The next frontier for women’s sports

The announcement Monday that the Women’s Professional Soccer league was suspending operations for the 2012 season didn’t surprise many in the American and women’s soccer community, for both the financial and legal issues that have plagued it.

Frankly, having covered WUSA, the WPS predecessor, I’m not that optimistic the league will return in 2013 or beyond. My doubts are centered as much on the general viability of a fully professional league as much as the current travails.

As much as I respect Julie Foudy’s insistence to the contrary, I just don’t think there’s a spectator audience big enough to sustain what both WUSA and WPS have attempted. (I blogged in December about an proposed overhaul to the U.S. professional women’s professional development system by Peter Wilt, a former MLS and WPS executive, and that is worthy of serious consideration.)

During this time of uncertainty, which will include the London Olympics this summer, I do believe a critical opportunity for the women’s sports community is presenting itself here.

Instead of women’s sports supporters constantly hectoring the public to embrace female athletes, their leagues and their games as social causes, cheerleading about the need for girls and women to participate in sports and banging the drum ever so loudly for Title IX, it’s time to address the cold hard bottom line about the fragile state of women’s professional sports.

For this is the next frontier for women’s sports, at least in the United States, where the desire to participate in sports is hardly the issue that it is in, say, Saudi Arabia. Or Iran.

The tough sell of women’s pro sports here is a reality that is often stated, but very little in the way of workable ideas and creative thinking seem to emerge, from athletes and coaches, activists and media types (pleading nolo here myself). This is new stuff for those whose sporting lives have revolved around Title IX activism and breaking through barriers of discrimination.

It’s far easier to identify the problems at hand, which are left to WPS owners and investors, who opted yesterday not to play while they fight a combative ex-owner in court. This is an ugly, bitter battle that is draining the league of time, energy and financial resources needed to keep its enterprise alive.

Besides Wilt, only former WNBA president Val Ackerman is identifying practical future steps. Like Wilt, she writes from experience. Her columns on espnW ought to be heeded, and not just read, especially her prescriptions for sustaining women’s pro sports.

In the unforgiving world of sports business, niche ventures living on the margins don’t have much time to ponder drumming up fan support based on societal concerns that will never sell tickets or attract corporate sponsors.

I was looking forward this summer to watching young Canadian-turned-American sensation Sydney Leroux play nearby, about 15 minutes from my house, for the Atlanta Beat. Surely she would have helped sell tickets. I hope she and other stars of WPS will get another chance.

While the feuding parties in WPS will be in court on Wednesday, women’s sports advocates will be whipping up an old, familiar narrative that will not substantially address these concerns. Wednesday is National Girls and Women in Sports Day, which may pay some lip service to what’s transpired with WPS.

But in tomorrow’s post, I will explain why this day is no longer needed.

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