Rebuilding women’s professional soccer to last

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WUSA, but was dealt fatal blows on two accounts: 1) revenues fell in proportion to expenses and 2) ownership wealth had been replaced by passion.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.”

Bingo.

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Beau Dure
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I think some people have hinted at the business strategies in a couple of ways. First, the five surviving teams seem very content with the way things are going, and the owner they ousted wanted to spend much, much more than they were willing to spend. (Not that the difference in philosophy alone accounted for the tension between them!) Second, several people have pointed out that other soccer federations in the world have put more effort into supporting their women’s leagues. The German Frauen-Bundesliga gets by with far lower attendance than WPS, in part because the federation sees it as important and in part because they have creative deals with sponsors that help players get part-time employment.

    U.S. Soccer does reap a significant financial benefit from a successful women’s national team. Without WPS, that team is likely to be less successful in the long run.

    So while there’s some “cause” Tweeting going around, I think part of it goes beyond that.

    And I for one will never understand why rich youth soccer clubs who talk so much about wanting to have a top to their grand pyramid suddenly shut their mouths when it’s time to help out. That’s the part I find astounding.

  2. Beau Dure
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    The other aspect of this (sorry for posting twice) is that a lot of sports in the world are run as either an affectation or a loss leader. Manchester City’s finances look like those of a badly run country in the developing world, but the owner doesn’t care. Plenty of U.S. pro sports teams lose money. So it’s not that unusual to have ownership that’s involved either as a passion or as something that builds goodwill for the owners’ business ventures.

  3. Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Great piece. The cause angle has always been hurtful to the sport, not just in crisis moments (of which there have been many).

    One thing to point out here….the current model is not a “single entity structure” as you stated. WUSA was single-entity, but WPS has been a franchise model from inception.

  4. Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the passion being put forth on Twitter and elsewhere is simply all a person has to give. For example, I wish I could come up with a business model (or a bazillion dollars) like Peter did, but I don’t know anything about business.

    I do think the petition is a waste of time in terms of how it will affect the USSF. However, if it gives people a chance to express themselves and to feel as though they are contributing, even in a small way, I’m all for it. Should the WPS survive, hopefully this bit of community-building will help bring out a few more fans.

    Nice post. I’m very tempted to look up your research on the WUSA, except I’m not sure I want to torture myself like that. :)

  5. Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    *-the

  6. Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Athletic skill does not guarantee a comfortable professional existence playing a sport. The “cause” angle is insulting to the thousands of athletes in Olympic sports who have to balance training with making a living. The achievements of American female soccer players are beyond amazing. That doesn’t mean a full-time national professional league makes business sense.

    Passion is awesome, but it needs to come with perspective.

  7. necron99
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    What I find interesting is that the business model is the part that most commentators are discussing. Clearly there is a need to find a sustainable business model, and it hasn’t been found yet. But the current crisis facing the league is whether USSF will sanction them as a D1 league.

    It could be pointed out that the need for a waiver is due to the failure to have the minimum number of teams, which relates in some ways to the business model. However I don’t agree with some other’s take on it, ie if it is cheap they will come. There are other leagues that already fit that model. If some owners wanted to run a Pro team with a higher budget but not in the WPS price range, they could make a team in WPSL and spend money on players. If they were smart with building their team they would most likely win the league.

    The sanction issue to me is about players, fans, and owners. The owners are willing to continue to invest in the WPS and work on tuning the financial model. They believe they will have expansion and revenue growth. There is nothing that would prevent them from implementing some or all of the ideas put forth by Mr. Wilt. The fact that Mr. Wilt’s solution to the WPS sanction issue is to get rid of WPS and its owners, and involve a bunch of groups that are not currently is telling. I do not believe it is in the USSF charter to decide on their business model (or you could say the sanction issue is exactly that, the USSF version of the Constitutions Commerce Clause). The players have spoken out in the media and twitter in support of the league. Hopefully they addressed the USSF directly. Clearly they enjoy playing in it. There are issues that should be worked out with professionalism, minimum wage, etc and they are being worked on in the CBA. The players believe that this league holds a value for them. Last there are the fans. Obviously there haven’t been enough fans coming to the games to sustain the original business model. The bump in attendance brought by the WWC success may be temporary. However the outpouring of support brought on by this sanctioning issue may say otherwise. Eyes have been opened. If a 5th of the fans that signed the petition bought season tickets the WPS would pass their sales records. These fans have managed to make WPS a front page item on CNN. That hasn’t been the case before.

