Fixing Pro Women’s Soccer in the United States: A Proposal

Women’s Professional Soccer (upper case) and women’s professional soccer (lower case) are both in trouble in the United States and scrambling for survival.

I have the perspective of being intimately involved in the creation and launch of WPS from 2007 through 2009 as founding President of WPS’ Chicago Red Stars.  I also have some strong opinions about the sport’s future direction.  Frankly, my own failure, along with that of my WPS colleagues, to rein in expenses is the reason WPS is on the verge of collapse.  While I was preaching fiscal responsibility from the beginning, it wasn’t enough.   I took a sizable pay cut to join the Chicago Red Stars, but I was still paid too much (as was just about everyone else associated with the League) relative to where the revenues ended up.

Current WPS players, supporters and administrators are now begging US Soccer and anyone else who will listen for another chance, an extension, another year to get on its feet.  Specifically WPS is asking US Soccer to extend its waiver of an eight team minimum standard for classification as a first division professional league even though the League has shrunk from six teams to five since the end of its third and perhaps final season.  Most, if not all people commenting or considering this issue believe that there are no alternative ways to save professional women’s soccer in the U.S. other than having US Soccer grant WPS its waiver.

I disagree.

It may sound cruel, but I believe the best thing for the future of women’s professional soccer (lower case) in the U.S. is pulling the plug on Women’s Professional Soccer (upper case) as we know it and replacing it with an improved streamlined model that would entice more investors throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Here is why WPS is failing:

  • Spent too much money on players
  • Spent too much money on coaches
  • Spent too much money on front office personnel
  • Spent too much money on advertising
  • Spent too much money on League operations and promotion

OK, so I could have saved some space there and simply written “Spent too much money”.  WPS didn’t spend too much money as in “WUSA has American cable TV’s checkbook” too much money, but WPS expected that it could maintain revenue levels from WUSA while reducing overhead.  It couldn’t.  The spending did many good things – necessary things.  It lured Marta and a host of other top international players, it kept the US Women’s National Team players in the League and it attracted a few major sponsors and a national broadcast deal.  But in the end, it wasn’t enough.

It’s ironic that WPS’ cause of death will be the same as its predecessor WUSA.  WPS thought it learned lessons from WUSA and spent much less than WUSA.  WPS indeed did spend less than WUSA, but was dealt fatal blows on two accounts: 1) revenues fell in proportion to expenses and 2) ownership wealth had been replaced by passion.  Passion can’t pay the bills.

Women's United Soccer, CyberRays' Championship

Bay Area CyberRays' Sissi, left, of Brazil, and Thori Staples Bryan, right, carry the Founders Cup around the field after they defeated the Atlanta Beat at the inaugural WUSA Championship at Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. Saturday, Aug. 25, 2001. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The League successfully sold 11 franchises, but six folded, left or were kicked out of the League.  I made the prediction before WPS kicked its first ball that it would add teams faster than MLS, but it would also lose teams faster than MLS.  Sadly that prediction came true and the losses exceeded the gains six to four.  To put it into football terms, after three seasons WPS was -2 in takeaways.

WPS could continue another year as it is, but frankly it would be more of the same and would lead back to the same place. Five teams confined to the eastern time zone playing a shortened schedule to avoid Olympic conflicts is just plain ugly.

Puma has opted out of its seven figure annual agreement that paid most of the League’s central office bills.  Sponsors aren’t lining up to replace that funding and the league no longer has its partnership with Soccer United Marketing to fall back on.  If WPS does manage to hold on another year, it will be small, obscure and unlikely to improve its economic condition.  Attracting one, two or even three more teams the following year is possible.  There are legitimate inquiries to make commitments to join WPS, which could help US Soccer justify an extension of the minimum team waiver and buoy the League’s hopes for growth and survival.  But any additions could just as easily be offset by losses of existing teams.

