By GARRETT CLEVERLY
Abby Wambach has a simple solution on how the new women’s professional league needs to be different from the two that have folded within the last ten years.
“Find richer owners, I’m not kidding. There is one reason why the MLS survived is because they had really deep pockets in some of their owners.”
There aren’t many pockets deeper than a entire soccer federation and three of them, U.S. Soccer, Canadian Soccer Association, Mexican Football Federation, have come together and agreed to subsidize some of the salaries of their national team players playing in the new league.
Wambach said she hopes with the three federation’s support, the new league can attract a different type of owner who understands the commitment the federations are making to help put the league in a better place and into self-sustainability.
“We don’t want to rely on them to run our professional leagues forever. That would be a mistake that would be too many cooks in the kitchen if you ask me. U.S. Soccer doesn’t want to be involved full time and they want to eventually fade themselves out. And that’s a good plan.”
Before the league is launched, the next step was to find those owners who are willing to invest in another women’s pro league. Eight markets have been chosen with eight ownership groups ready to give women’s soccer another chance.
The prospective owners will be looking to avoid the mistakes that the two failed leagues made. They will be asking U.S. Soccer two important questions. Who will be our corporate sponsors and how much will the operating costs be?
The first league, WUSA, was founded following the immediate success of the 1999 USWNT World Cup victory. At the time it seemed like a no brainer that the passion and excitement of the Cup run would indeed flow into a new pro league. However a lack of corporate sponsors and a league loss of $100 million dollars in the three years ultimately doomed the league.
After the league failed in 2003, John Hendricks, chairman of the WUSA board of governors, said, “I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in 1999, and I mistakenly believed that level of support would flow over into the league.”
The league tried to stay afloat, even cutting costs and player salaries. But with still $16 million in the red, the league folded.
A few years later, in 2007, a second attempt at a pro league emerged. The new league, WPS, tried to avoid the same mistake of burning through money that the previous league had made by starting on a smaller scale.
But the new league once again made the same mistakes the previous league made by once again spending way too much money. The league made a huge splash when the Los Angeles Sol signed Brazilian star Marta to a three-year $1.5 million dollar contract. Paying her over $500,000 per season was ludicrous for the team and with over $2 million in losses after two years the team folded.
A long legal dispute with magicjack owner Dan Borislow also forced the league to direct its attention to solving this issue which took away from investment and building the brand.
The new league folded with the same issue once again. Losing money.
New owners will be weary to jump on board with a new league that will most likely lose money in the first year or two.
Sunil Gulati has looked to avoid this by having the three federations pay their players’ salaries in the new league. That will cut the costs of the elite players and by combining with MLS that may lower operating costs and require the league to do less marketing.
But unlike previous attempts in the past, those evaluating the current state of women’s soccer can see the value and improvement surrounding the women’s game since the last league was founded in 2007.
Rivalries that have turned into fierce competitions with countries like Japan, Brazil, Germany, and Canada over the last few years have helped the USWNT become must-watch TV. This has also helped the American soccer fan become more familiar with stars outside of the U.S., like Brazil’s Marta and Canada’s Christine Sinclair.
Within the USWNT, the emergence of young stars such as Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux have helped attract a whole new generation of women’s soccer fans. Combine that with the fans who grew up with key veteran players like Wambach, Hope Solo, Shannon Boxx, and Carli Lloyd and it’s arguable that the pool of women’s soccer fans has never been this big.
The USWNT is also going through a huge generational change. In many ways, women’s professional soccer is still very young. It has been only 21 years since the first women’s World Cup was held in China in 1991. A majority of fans who buy into the women’s game will remember a time when women’s soccer didn’t exist beyond high school or college. But with a new generation of fans set to become adults within the next few years, they have grown up in a world where world-class women’s soccer has always existed and is more feasible than ever.
And that could be enough for that owner with deep pockets to take just one more chance.
Stack this on top of the growth the men’s game has seen over the past few years and it’s hard to argue against American soccer experiencing a type of golden age.
Soccer hotbeds have emerged in cities like Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City. The new women’s league will look to fans in cities with MLS teams as a starting point for the base of the new league.
“Being on Sounders women’s teams I really saw how important it was for male and female teams to grow together and be in the same city because there already are MLS teams that have done so well for themselves in certain cities,” said Alex Morgan. “I think it’s important for us to add our teams to those locations and I think fans will continue to support the men’s teams and add on to our team as well.”
The Portland Timbers are currently the only MLS team that will own one of the new franchises in the women’s pro league, but league organizers are hopeful that the guidance of U.S. Soccer can bring out big-time sponsors and partnerships with MLS clubs, which are essential to the new league’s growth.
“We just need to continue to see the commitment of all sides,” Morgan said. “That’s players, ownership and fans included.”
What are your thoughts on the new league? See this version of a women’s league making it, or do you see it failing like the previous attempts?
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