November 22, 2012
Is “sustainability” enough for new women’s league?
No question women’s soccer fans today are thankful that there will be a third attempt at a professional league, as announced by U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.
Gulati is certainly to be commended for the leading role U.S. Soccer and the Canadian and Mexican Federations are playing in the new league, essentially picking up the lion’s share of player costs for the new league.
He had little choice. The move is basically protecting the U.S. Soccer’s best interests and highly valuable assets in the Women’s National Team players. A new league was going to happen anyway. Indeed, on the eve of the Olympic Gold Medal match, four teams, Boston, Sky Blue, Chicago and Seattle, announced they were forming a new league.
U.S. Soccer stepping in has headed off disaster and a possible repeat of the profound embarrassment generated by the magicJack situation in Florida the last year of the WPS. By paying the salaries of 24 players and controlling the league office, U.S. Soccer gets to keep better tabs on its players as they prepare for the 2015 World Cup. It was a smart move by the pragmatic Gulati. Better to have some control than a loose cannon.
But unless there are owners involved in the league who can carry it forward, I think we are looking at yet another three-year misfire, with the league playing in 2013, 2014, and 2015 but not surviving beyond the next Women’s World Cup.
The buzzword on the Wednesday’s hastily-called and ill-prepared-for conference call was sustainability. That’s something the WUSA and WPS did not have. Both leagues folded after three years amidst a sea of losses. Many will say they spent too much. I would agree, but would also add that they invested too little.
Making soccer go in this country is a long-term proposition. A small group of well-heeled individuals understood that with the men’s game, which is why MLS is as healthy as it is. Lamar Hunt, Phil Anschutz and Robert Kraft understood it was going to take money, lots of it, to make the new league work. Others who were in at the start didn’t quite have the stomach or the deep pockets to stick with it. That’s why Anschutz ended up owning five teams at one point, Hunt three and the Krafts for a time not only holding their own in New England, but propping up San Jose as well.
Visionaries with deep pockets. That’s what women’s soccer has lacked. MLS was sustainable because the ownership could afford and was willing to lose $100 million before things started turning around. Indeed, there were some lean years, and some will give credit to Anschutz shelling out for David Beckham as a turning point. Maybe so.
But women’s soccer has now substituted the word “sustainability” for operating on the cheap. The owners in this new league will have the federation picking up a large chunk of the player expenses. The owner of the Boston Breakers says the teams will economize further by cutting back from WPS levels on other expenses like marketing and the front office. Problem is, most of the teams in the WPS already thought marketing was having a Twitter account, and what they called front offices would not sustain a single-A baseball club.
Perhaps the investors will then be looking for a watershed moment, one that sends the women’s game over the top. Oh, like Brandi Chastain’s winning penalty kick, or the never say die attitude of the U.S. Women and their incredible comebacks in the 2011 World Cup, or winning a Gold Medal in 2012.
Women’s soccer has already had those watershed moments. It just never had the ownership to translate them into viability. I fear it still doesn’t.