What’s next for women’s professional soccer in the USA?

This started as a reply to a comment here from Dan Borislow himself on our recent story on the potential imminent closure of WPS. It’s part rant, part manifesto, part request for feedback so we can all finally get the women’s game flourishing. The third time really does need to be the charm!

Mr. Borislow is certainly a lightning rod in the women’s game, but to fully “blame” him for the demise of WPS is not fair. A healthier league, a bigger league, a league on a more sound business model would have been able to absorb (or avoid all together) the… let’s say “inefficient” relationship created when the Washington Freedom were sold to the outspoken, passionate, soccer-loving telecom entrepreneur.

It certainly appears – regardless of if you agree with Borislow’s gripes about how the league was run or not – that WPS jumped into the relationship without enough due diligence, and that if it had been healthier to begin with, not only could they have avoided needing to take Borislow in on short notice, they might not have lost John & Maureen Hendricks in the first place. No one had spent more on the game than the Hendricks family over the previous decade, and to be caught by surprise when the spigot was turned off is only the fault of the one doing the drinking, not the guy with the new bucket of water standing at the door.

So, I agree with Dan Borislow in his desire to want the world’s best female players to earn an income commensurate with their unique abilities. I join Borislow in commending everyone that put blood, sweat, tears, and money into WPS, and in that they all deserve a huge thanks and commendation for trying – again – to make this work.

But this agreement doesn’t mean in the slightest that I agree with what went down or how – from either side. However things got to where they were 4 months ago, it seems pretty clear that the inability for WPS and Borislow to play nicely in the same sandbox has directly contributed to the state of things today. Who knows what new owners or sponsors might have stepped in with a lifeline had the dark cloud of legal uncertainty not existed?

Whatever was right or wrong with WPS, it appears to be over for good, but I think there is plenty of momentum to keep a top tier option for the players. But the formula for success cannot be relying on wealthy individuals to pay for greatness like a hobby. As an unpaid GM of an MLS-affiliated W-League, trust me, I know… (In fact, I should be working on that right now, instead of writing this, but like everyone else who cares about the future of the women’s game, I just can’t help myself when so many words and ideas are stirred by the topic at times like this.)

It’s nice to say everyone “deserves” a living wage in the world, but we know the world isn’t’ fair, and so far the two leagues have tried to literally create a market from scratch.  Players will go overseas, but if they don’t draw fans there either, it won’t work long term – and overseas does not have a youth soccer factory churning out enough players to fill in the quality gaps on the field. The “supply” of players in the US is enormous. It’s not their fault they’re so good. And I think it’s up to smart leaders and business people to create more demand – to find what clicks for the public.

The whole business model relies on the public “butts in seats”, and no country is better at that business – or the economic machine around it – than the United States of Sports Crazies! The only thing the other countries have going for them is geographic concentration and brand affiliation with the men’s teams. We’re smart enough to solve those two problems here aren’t we?

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By | April 28, 2012 | 5 Comments | Tags: , , ,

Comments

  1. NOTDAN says:

    Not so Magic Dan Borislow is THE reason the WPS is not around this year. Once he figured out that he had to play by the rules WPS set forth, and take those ‘gitls’ running WPS seriously, he got mad called in his army of shark lawyers and sank any hopes of a 2012 WPS season. So what if he had big bucks, he has a raving personality disorder, and his behavior towards the league the players and the fans has been toxic and innapropiate. I hope WPS of some form of pro womens soccer will be available next year. I am glad we have the Olympics this summmer.

  2. Disappointed fan says:

    You hit the main point right on: partnering with the men’s club was always the best model with the best chance for success. Small venues, family oriented but with room for tailgaters, and low overhead are all key to developing a fan base. But the other key is the quality of the soccer. And I’m afraid the army of “good coaches” you mention frequently fall into the distinctly American trap of bigger is better. Just look at our national teams. Now look at Spain’s MNT. I rest my case. If we produce so many great female players, why are there so few rookies on the WNT? Why aren’t the younger more technical players simply driving most of the veterans into retirement? If it’s not the quality of the players it’s the quality of the coaches who don’t understand what it takes to win with quality play. This failing is widespread through youth, ODP and college. And fixing that has to part of the solution, because without that it will be tough for any fix to stick.

  3. Quick as a Flash says:

    Like the EPL, the WPS had a big fraction of the world’s top 40 players. The semi-pro leagues that remain will resemble the WPS level about as closely as a a top high school team resembles the Stanford Cardinal (current NCAA champions.)

    Lets not kid ourselves. I agree that the resumption of the WPS requires funding by dedicated owners for a number of years. With a weak economy, this may well not be possible. Then the best US soccer will be College Soccer. A far cry from what we had but exciting all the same.

    The top National Team players will have to play in other leagues if they are going to develop their skills enough for the US to remain competitive on the world scene.

  4. Quick As A Flash says:

    I know you mean well but it is the usual story.

    Girls, with your College degrees from Duke, UCLA, Stanford, Notre Dame and UNC, just be baristas for 5 or 6 years and play footy after work. You will love it.

    It won’t work. The US National team players may stay but the top US players of the future will find much better opportunities abroad.

    Some WPS players played the 2011 season for under $10,000 and some All Star players had salaries close to $20,000. They were making major financial sacrifices to pursue their dreams.

    • editor says:

      Meaning well is actually the problem. Too many people involved with the women’s game “mean well” by wanting to pay the players as much as possible. But as long as every conversation about what it will take to have a successful league here starts with “how much do the players deserve”, things will always be screwed up from the beginning. You can’t back into a successful business model in any industry starting with the amount you HAVE to spend on employees. The hardcore fans of the women’s game here worship a few top players far too much. They are great players for sure, but they are not able to carry an entire league over the course of years. If you want a league in the USA to be able to pay female players 6-figures per year, the league has to be healthy, with attendances, sponsors, and broadcast contracts that are EARNED over time from hard work and sacrifice at the grassroots level of the “pro” game. My contention is that a team with a $400K budget can draw 80% of the fan base a team with a $1 Million dollar budget can, and it just isn’t worth $600K for that extra 20%. Everyone WANTS to pay greatness what it deserves, but there is a point of negative return in the business model right now that isn’t going to approach profitability until overall team salaries (with workers comp and expenses) is below $300K per team. If players can earn more overseas, they should go for it. Fans can really only be sold on going to a game just to see a specific player a few times every four years anyway. But families and fans that enjoy themselves at a well-run facility with soccer at least higher than what they can see in person anywhere else will become regulars. A women’s league here cannot survive only with the most ardent fans spending the money. But those fans really are the only ones that can really tell the difference – or name more than 5 players on the US National Team. That’s the right-side of the bell curve only, not where the money is. If you attach the pro teams to known brands, in good facilities, they’ll follow it no matter what players wear the shirts. More simply, most fans follow teams, not players. Players come and go all the time, it’s the badge that stays the same.

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