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Joanna Lohman: Addressing NWSL’s identity crisis

By Joanna Lohman

Following up from my last article, which got an overwhelming amount of response both positive and negative, I want to continue this solution-based conversation.

The clock is ticking and we are only months away from the third go-round of a new women’s professional soccer league in the United States (which U.S. Soccer on Saturday revealed will be called the National Women’s Soccer League). The timing isn’t ideal, but I need to throw this out there.

Our league has an identity crisis, and it needs to be addressed.

Can any player or group of players really define who we are? I put the onus and focus on “the players” because through our collective efforts, we ARE the product. If we cannot properly define ourselves, we cannot expect others to do so, and do so accurately.

Considering the urgency of the matter, let’s address our identity via a question I often passionately debate: “Is the new league a charity? Or is it a business?”

I want to first dismiss the idea of the new league being a charity. This idea is demoralizing. I also find it insulting to legitimate charities that we even think about classifying ourselves as such.

It should come as no shock to anyone when I state that becoming a professional female soccer player in the United States, more often than not, requires a significant amount of resource dedication from the time you first step on the field. You see very few low-income families able to invest the money required to play for the top youth clubs. It is expensive to be the best in soccer, or at least, it is in America. “Outliers,” another great book by Malcolm Gladwell, drives home the importance of not just practice but deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice comes from training with the best teams with the best coaches, which = $$$$$. (Also refer to my article in the August 2011 issue of Our Game Magazine, “The Business Behind Youth Soccer”).

The best clubs in America come from high-income areas – Orange County, Calif., Bethesda, Md., McLean, Va., Long Island, N.Y., and so on.

If a donor were really interested in affecting women’s soccer at the low-income level, she would gift her money to groups like the inner-city Anderson Monarchs and not, say, the professional Philadelphia Independence. This past summer, this exact concept and the Anderson Monarchs team and head coach were heavily featured at an Aspen Institute symposium entitled “Title IX & Beyond: How to Get the Rest of Our Girls Into the Game?”

Additional evidence against the charity label: among the plethora of female sports, there is only one other women’s professional team sport league in the United States, and that is the Women’s National Basketball Association. Our leagues are the exception, NOT the rule. To quote one of my favorite NCAA commercials, “There are over 360,000 NCAA student athletes, and just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.”

No, we are not a charity. So, let’s stop preaching to Ellen and Oprah that they need to throw their money into our new league.

If we are not a charity, then we must be a business, correct? Wrong. We are not a business. Not yet, at least. Numbers do not lie. We’ve been unable to find a sustainable business plan that gives our owners any type of profit.

Time to go back to the drawing board. Considering I have pointed out all we are not, a good start would be pointing out all that we are:

1.     Attractive Athletes – “Attractive” is a broad term. Unlike many other countries I have been to, being a female athlete in America is sexy. It is highly respected (thank you, Title IX). As a society we are obsessed with health, fitness and sport. There is nothing wrong with leveraging this to our advantage, and, if I may say so myself, the ladies of the WPS were not a bad-looking bunch. Alex Morgan, Heather Mitts and Hope Solo are not the only players who have the sex appeal to grace magazine covers. We have enough collective marketability to cover the heterosexual world AND the gay and lesbian community, which is also a big fan base of ours.

We are “attractive” beyond the basic superficial level. We have all amassed essential characteristics through sport that make us appealing to corporate America. I won’t go into detail but you can again refer one of my articles in Our Game Magazine, specifically “The Power of the Corporate Athlete” in the April 2011 issue.

Before the “collective freak-out” that I am devaluing our on-the-field product, let me make something clear; I am not suggesting we become a version of “lingerie futbol.” I am suggesting we use our PRODUCT (the players) to its full effect. We are skilled athletes, role models and ATTRACTIVE individuals. It is extremely important that we maximize our human capital. Each player has something to offer. We need a platform to offer it and an audience who knows what’s available.

I am in no way jumping on the Sepp Blatter bandwagon but I think there are respectful and effective ways we can sell “The Beautiful Game, Played by Beautiful People.”

2.     Accessible Athletes – A women’s soccer game is an intimate experience, another aspect we need to leverage. The spectator can get up close and personal with the player. For this new league to survive, we need each player to understand and strengthen her relationship with the respective fan. We need to be on twitter, facebook, and all things social media. If we let the fan into our world, he or she will be much more likely to come watch with the hope of being a small part of that world.

With the shoestring budgets 2013 will bring, we cannot expect or ask others to market our league for us. Again, HUMAN CAPITAL. We are our greatest spokespeople. So we must promote and represent our league constantly.

3.     Educated Athletes – Most of us have been to college. We are armed with both athletic talent and brainpower. We did not go pro as a senior in high school or skip several years of college to sign that massive contract. We hold degrees in a variety of subjects. Our league needs to engage the players both on the field and off. If this is done effectively, it will reap benefits for both the players and the league as a whole.

