New pro women’s league hopeful third time is the charm

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?

Share your thoughts below.

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22 Responses to New pro women’s league hopeful third time is the charm

  1. pgloerse says:

    I like what Portland is doing. No reason why the ladies can not operate in the void between men’s games. The large salaries are paid by federations and the remaining players are going to have to accept annual salaries in the 30-60K range. Stadiums are already in place, training facilities in place – surely advertising could help recoup the majority of the investment.

    • Joe+G says:

      $30-60k is probably high for most of the players. WPS had an average salary of $27k in 2010 and that was too much. $20-30k might be the standard for the higher-end, non-national team players. Many of the others could make $10-15k for a 7 month season.

      Still more than the $0 most of them made in 2012.

  2. John says:

    The first couple of attempts of this desperately required latching onto MLS for support and fans. In both cases, the women said that MLS was inferior and their women’s league would be a much better world class soccer league.

    We saw the results both times, so it’s a good thing they’re finally saying the right things and are looking to MLS for support. Our best example for this is the WNBA and there’s no way it would exist without its close relationship with the NBA.

  3. franki says:

    Leagues in places like Germany, Sweden, France and England are the best in womens soccer. Our woments NT is the best in the world so it shouldnt be exteemely difficult to parlay that into having one of the best leagues in the world. The 7/8 teams as of now but hopefully in a decade it can expand to say 12-16. Women have to support this league same with the WNBA. they gotta inspore heir daughters and put the funds necessary for their dreams to happen.

    • ld says:

      If you think the Olympics are a more important and harder to win tournament then the womens world cup, you can say that USA is the best, however the USA hasnt won the world cup since 1999, so saying they are the best national team is very debatable

      • Joe+G says:

        Let’s remember that FIFA has ranked them as #1 for a long time and it’s not like they had a huge loss to Japan in the WWC. We can always debate anything, but they are certainly at the top of the heap *right now*.

  4. Dax says:

    Hashmarks across the board on TV.

  5. Andy says:

    Wasn’t MLS a third try for a men’s soccer league after the the leagues in the early 20th century and the NASL went bankrupt? MLS had to start humble and build from scratch, but they succeeded in an extremely competitive market for sports. I wish the new league good luck. They sound like they have the right attitude and have dropped the arrogance of the previous two US Women’s leagues who thought they would just have fans show up begging for women’s soccer. The first generation of players will have small wages just like MLS, but by sacrificing income they can build towards a break even model just like the men did. I hope they can get a TV contract with a major network so I can watch the games since it sounds like there won’t be any franchises close enough for me to attend in person.

  6. Gnarls says:

    Here’s a quick, interesting article on why we (men and women) tend to be disinterested in women’s sports. I believe these issues are the main stumbling block for a women’s league, no matter how deep the pockets.
    link to greatist.com

  7. Weston John says:

    “the next step is to find those owners who are willing to invest in another women’s pro league.”

    The new league has already chosen the first 8 owners. This article reads like it was written a couple weeks ago before the league had chosen the 8 teams and turned away a couple prospective owners.

  8. Cairo says:

    I don’t see this lasting. So much of getting fans to buy in is creating stadium atmosphere, and I don’t see that ever happening for this league. Either you fill 5000 seat high school stadiums–which looks very minor league–or you put 5000 folks in a 20k stadium (see Portland), which also looks very minor league. People will hate this idea, but if I were in charge, I’d switch to 7 a side indoor, play in smallish arenas where you create atmosphere, and locate all of my teams initially in one geographical region (pacific coast?). The benefits are many–dramaticaly reduced travel costs, noisy and mostly full environments, a faster and more fan friendly game, and finally, no dilution of talent, or at least name talent, with 25 player rosters. The downside? Soccer purists wil hate it, and preparation for International competitions would suffer. But this current iteration cannot last–WNBA struggles to create atmosphere in arenas–how can women’s soccer create any in a big, cavernous soccer stadium??

    • Chris says:

      You’re clearly just talking out of your behind. The Sounders Women’s team last year consistently sold out the Starfire stadium (seating something in the 4000-5000 range– they added seats at some point due to demand), and the atmosphere three was awesome. Nothing small-time about it– fans screaming, a supporter’s group leading cheers, fun stuff all around.

      Come back to me when you have some facts instead of poorly-informed opinions.