    If the owners are willing to continue investing, and the players want to continue playing in this league, then it is ridiculous for the USSF to withhold sanction. It takes time to build a business and a fanbase, just ask MLS. Discussions about business models are tangential, and most of them seem like sour grapes.

  8. Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Peter’s plan is similar to what Anson Dorrance proposed prior to the startup of WUSA: Establish teams throughout the country and use the strongest markets to build a national league. But now there are already minor women’s leagues in place and the difference in their budgets and what a national league would require are WPS is one of the biggest problems facing the women’s game; its ambitions far outstrip its capabilities. It wants and needs help because it has no idea what it’s doing and no sense of how to get where it wants to go.
    U.S. Soccer puts millions into its programs for women and girls, but only by virtue of revenues generated by the men’s and women’s national teams. Without the NBA’s backing, WNBA would not exist, for it is a severe money-drain. Sanctioning WPS, while probably necessary, is only enabling people who live in a dream world.
    As of now, no women’s pro team sport has found the right formula to flourish in America on its own. Why should soccer be any different? Millions of girls play softball and volleyball and basketball, too. Pro leagues need paying customers, not participants. MLS still struggles for national TV audiences but in many cities has found that strain of fan eager to invest emotionally and financially. Yet it’s national footprint is still faint.
    Once again, the World Cup TV ratings triggered a false sense of expectation and thus confused and confounded fans and so-called pundits. As Don Garber pointed out a few years ago, running a pro league is “a long, hard slog,” and nothing like a big event — World Cup, Olympics, etc,. — that dominates the headlines and airwaves for a few weeks.
    MLS has survived some very rocky times to strengthen its competitive and financial foundations, and has the stadiums to house a women’s league, but the demographics of MLS fans vs. WPS fans are radically different, perhaps more so than in the WUSA days. There wasn’t much crossover back then and there’s even less now, which would make marketing and promoting women’s games a radically different sales job, literally, and in essence require superseding business sense with benevolence. The bottom line is, MLS has survived by focusing on the bottom line, and that isn’t likely to change.

  9. Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I am a bit peeved that there weren’t more women CEOs in the boom economic period who showed interested in WUSA or WPS, such as Meg Whitman of eBay and Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard The MLS and WPS should join together for the love of the game

  10. PASoccerdad
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    spent time on a comment, then it was wiped out

  11. Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    I really do appreciate all the comments today. Clearly there are a lot of people who care about the fate of WPS and want to see women’s pro soccer have a future, and I hope the USSF understands that.

    @Andy Crossley Thanks for the correction about WPS not being a single entity structure. I’ve fixed that in the text. And thanks for your perspective, having been on the front lines in all this.

    @Ridge sums up a lot of what I’ve thought and seen over the years, and I hope that whomever takes up the mantle from here will be as bottom-line oriented as MLS. I didn’t know Anson Dorrance had come up with this idea years ago, so thanks for passing that along.

    Ridge is absolutely right about other women’s pro sports, and I wish it’s something advocates would try to understand instead of playing the blame game. Or, as he says, insist on living in a dream world. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

    @nickp Given Carly Fiorina’s track record — business and political — maybe it was good thing she wasn’t in the room. I agree that MLS and WPS need to join forces. American soccer as a spectator sport over the last 15 years has grown phenomenally, and there’s a place for the women’s game in all this. For now, it’s just not where some of its biggest boosters would like for it to be.

    @PASoccerdad I’m sorry your comment was wiped out. If you’d like to try posting it again, I’d love to add it to the discussion.

  12. Craigaroo
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the article. And Peter Wilt is a great guy but I think he’s offbase here and he’s doing the sport a great disservice . All he’s doing is feeding the naysayers.

    “Passion doesn’t pay the bills”, he says. No doubt but someone for some reason is willing to pay the bills for next season. Zero teams — that’s zero out of 6 — are bailing on the league to cut their financial losses this year. that includes magicJack, the team the rest of the league is trying to terminate for a whole host of other reasons that have to with its owner’s compatibility with the rest of the league.

    Reportedly, there are a few serious investor inquiries into joining the league. Sounds like some others are willing to pay the bill. At this point what isn’t clear is whether they are willing to either, A) put up with having magicJack’s owner as their partner in the league, or B) join the league when it may become mired in litigation with magicJack.

    Women’s soccer faces a tough road — no one’s pretending otherwise — but navigating a tough road can’t be done by abandoning course to satisfy those who have been naysayers all along. Mr Wilt isn’t one of those original naysayers. But he’s caving in to them.
    - Craig

  13. Craigaroo
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    A fellow reader above says, “Once again, the World Cup TV ratings triggered a false sense of expectation and thus confused and confounded fans and so-called pundits.”

