LA Sol Folds: Good for the Future of WPS?

LA Sol and Marta

It’s not surprising that many commentators have seen the demise of the LA Sol, regarded as the flagship team of WPS in its inaugural season last year, as a very bad thing.  The LA Sol had the highest average attendance in the league, the highest sponsorship income, and thanks especially to Marta, the highest profile.

But they also spent by far the most money on their stadium, payroll and promotion, culminating — despite the decent crowds relative to the rest of the league — in a loss of over $2 million dollars.

In some senses, their departure should neither be a surprise nor a great cause for concern for WPS going forward.

Alarm bells did not ring loudly about LA (despite the fact they said they wanted out mid-summer last year) because they were owned by AEG. Phil Anschutz’s company had bankrolled MLS in its early years, and many felt he would shepherd his WPS team through the growing pains as well, even if a new owner couldn’t be found.  But when this did prove to be the case, Uncle Phil did not swallow up the loss for another year.

And so Jeff Kassouf asks: “It is hard to imagine what prevented this sports and entertainment conglomerate from “being in a position to take on” the Sol for another short period of time, other than simply not caring.”

Yet though I understand the sentiment here, this isn’t exactly fair to AEG as a business operation– which, after all, they are. AEG decided to sell-off most of its MLS teams when the league had become a viable business investment for others to sell to; between 2006 and 2008, they sold the MetroStars (2006), DC United (2006), the Chicago Fire (2007) and half of the Houston Dynamo (2008). It’s clear AEG have been scaling back their ownership of sports franchises for some time (including outside of soccer) — and most of this after AEG had already committed to WPS (remember, the league was supposed to launch in 2008 originally, and thus commitments were first made by ownership groups in 2007).

In WPS’ case, there wasn’t going to be such an easy sell at this stage, though one could fairly ask if AEG or WPS really couldn’t have done more to find a viable new investor given how long they must both have known how this was going to play out in the offseason.

charity

Does this mean AEG should have sucked it up and continued to lose millions of dollars in 2010?  It’s easy for us to tell a billionaire like Phil Anschutz that he should, but there’s really nothing to say besides it’s his business, and he quite easily could have pulled the plug much earlier: most probably, judging from the timing that he cut back on other team investments, he may actually have wanted to but instead sucked up some losses out of a sense that he owed WPS at least a season due to his original commitment to the league.

What is perhaps more significant than all this is whether or not this is a blow to WPS as a business.  The league added two teams this offseason, so despite the demise of the Sol, the league will be larger this year. Sponsorship revenue is reportedly going to increase over 50% this year. Many of LA’s players will find new homes, including Marta, and it’s a sign of health that other teams seem to be able to take this on (though it is terrible for the LA players who will not find new roster spots).

One could argue that the Sol’s failure may even help the league, as it continues to build a smarter business model than that of the WUSA some years ago — the overspending and overambition that doomed the first women’s professional soccer league was mirrored by Los Angeles’ approach to WPS. But this time, the Sol appear to be an exception. Sure, other teams are losing money, but none at the scale of the Sol, sensibly operating within tighter constraints that better reflect the position of women’s soccer as a spectator sport at this point. If the Sol’s demise ensures other teams continue to tighten their belts, that’s a good thing for WPS.

Quite frankly, WPS is small-time in its appeal at this stage of its development, and it needs to be approached as such by investors. Sky Blue FC showed in 2009 — despite some internal problems of their own — that you can spend little and be successful. The Atlanta Beat opening a new 8,000 capacity stadium built for women’s soccer is the way forward, not trying to be big time with a 6,382 average attendance in the 27,000 capacity Home Depot Center, as the Sol had. An LA team will return to WPS eventually, but it’ll be in a smaller stadium with smaller ambitions, and that’s better for WPS in the long-term.

At the end of the day, if women’s professional soccer is to survive in the long-run, it has to be because it’s sustainable, not thanks to charity from Uncle Phil. And the league, outside of LA’s bloated budget that’s now been blown away, is expanding and not contracting as a whole: the green shoots are still growing for women’s soccer here, folks.


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