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Lessons for women's soccer in WPS autopsy

wps soccer martinez photosport
Natasha Kai of Sky Blue FC and the Aly Wagner of the Los Angeles Sol

Paul Martinez / PHOTOSPORT

By Paul Martinez
Staff Writer

San Diego (Aug 03, 2012) – Two women's soccer leagues. Two wildly differing financial philosophies. Eerily similar demises.

     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 public?


      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 staffers.

     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 manifest.

     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.

The strict facts

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 costs.

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 pollster.

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 even.

     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 sports.

     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 reason.

     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 and sponsorship.

     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.

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