    I have to put it bluntly – that’s a bunch of crap. We don’t know that. Attendance after the World Cup went up 80% and that was spread out over 5 or 6 weeks of the WPS season and playoffs. We don’t know how much of that will be sustained and we won’t know until next season, or even until the Olympics to see whether it retriggers interest should the US women qualify for it.

    Guys like Ridge don’t have any crystal ball anymore than people did who said 40 years ago that no one would watch women play tennis. More recently, who predicted that the last Women’s World Cup would set a record for the highest-rated daytime program in ESPN’s history?

    All this is is conventional wisdom and you know how that goes. It’s conventional alright; the wisdom part, I dunno…

    He talks about the WNBA. Is he even aware of how many teams are still affiliated with NBA teams vs how many are independently owned?

    He says, “The bottom line is, MLS has survived by focusing on the bottom line, and that isn’t likely to change.” – More crap – the MLS, like every other new sports league in the US lost several teams in its early going. Just like baseball, the NBA, the NFL, NHL. MLS was down to 2 or 3 owners who wound up owning multiple teams and bankrolling losses in the tens of millions.

  14. Craigaroo
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    Brian says, “”Athletic skill does not guarantee a comfortable professional existence playing a sport. The “cause” angle is insulting to the thousands of athletes in Olympic sports who have to balance training with making a living. The achievements of American female soccer players are beyond amazing. That doesn’t mean a full-time national professional league makes business sense.”

    Really? You don’t think the US Olympic Committee and other national athletic federations are supporting and subsidizing potential Olympic athletes? You know, right here with women’s soccer, without a league next year what the US Soccer Federation will do is pay national team members a salary and set up residency camps to train for and prepare fore the Olympics. Just like they’ve done in the past when there wasn’t a Division I league. Sorry to shatter your laissez-faire capitalist dreamworld.
    - CRaig

  15. Bern
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    Craig – You seem a bit tough on both Brian and Ridge who from my perspective were spot on. I’m not a huge fan of women’s soccer but I’m fine with it. That said they and Wendy are are talking about implementing a sustainable business model. We all know that people that have thrown millions at women’s pro soccer over the years and have very little to show for it. So it hasn’t been a good business proposition.

    Maybe the remaining five owners are willing to stick with it for the foreseeable future regardless of losses but I doubt it. Maybe there are people willing to launch expansion franchises, but it’s clearly not a hot (or even warm) business opportunity or they would have already signed up.

    It isn’t social work, it’s a business. It looks like you aren’t particularly impressed with capitalism which is fine, but that’s the system we live in here in the U.S. so it kinda is what it is. If it is going to be a true pro league there has to be a reasonable roadmap to profitability or there is no real business and eventually there will be no league.

    The real Dreamworld is populated by people that don’t see the world as it is so they never get where they want to go because they never step up to the real problem in the first place. If women’s soccer can’t land on a sustainable business model then maybe the US Soccer Federation should step into the breach and support the national team members as you suggest.

  16. Craigaroo
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Bern – I am tough on both Brian and Ridge because they aren’t spot on about anything. If I’m blunt again don’t take it personally – my annoyance is really with the nice guys who are presumably on the same side I’m on because they’re wimping out big time here.

    You say “maybe the remaining owners are willing to stick with it for the foreseeable future regardless of losses but I doubt it” – “You doubt it?” What’s your evidence? Sorry that’s your already made-up mind talking — the fact is they’re willing to be in for next year. We’re not talking about them not ponying up; we’re talking about the Federation taking away their certification and making it impossible to operate.

    Capitalism? I’m fine enough with capitalism – I have a problem with people who hide their other ideological agendas behind it. What other agendas? How about their hypersensitivity over “affirmative action” or “reverse discrimination” ? For some reason a struggling women’s soccer league bothers Brian over some sense of ‘entitlement” but he has the nerve to compare it to Olympic athletes, many of whom receive stipends, support, subsidies from one of many athletic organizations. Correct me if I’m wrong but I didn’t hear a reply the first time around.

    We all know that “millions have been thrown at” women’s soccer? Yes, but let’s distinguish between WUSA and WPS. WPS isn’t burning through money anywhere near the rate WUSA did.

    You do realize the early failure rate in American sports in even the “major” sports as we know them now? Baseball? NFL? NBA? (how about ABA?) NHL – stayed on 6 teams for a couple decades, didn’t it? It’s kind of fun to look up that stuff in Wikipedia. And more recently, you know that MLS was down to 3 owners within a few years – they just happened to prop up the league by owning multiple teams. And we’re not even getting started on taxpayer-funded stadiums yet… So perhaps we shouldn’t be so smug about “sustainable business models” or preaching “it isn’t social work, it’s a business” when after Year 3 zero out of 6 teams are folding for financial reasons.