4.      Honest Athletes – The players are not in this game for the global fame or piles of money.  Sure, I would be very happy to get paid more for playing the sport I love, but the current state of the market does not allow for this. This is another aspect we can leverage; the money does not taint our sport. We play purely for the love of the game, to grow the sport for younger generations and provide entertainment for those who choose to be entertained.

As much as we would like to complain about all the work that goes into what we do and how little the financial reward, let’s use it to emphasize our honest intentions. The social benefit of sport cannot be denied. We are living and breathing models of those benefits.

Now, I have highlighted what sets our product apart, but I still don’t think it’s clear who we are from a league standpoint. We find ourselves at a crossroads – there are social benefits to this new league, though it does not yet reach the charitable level. Lucky for us, modern-day business tells us we are no longer confined by the classic labels, “altruistic non-profit” vs. “money-grubbing corporation.”

We can have an organization or league with the eventual intent of making a profit, yet be based around a social cause. This is where we must steer. Our league will not make money in the foreseeable future, but if we build it slowly and properly, we have the potential to one day realize a profit. And in the time it does take to realize a profit, we provide a tax shelter and a feel-good story for the owners.

In order for this to happen, we must put the proper foundation in place from year one. This means asking the hard questions and working to find solutions to past problems so they do not become current ones. We must know our audience and believe strongly in our league’s identity. Be aware of our weaknesses but focus, with pinpoint vision, on our strengths and what sets us apart.

World dominance is ephemeral and the gap between countries is getting smaller by the day. We have the gold medal around our necks today, but will we tomorrow?

With unparalleled human capital, playing the most popular sport in the world with the backing of U.S. Soccer, we have the elements in place to continue this legacy. Our next step is to continue to build the structure that holds up that stage: youth academies, youth team development, collaboration with MLS and the realization that we can only continue to be No. 1 in the world if we invest in the American player through a strong domestic league.

Filed under: Leagues, National Teams, News, NWSL, Players, Pro, USWNT

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  1. William Ocampo says:

    Everybody ignores the elephant in the room: soccer is not one of the mainstream sports in the US. While the MLS is still struggling to cement a fan base, it becomes too difficult to sustain two professional leagues. Both are competing for the same fan base!

  2. luke says:

    The level of openess, warmth and appreciation that USWNT i showing towards the fans is fantastic and extraordinary.
    And the response to that is even more phenomenal: “craziness” is huge understatement what these teenagers and soccer moms feel for the team, PURE LOVE is a better word.

  3. soccermom#6 says:

    Joanna, nice article. I would like to hear your comments on this article which addresses some of the same concerns related to under-represented communities.

    • Joanna Lohman says:

      This article is fantastic and I want to thank you pointing it out to me. To drive home the issue of club and high school being at odds, I quit my high school team my sophomore year. I was learning nothing, regressing as a player, and taking time away from my club, Bethesda. This is a dilemma many girls face. College selection and national team selection are in no way made from high school performance.

      I view high school soccer and I still do as a social event (not a bad thing) that gives you an opportunity to give back to your school.

      But, yes, significant changes will have to be made for lower-income families to get exposure to the top level of soccer.

  4. Ingridium says:

    This article covers two distinct topics– biz v charity and human capital. But I see the strand connecting the two. There’s an interesting article in the Small Biz section of the NY Times “Will this bis ever make money?” Long read but essentially, lots of businesses lose money, or fail. Success, or even profitability, is not what defines NWSL as a business.

    I understand your sentiment that the league should not be portrayed / seen in the same light as the altruistic American Red Cross. But can the league be a multi-BILLION dollar non-profit, like the Red Cross?

    Is the Olympics a business or a cause? Some medalists pull in millions after the torch stops smoldering. But it’s a well-known fact that many Olympians train below the poverty line. Is the Olympiad a charity or a multi-national conglomerate? Is it poor form for the Olympics to be seen as a charity? Those athletes play for pride & country. The Olympics is the pinnacle of AMATEUR sport. These athletes don’t strive to earn a living off sport, right? Is there a parallel there that can helps NWSL appeal to a broader fan base, as a non-profit?

    John Herdman recently participated at a leadership conference in Vancouver, that was well attended by c-suite corporate execs. Kills two birds with one stone– speaks to decision-makers of potential WNT sponsors and it raises the profile of his own personal “brand”.
    NWSL GM, should sit down with each player to discuss what her degree major was, and what her current skill set is to help the team connect with the business world / community-at-large. It’s good for the player to network for her future, and the club’s future. If the team leadership invests in the player, there’s a good chance that’s instinctively reciprocated. Yes? Even when it’s not, investing in your main product seems to be a good move.

    • Joanna Lohman says:

      Ingrid – thank you for your comment. The Olympics has lost its “amateur” label a long time ago. There are plenty of athletes in the olympics that are very much professional. Soccer, basketball, track and field, tennis…..I could go on but don’t need to.

      The Olympics is also once every four years (for each season) so it will be very hard to draw parallels in my opinion. We are talking marketing every week practically which no longer makes it an “event”.