      • DCLee says:

        I agree that Cairo is taking a pessimistic view Chris and I don’t think a 7 a side gimmick indoor league is the answer. I like the way they have constructed this so far. I think they need to try and model things like they do in Rochester, NY where they had a smaller stadium but a nice atmosphere. These teams are going to have some fantastic players on it so the soccer should be exciting. I also hope Seattle will join. I think Starfire is perfect for the league and love how Seattle has that set up for the USOC games as well. I’m sure the atmosphere was great as you mentioned. The team I support, D.C. United has a small stadium outside DC that is a lot like Starfire where United plays there USOC games and the womens team plans to play. It seats 3-5k and has a really nice set up for a game IMO. When United gets their SSS stadium(fingers crossed) built then perhaps you move in some of the DC womens bigger game but I believe they need to be in as many of these smaller stadium situations to start. I’m very curious to see how Portland does as I believe that is a great market with the perfect stadium and location for it to be successful. I believe the mens and womens teams will help each other and even if the women only attract 5k it will still be a good atmosphere and hopefully the team losses aren’t to significant with this set up. The Timbers unbelievably averaged close to 9k for reserve matches so I imagine they will be able maximize the women game attendances!

  9. TomG says:

    A women’s soccer league is a catch 22. They are fantastic on espn during the wc and on network tv during the Olympics. The level of play is high as are the production values. You can see how beautiful these girls are and how amazing their skills are. But in a league startup with poor production values, f’ll diluted talent and less passion, so much that i love about the game is lost. You can’t start a league with high production values though so you are stuck watching dots on a screen that might as well be guys for all you can tell. The game loses all the charm and distinctiveness that makes it great.

  10. Rick says:

    I am a coach and over the years I have assigned USMNT, USWNT, MLS & WPS games to my players to watch and discuss at the next practice. This has the double benifit of increasing their soccer sophistication and creating fans (which many have become).

    I hope other coaches are doing this as well.

    • DCLee says:

      That is a great point Rick! I believe everyone(especially soccer fans) needs to give this league or any soccer league in this country a chance instead of turning a negative eye on it prior to seeing several games and judging it.

      Does anyone know if this league is being set up as a singles entity like the MLS where all the owners share all the costs, profits and losses? That would obviously help sustain it in the early years.

  11. Turd Bradley says:

    There is nothing worse than women’s soccer. How can a league survive when anyone that even cares about the league is under the age of 15?

  12. Hate PC soccer mangina's says:

    Major points missed.
    1. The US men’s team financially supported the women’s team from 1987 to 1999. Yet, the women never thanked them for their support. Instead Foudy and the 1999 idiots made the USSF seem like a sweat shop owner who took advantage of them.
    2. The MLS is not a charity, it is a business. They are under no moral obligation to support a women’s league. Why would they support a competing product? Does McDonald’s support a local hamburger shop.
    3. Women’s soccer is and always will be inferior to men’s soccer. Even men’s soccer is not popular in this country. That is why women’s soccer league will never work. Not sexism. It is an inferior product.
    4. Get a life you PC weeny men who support women’s soccer.

    • kernel thai says:

      Fan loyalty built over time is the key to any league. The argument that women’s soccer will fail because it’s inferior is foolish. Does NCAA football fail because it’s product is inferior to the NFL? No, because fans support their teams. For this league to survive it needs it’s stars and clever marketing to carry them thru the tough initial years. Their product has to be good, their prices fair and they need to pay the bills. The longer they stay the more the fan bases will build. It will never be the NFL but they certainly should be able to fill small stadiums and provide an exciting brand of soccer.

  13. Roger Cowles says:

    Women’s pro soccer can succeed; the USWNT is as exciting as watching the NFL’s Titans or MLB’s Houston Astros. Also great role models for the kids. The new league deserves a major broadcasting contract from one of the networks and I hope it happens.

  14. whatever whatever says:

    Woman’s sports has become too entangled with militant feminism and political correctness. Some of the comment’s above reflect the sense of entitlement that woman’s sports supporters have developed. They deserve a major TV deal, they deserve to be paid as much as the men, they deserve wealthy owners with deep pockets, they deserve as much attention by sport reporters as men. Yes woman deserve a right to an education, the right to quality health care, the right to pursue the occupation of their choice. But this is professional sports. The US soccer women are upper middle class women, not girls in Afghanistan trying to get an education.

    In the world of professional sports you don’t deserve anything, YOU EARN IT. So far they haven’t proven anything except that they can lose millions of dollars. Men sports have been more than generous with women’s sports in this country. The Division I women’s soccer programs lose millions of dollars per year. Who pays for them: the profit from men’s football and men’s basketball. The most succesful women’s sports program, UCONN women’s basketball loses 800,000 dollars a year. (PAID for by the men)

    As someone above mentioned, the US women were supported by the men for 15 years. Yet, the women acted like they were oppressed.