What Does The Future Hold For Women’s Professional Soccer?

Every professional sports league has a moment early in its existence when its survival is on the line, and its future murky: a new league is always going to lose money getting off the ground, and serious road bumps have been navigated by every league that still survives.

At that point, like in a financial crisis, its future depends almost as much on the perception of its future as its actual pragmatic prospects: because if those who invest their money into its survival (owners, sponsors, fans) believe it’s a doomed enterprise, it pretty much is doomed as a consequence of that loss in confidence.

That moment might be coming right now for Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) in the United States, at least judging from the spate of articles this week assessing its current state and future as we head towards the closing stages of its second season. There are two balanced, fair takes on the league out there by Jeff Kassouf and Beau Dure: neither, thankfully, are doomsday pieces, but look carefully at the positive and negative signals out there for us outside WPS’ inner circles to judge the league’s present state on.

There are the obvious alarming facts: attendance is well down (around 15% league-wide), mainstream media coverage is poor, St Louis bailing mid-season was a major blow, and the league is not going to hit its target for 12 teams by 2012 at this rate. The WPS head office recently eliminated several jobs, including New Media Manager, an area the league had excelled in with Amanda Vandervort in that role leading the way. Belts have been tightened considerably everywhere in WPS, and we know the league doesn’t have investors with the deep pockets MLS thankfully had to survive its heavy losses in the early years. AEG stuck with MLS; they walked away from WPS.

Yet there are positives for WPS, too: while walk-up sales are way down on 2009 levels (and it’s worth remembering the major sophomore slump MLS experienced in 1997 as well), season ticket sales are up from 15-20% leaguewide, suggesting WPS is doing a good job in earning fan loyalty. Crucially, there are apparently still interested investors, with Dallas and a return to LA possible for 2012. The Women’s World Cup is next year and that should provide plenty of buzz, presuming WPS is around. WPS games are broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel. Importantly, sponsorship revenue is reportedly up 150% in local markets. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the quality of the play is damn good.

Given the collapse of the previous women’s professional league, WUSA, who gambled on being big time and lost, WPS sensibly put together a much more cautious business plan for its early days. But at the same time, it’s tough to see the league’s best team and the world’s best player only drawing 3,097 fans a game. WPS is on the ropes, and I really hope they can punch their way out of this: I guess the best we fans can do is to continue to support the league, and believe it’ll pull through, as this venture’s success is vitally important for the future of women’s soccer worldwide.

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