By Paul Martinez
San Diego (Aug 03, 2012) Two women's soccer
leagues. Two wildly differing financial philosophies. Eerily similar
It seems everything has been tried,
first in the WUSA, then the WPS. Neither league worked out. What's it going
to take for professional women's soccer to finally "stick" with the American
The Women's United Soccer Association
(WUSA) was slated to launch on the heels of the successful 1999 Women's World
Cup. Women's sports were suddenly the hot ticket, including several sold
out Rose Bowls (capacity 92,542). A "big league" sort of approach seemed
justified. Heavyweight corporate sponsorship was easy to find. Investors
coughed up one hundred million dollars of seed money. Eight franchises formed,
each with a dozen full-time staff in the front office, and each with another
two dozen players receiving an average salary of $75,000, and the whole
arrangement was capped with a corporate office with more full time
Crowds averaging "only" 20,000 would
be required to pay for this structure. But getting this all together went
too slowly. The afterglow of the 1999 Women's World Cup victory had cooled
by the time play started in 2001. With some teams struggling to sell out
even small stadiums, it did not take long for financial trouble to
By the start of the second season,
it was clear the league was in big trouble, with seed money meant to last
three years already gone. The end of that season saw the league at least
$40m in debt. Restructuring took place but it wasn't enough - by the end
of the third season, debt had reached $100m. With no new investors willing
to take a chance, the league suspended operations just before the start of
the 2003 World Cup.
Not all was lost. The WUSA proved
there was a market for a women's soccer league. People would pay $10 and
show up in crowds averaging 5,000 for top-level women's soccer. Even before
the body had cooled, a new effort was afoot which would eventually create
the WPS - an effort centered on strict financial control.
The USA didn't win the 2003 World
Cup, and that shot down immediate plans to relaunch WUSA. For several years,
ideas for a new league were kicked around. The USA lost again in 2007, little
noticed in America because it was held in China with games in the middle
of the night.
By 2009, the face of women's soccer
had completely changed. The old guard of Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie
Foudy were gone. Their young fans had moved on. The USA stopped winning World
Cups - Germany won two straight. The new heroes - Hope Solo, Abby Wambach,
Natasha Kai - weren't getting traction with the general public.
WPS was born at this time, into a
stiff financial headwind, and launched without any heavyweight sponsorship.
In 2011 USA lost the World Cup yet again. Despite running the league on
one-fourth the budget of the WUSA, the result was the same - three years
and out, wrapping up before the 2012 Olympic soccer tournament.
Attendances - WUSA teams pulled in 3,000 to 8,000
paying fans per game. And by "paying" we're talking $10 bleacher seats, not
$95 boxes. It's not that soccer fans are notoriously cheap. Let's just say
they are used to paying less than other "major league" fans.
WPS pulled in somewhat less, averaging
about half, but proportionally better than the WUSA given its far lower operating
Fans - The next question is who? Who comes to
these games? We're seeing 8-11 year old girls, mostly soccer players themselves,
dragging their parents into the stadium. Women's soccer - and women's sports
in general - have a lot of trouble bringing in the "beer crowd" of general
public fans looking for a socially acceptable way to let loose in an
alcohol-fueled sort of way. Without these free-spending fans, any league
is going to have a lot of trouble making a go at it.
Whether the beer crowd would mix
well with the bulk of middle-school age girls is another question. Would
parents keep their kids away if the league went after the beer crowd? A survey
of the parents would be an excellent idea, but board chatter already indicates
many parents have a real problem if the entertainment is not absolutely wholesome
in every way.
They are in total control of their
children's entertainment, and have preconceptions as to who they want their
kid to emulate. Certain parents would prefer their kid turn out like Mia
Hamm and not Kai and her tattoos, no matter what they would tell a
Soccer Climate in America - Historically, launching
a league in the USA is a money-losing proposition. Almost every league has
failed in a relatively short period of time, and taken a lot of investor's
money with it. Even MLS would not have made it without the immense financial
support of Philip Anschutz, who has dumped in $500m during the initial decade
of MLS existence. If Philip Anschutz liked women's soccer, we would have
a league; he doesn't, so we don't.
Women's Sports in America - Despite Title IX,
which guarantees female athletes participation opportunities in American
colleges, women's sports has trouble generating attendance, except in golf
and tennis. WNBA survives on NBA largesse. Few college women's teams break
even, distorting programs by forcing out the men's teams that don't break
In all sport, athetes are divided
between the haves and have nots, but nowhere more so than in women's sports,
where a player like Serena Williams has an annual income that could run WPS
for several years. Except for golf and tennis, nobody watches women's
The question is why? Why don't women
support their own programs by attending them? Why won't men show up to women's
sports, unless they are family members? These questions are societal in nature,
and in the end, may run into a fundamental incompatibility between female
fans there for one reason, and male fans interested for a different
At the end of the day, the league,
players, fans and society in general must consider whether to cater to all
fans, or continue to present their entertainment product such that it is
acceptable to only sophisticated, evolved individuals, even if it means existing
on handouts, with athletes living on a shoestring.
The Lesson - Women's sport survives in one of
two ways - institutionally, via organizations that pump in adequate resources
such as collegiate athletics or the NBA, or via established country club
traditions such as tennis or golf, that attracts huge upper class patronage
The only other possibility is an
angel such as a Philip Anschutz appearing on the scene, with unlimited resources
and willingness to lose money for many many years to give it time to root.
But Anschutz is a once in a lifetime phenomenon, don't expect another one
any time soon.
A league cannot be established with
momentum from one single great event, or with the highminded desire for social
change. Only money works. But if the groundwork can be laid, we might once
again have top level women's soccer.