The heartfelt, grassroots effort to save the financially embattled Women’s Professional Soccer league from extinction was well underway last week when one of the architects of that league poured a heavy dose of cold reality onto what has been an emotional situation.
The U.S. Soccer Federation is set to hear today the request of WPS officials to re-sanction it for a fourth season. Specifically, it will be asked to extend a waiver allowing it to continue below the eight-team minimum for Division 1 men’s and women’s professional soccer.
(Here is a good overview of the situation from Jenna Pel of the excellent women’s soccer blog All White Kit.)
With the recent dissolution of a Florida-based franchise to get rid of a troublesome owner, WPS is down to five teams.
Peter Wilt, a front-office veteran of WPS and Major League Soccer franchises, wrote in a thoughtful, detailed post at the Pitch Invasion site that perhaps WPS needs to die in order to save the idea of women’s professional soccer in North America:
“It’s ironic that WPS’ cause of death will be the same as its predecessor WUSA. WPS thought it learned lessons from WUSA and spent much less than WUSA. WPS indeed did spend less than WUSA, but was dealt fatal blows on two accounts: 1) revenues fell in proportion to expenses and 2) ownership wealth had been replaced by passion. Passion can’t pay the bills.”
I covered WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association), which grew out of the passion and the feel-good story of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. WUSA lasted just three years because of financial, attendance, marketing and other reasons. While I am less familiar with WPS, the business model parallels offered by Wilt, the former president and CEO of the Chicago Red Stars, which left the WPS this year for the semipro Women’s Premier Soccer League, are rather striking.
His restructured system would have up 20 teams and “a coast to coast imprint for the sport.” His financial ideas for reshaping the structure of the women’s game would seem to some as a step back into the wilderness, especially for players’ salaries. He admits that this move, along with lower operational costs, would take a hit in the image department:
” . . . but the reduced expenses are needed to bring fiscal sensibility to the business. Increasing the number of teams will result in a growth of the base, get more people involved as investors, players, administrators and cumulatively as fans. Critical mass of teams will ultimately generate more interest from sponsors, supporters and broadcasters in the future at which time teams can justify increases to their operational and player compensation budgets.”
Wilt also is suggesting that the existing minor league structure and the USSF get things going, with MLS to take over the revamped women’s circuit after the first year. This, too, would be novel, given how both WUSA (which rejected a business plan written by an MLS executive at the request of the USSF) and WPS have insisted on independence.
Very rarely in the Save WPS effort (soccer journalist Beau Dure has collected “vigil” links) is any mention of the business of women’s pro soccer. Instead, the appeals are all emotional. Billie Jean King retweeted a follower’s plea: “don’t let dreams die & hearts break! pls sign & spread the word!”
As I wrote on Pitch Invasion two years ago, so many who want women’s soccer to succeed have been wrongly pushing the buttons of passion and the sport as a cause instead of producing hard-headed business solutions. Sadly, this mindset hasn’t seemed to change, especially from women’s sports supporters.
While WPS may point to a petition drive on the change.org website as evidence of fan support, ultimately a gesture like this just isn’t going to cut it, no matter how well-intentioned.
I don’t blame the USSF for keeping WPS on its toes a little. I’m not buying complaints from some in the women’s soccer community and elsewhere that the USSF hasn’t done much to back the women’s game. Certainly it can do more and I think it should and will re-sanction WPS.
What the federation ought to do next is take a serious look at the Wilt proposal and follow the “collaborative and unselfish” approach he suggests. For this isn’t about the fate of a league, but something much larger.