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Professional May 18, 2012

WPS, Borislow exit stage in fittingly baffling, frustrating fashion

By Charles Boehm

The long, strange, difficult lifespan of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) finally expired on Friday morning, surprising no one and yet still confusing and disappointing those who cared most about the league.

After months of silence following the decision to suspend the 2012 season this past winter, someone from the skeleton crew of staff that has remained involved in the mothballed league took to Facebook — conspicuously, posting nothing on the official WPS website — to announce that the long-running legal battle with renegade magicJack owner Dan Borislow had been settled, and simultaneously revealed that league owners had voted to “suspend operations permanently” and shutter the troubled league.

Intriguingly, sources have informed The Soccer Wire that this decision was in fact taken long before today, and that WPS players were notified of their league’s demise weeks ago.

“All matters and claims giving rise to the lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County have been settled by a mutual confidential agreement outside of court,” stated one of the league’s two Facebook posts on Friday. “The parties, separated by differing opinions on the interpretation of the bylaws and governance of the League, have both expressed their satisfaction that a resolution has been reached that allows both WPS and Mr. Borislow to move beyond the lawsuit that bound them in court.”

A few months ago the conciliatory quotes that followed, coming from both Borislow and Atlanta Beat T. Fitz Johnson, his main nemesis on the league board, would have sent women’s soccer fans’ hearts soaring with the hopes that the squabbling would end and play could continue.

“In retrospect, we wish certain things had happened differently but magicJack, like all WPS teams, invested a tremendous amount of resources in and contributed to the growth and development of the women’s soccer in this country, ” said Johnson. “Mr. Borislow was there with magicJack when the league was in search of a sixth team, and helped ensure the league could play the 2011 season.”

But any such optimism was squashed by the other new post on the WPS Facebook page, which explained that the league’s owners had decided “to suspend all league operations permanently and dissolve the league…effective immediately.”

Confusing, incomplete, strangely timed — the manner in which WPS released the news of its own official death was all too similar to the way the league was run in its final stages.

Reports abounded — and Johnson’s remarks on Friday confirmed — that last season nearly didn’t take place after multiple waves of folding clubs and ship-jumping owner/investors left WPS teetering over the winter of 2010-11, desperate for the intervention which eventually arrived in the form of Borislow.

The telecommunications magnate bought the Washington Freedom from John and Maureen Hendricks, relocated the club to South Florida and renamed it magicJack after his signature product, allowing the 2011 campaign to proceed – and kicking off a surreal relationship which eventually contributed to a chaotic season and a prolonged death wheeze in 2012.

WPS benefited as many of its top players’ exploits created a stellar FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany last summer. But an increasingly disunited board missed out on the chance to make the most of the added attention paid to women’s soccer as Borislow – who remains passionate about the women’s game, but enduringly prickly and confrontational – antagonized many of his players and fellow owners.

Launched in the midst of a worldwide economic recession in 2009, the case can certainly be made that WPS was born under a bad sign in the first place, and the jury is still out on whether a women’s professional soccer league can be run on both a substantial and sustainable basis on the current North American landscape.

Yet as many rush to sound the death knell for the entire concept and consign women’s soccer to the “Olympic” category used to refer to niche sports which can only occasionally grip the public’s imagination, it’s important to remember how many mistakes were made, and opportunities missed, in and around WPS.

Granted, it’s all too easy to critique the league at this point, but in the end, many of WPS’ most important decisions were not made by soccer people, and there were rarely signs that a coherent vision or way forward had been agreed upon and implemented by its diverse band of owners, executives and players’ union representatives.

Two separate entities have already lined up to express their intention to succeed where WPS and its predecessor WUSA failed, as the United Soccer Leagues has announced a new “W-PRO” concept set to debut in 2013, while the Women’s Premier Soccer League is expected to continue with its Elite division, which was quickly created this year as a refuge for two WPS teams and several WPSL incumbents with ambitions to move closer to a professional model.

Are they foolishly chasing an impossible dream, or can someone new get the numbers, and the scale, correct? Add that question to the many which continue to swirl around the upper reaches of the women’s game.