U8 level. Thousands of women are currently in college on at least a partial scholarship; maybe 100 have any reasonable hope of getting paid to play anywhere. Generally, kids aren’t playing sports or participating in activities in the hopes of going pro. I never thought of being a professional piano player, even though I nearly wound up a professional music-type person. (My college music department loved me for reasons I can’t fully explain.) My elementary school’s chess club isn’t full of people hoping to be the next Nakamura — I doubt they even know who he is.
But in the intangible sense, Melissa’s right. Seeing women playing pro soccer gives a sense that anything’s possible. Losing that is a disappointment.
Over to Foudy’s piece: There is a small contingent of keyboard warriors (that’s the MMA term for guys who act tough behind their computer keyboards) who will never forgive Foudy for comments they’re not even sure she actually made back in 1999 at the height of Women’s World Cup mania. Let’s ignore that and focus on actual facts.
But there were some conflicts between the women’s stars and the U.S. Soccer establishment at that time. And that’s led to some interesting historical research in some quarters of the Web.
Summing up, randomly:
2. MLS’s Mark Abbott, the key man behind the single-entity structure and other aspects of MLS’s ultimately successful business plan, helped draw up a business plan for the WUSA, which the investors rejected. (Also interesting in that story: WUSA appealed to Phil Anschutz, who at the time owned several MLS teams, before it closed up shop in 2003. If only we could interview the famously reclusive Anschutz to ask why he said no.)
3. MLS made a late bid of its own to counter the eventual WUSA proposal, though details were sketchy. You can see the reaction here.
4. Women’s players had two reasons not to go with MLS at the time. First, they had a fresh dispute with USSF. Second, MLS was far from the juggernaut it is today. You might be able to dispute Point A. If you want to dispute Point B, talk to the lawyers who spent 2000 arguing for the league’s life in court or talk to your local Tampa Bay Mutiny fan.
All of this came about in the context of where women’s soccer goes from here. Foudy’s column suggested that MLS involvement would make more sense today than it would have in 1999.
Hard to see why that’s a controversial point. The disputes between the women’s national team and U.S. Soccer are largely a thing of the past. And MLS has come a long, long way from contracting two teams in 2001.
And yet, MLS and its teams have a right to be wary. They’re still not swimming in profit. A women’s league could be done cheaply — you could fund several good teams just on David Beckham’s salary — but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good investment.
That leads to one curious point, though. If MLS isn’t quite to the point at which it can support a small-scale women’s league today, why was arrogant of the WUSA founders (players and executives) to spurn MLS involvement when the league was in a downturn in 2001?
Starting a women’s sports league is difficult — only the WNBA is still around, and it might not be here if not for the NBA’s support. And starting a soccer league is difficult — the American pro landscape is littered with failed leagues, of which only two (the ASL of the 1920s/30s and the NASL of the late 60s-early 80s) made any impression.
So starting a women’s soccer league is doubly difficult. It requires a bit of trial and error. And it hardly seems fair to load it down with baggage from old conflicts few people fully understand.