    Sorry if I’m somewhat undiplomatic. You, Ms Parker and others all seem reasonable folks who I don’t usually go out of my way to alienate. And of course you could be right. But I’ve concluded that in case I’m the one who’s right, it’s no time for Mr Nice Guy. Instead people need a bit of a jolt.
    Craig
    Los Angeles

  17. Bern
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    The only way you will end up being right is if they keep changing the rules for the WPS and keep lowering the bar, which I see U.S. Soccer did again yesterday.

    The bottom line is pretty simple. There aren’t enough paying customers that want to watch women’s pro soccer. There never have been. If there were the league would be solvent and we wouldn’t be having the discussion.

    It’s fine that you’re a true believer but you really should try to allow a bit of logic into the conversation instead of the conspiracy theory of “other agendas”. If you and your fellow enthusiasts could actually marshall enough interest to make this a compelling sports entertainment product it would pay for itself. But then you couldn’t blame the “evil others” that are plotting against women’s soccer when in reality pro women’s soccer isn’t going to die because anyone is actively trying to kill it. If it dies it will do so because there isn’t enough legitimate interest to make it work.

    Finally, the Olympics aren’t professional sports. I have no problem if the USOC decides to support our women soccer participants if the pro version doesn’t work. Just because some people like a sport doesn’t make it a viable professional product. Just ask all of those Olympic athletes that know full well they are amateurs and don’t expect that just because they compete successfully in the Olympics they somehow “deserve” a successful pro league.

  18. Craigaroo
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    Bern – I’m not a conspiracy theory guy and I’m not seeing evil conspiracies trying to undermine professional women’s soccer. I made one comment about “hidden agendas” and that was directed at someone who thinks there’s an issue here about women being entitled to play professional sports and be paid for it but somehow thinks all Olympic athletes work fulltime to pay their own way to Olympic glory.

    The bottom line isn’t as simple as you think, although ultimately it may very well turn out that way. But you don’t have a crystal ball anymore than the National League had when it started out around 1870 or 1880 — and they lost several teams in their first few years. Did your crystal ball tell you that attendance would nearly double for WPS after the World Cup? Did your crystal ball tell you that 15 million people would watch the WC final on TV? What did your crystal ball tell you about women’s tennis? What did your crystal ball tell you about MLS when it was down to 3 owners propping up the league to keep it going? It would’ve been very easy to tell soccer fans (men’s soccer, MLS fans) about 12 years ago:

    “There aren’t enough paying customers that want to watch pro soccer. (here in America) There never have been. If there were the league would be solvent and we wouldn’t be having the discussion.”

  19. Bern
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Craig,

    That’s all fine and good. Someone just has to pay for it. If someone is willing to pay for it until it becomes financially viable I’m cool with it.

    What I’m not cool with is any sort of general expectation that women “deserve” a pro soccer league “just because”. They need to put on their big girl panties and succeed in the real world. If they can succeed then good for them. If not then the market will have spoken and women’s soccer needs to go out and find some really smart business people to create a model that will effectively leverage all of this demand for pro women’s soccer that you feel actually exists.

    I hope they make it work, but it’s on them to make it happen.

  20. Greg
    Posted December 30, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I am writing from Europe and my english is not so good as yours but have been following women soccer for years and have quite different views on it as most people writing here. You in America see everything as business. No profit, no business. Women soccer as business? Maybe one day. But not now. Women soccer need to survive but to survive need to be seen as sport and not as business. It developes steady with every year. Everywhere. It is time that it will be – worldwide – remodelled. Women soccer clubs must be attached to men’s clubs. FC Barcelona with Messi & Co neede a women team as well, using the whole clubs infrastructure as well as profiting from their markeing and fame. The same Manchester Utd, Bayern Munich, Benfica Lisabon, Ajax Amsterdam and so on – in each country. The time of Don Kichots giving their money to keep alive women soccer clubs and student clubs is over. However, women soccer need a financial support of the state, the local soccer assciation as well as different sponsors. This way Germany or Holland try to develop their women soccer clubs – and it works. It will not work however if you in the US will look forward to Trumps and Gates investing in women clubs as money-maker business as this is a “business” rarely bringing any rewards. For that reason clubs are bought and sold or fold. Every year you ask – will it start again or not. This a wrong way that brings nothing but disapointment. Women soccer need a helping hand. Look at it as a sport not as a business – this would be the frist step in the right direction.

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