      I agree with your final statement that an interview with each player will be extremely beneficial. Not only for the NWSL team but also for the individual player. Most of these young women ONLY identify themselves as soccer players. An interview regarding off the field contributions will force them to highlight and identify their strengths when it comes to the “real world” – a place they will soon be a part of =)

  5. Paulina says:

    i agree with every single thing you´re saying, i think maybe the us federation should put i little more presion on the mls clubs im from mexico and i think thats what mexico´s federation should do, clubs spend thoundsans of dollars o pesos whatever …in the youth teams u15 and u17´s because they must have youth teams, but why not a women´s teams?, both federations should push the pro team to have women´s teams if the put 10% of the budget the have, any women´s team would be just fine, thats just my thought… imagine if u guys from the us are having problems getting this league to work mexico is YEARS away of doing this posible …pardon my terrible english

    • Paulina says:

      im sorry is “PRESSURE” not presion ahahhaha i just saw it hahahaha

    • Joanna Lohman says:

      Paulina – good idea but I don’t think putting pressure on the MLS clubs is a realistic option. They are a growing league that has just really hit the tipping point. They have every right to spend their hard earned resources on whatever it is they choose. Maybe 10 years down the road, when the league is well established, this will be a better option that can be revisited.

      And yes, if the US struggles so much to get a league off the ground, this doesn’t bode well for countries like Mexico.

  6. hercircumstance says:

    Thanks for following up after your previous article. I agree that all these college educated players should take more ownership of their teams and find ways of participating off the field more. I think if teams evaluate the talents of their players at the beginning of the season and put a plan in place to involve them more then they have a workforce available to them that is both motivated and already on the payroll so to speak.

    The key is investing during the planning stage. It is asking a lot for 18+ players to suddenly be creative on their own without any guidance. Getting everyone on the same page and comfortable with what what’s asked of them is very important. If everyone is organized well at the beginning the work is both easier and everyone is preaching the same message.

  7. Huey0328 says:

    Great a new league name, Okay. Will they run into the same problems as the last.
    Why don’t the Pro Clubs currently in the Canada, United States, and Mexico form their own Women’s Squads to compete for those clubs you have the fan base. You have the stadiums. Get partnered up and give soccer fans what they want, which is to see great soccer played by their Clubs. The crowds may not be as large, at the women’s matches but really is it better to have these stadiums just sit empty or is it better to have fans sitting there watching a wonderful game be played by player who love and have passion for as much as the fans.
    Another thing why not shave a different price scale for different matches Men’s 1st Squad match Mid-field seats 50-70 $ Reserve match same seat 30-50 $ 1st Women’s 40-60 $ Reserve match 20-40.
    MLS Portland Timbers’ new Women’s Team name is the Portland Thorns why now the Lady Timbers or the Timber Ladies keep cost down same uniforms same logo just different names on the back.
    Just a thought

    • hercircumstance says:

      I think if MLS were seriously interested in taking on a women’s league they would be involved more by now. So far they aren’t banging down the door. A few clubs have expressed cursory interest or at least recognized a future need, but not enough to get things done on a scale where enough teams could make up a league. Kansas City and Portland will be interesting to follow since they seem to have the strongest connection to the men’s structure.

      Just because it makes the most sense on paper doesn’t mean there is any way right now for it to happen. The fact is that US/Canada/Mexico federations plus the current eight owners have put together a league NOW, MLS hasn’t. Perhaps as this league persists, over the next few years a few MLS clubs will take a more active role and offer up some teams themselves.

    • hercircumstance says:

      Whoops. Pressed send too soon. Timbers is an Adidas team I believe and the new women’s league will be Nike. That’s probably the reason for new branding. It’s always something, isn’t it. :) I like Nike well enough anyway.

    • Charles says:

      For better or worse, MLS is not yet at a point where it can afford to commit time and resources (with no obvious prospects of a tangible return on investment in the short to medium term) towards a women’s league which some actually see as a competitor for media time and fan revenue. The seasons overlap and as previous statements by those involved in NWSL have made clear, this is a shoestring operation which will operate on a different scale from MLS in nearly every measurable aspect. Precious few MLS stadia are a suitable fit for NWSL teams – my guess is that Jeld-Wen Field in Portland and Livestrong Sporting Park in KC will only host a few Thorns/FCKC matches at best (likely special occasions).

  8. Wit says:

    Good read Jo. A good step in chisseling the dried snot in peoples eyes…

  9. StarCityFan says:

    If I had to sum up the appeal of women’s soccer above and beyond the appeal of the game itself, I would say that the athletes are accessible and admirable. It’s easy to develop a personal relationship with them, and I think I can go so far as to call some of them friends (right, Jo?). As for admirable, these women are giving up a lot to follow their dreams, and the virtues that make them successful on the field make them exceptional people off the field. If I were hiring and found one of them with the necessary qualifications, I’d be very inclined to hire her because I know she’d bring the enthusiasm and self-discipline necessary to succeed.

  10. Pete says:

    Well said Jo. I can tell you that when I had my players and parents (dads mostly) meet and make a connection with the players of the LA Sol, they became loyal, ticket buying supporters.

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