I also don’t see that simply adding investors to the current business model which has failed every team every year will change the future of the League.  Believing that last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup or next year’s Olympic games will change the economic condition of the League is delusional.  Any bump is short term and not enough to overcome the inherent weakness of the model.  Again, 11 teams have tried it over three years and none of them have come close to breaking even with this business model and the League’s top sponsor is gone.  Adding teams to “Save WPS” without radically changing the model would simply put off the inevitable.

Suffice it to say the future’s not bright and you don’t gotta wear shades to view WPS’ future…and that’s not even considering the legal and public relations quagmire with magicJack and its owner Dan Borislow.

Veteran Women's Professional Soccer player Ella Masar, left, and 2010 draft pick Whitney Engen model their new uniforms for the Chicago Red Stars at Puma's 2010 WPS uniform unveiling hosted at the Trust building in Philadelphia Friday, Jan. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Mark Stehle for Puma)

Chicago Red Stars' Women's Professional Soccer player Ella Masar, left, and 2010 draft pick Whitney Engen model their new uniforms for the Chicago Red Stars at Puma's 2010 WPS uniform unveiling hosted at the Trust building in Philadelphia Friday, Jan. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Mark Stehle for Puma)

A new model is needed that will attract not just a handful of teams, but as many as 20 teams and a coast to coast footprint for the sport.  I was always told that if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.  So, for your viewing pleasure I present to you my bullet point solution for a new professional women’s soccer league in the United States and Canada that would solve the current mess and launch the sport into a positive era that would grow the sport for the long term (warning: the following contains recommendations that some may consider grotesque and may cause idealistic supporters of women’s soccer to become ill):

  • Base player salary budget of $100,000 to $150,000 per team.  18 players per team.  $0k to $3k per month in season per player.
  • 2-3 designated players per team.  $4k to $10k per month in season per player. DP salaries are off budget.
  • Recommended annual operation budget of $200,000 to $400,000 not including player compensation, though teams that are willing and able could spend more on the business end.
  • No NCAA eligible players
  • April though August season (extension through September in Olympic and WWC years)
  • Invite all current members of WPS, W-League, WPSL and MLS to place teams in the new League.
    • No entry fee for inaugural season.
    • $100,000 entry fee for expansion teams in ensuing seasons.
    • Must commit by last day of previous season to be eligible for following season.
    • $100,000 letter of credit for all teams to guarantee finishing season if teams can’t pay bills mid-season.
    • Operate league for the first year on a cooperative basis by US Soccer, USL and MLS.  USL and MLS operate the league going forward after the first season.
      • US Soccer would establish new, more realistic standards for a professional women’s league comparable to top women’s leagues in Europe.  This would allow both low budget and medium budget teams to compete on a relatively level playing field. In the first year, US Soccer would provide an overriding layer of governance similar to the 2010 D-2 League.
      • USL would use its infrastructure to manage the league’s administrative needs similar to its MISL relationship. USL’s compensation coming from low five figure annual league dues and a percentage of new franchise fees.
      • MLS/SUM would handle the league’s broadcast, marketing, sponsorship and communication responsibilities. MLS’ compensation coming from a percentage of sponsorship fees it generates.
      • If enough teams apply, play will be regional until the playoffs to limit travel expenses and increase rivalries.

Implications (bad and good):

  • WPSL would be left out of the professional game and will likely lose teams to the new league. WPSL could more legitimately be pitched as a feeder league to the pro circuit.  New investors could start with a WPSL team and the learning curve to jump to the pro league wouldn’t be as great.  Could be a good selling point for new WPSL franchises.
  • WPS as an entity and its office personnel would disappear and be replaced. The name could continue, but personally I’d prefer a fresh brand such as WMLS or anything else.
  • Dilution of talent spread over more teams.  I believe as many as 20 teams could be assembled in this model between in the first three years and with that comes a spread of talent, which will reduce quality of play.  WPS, W-League, WPSL and MLS each likely have at least five teams that would very seriously look at joining this model.  If MLS is on board, they will add credibility and stability that would risk little to MLS and offer tremendous potential benefits in sponsorship and added integration into its local and national footprint.
  • Some USWNT players may choose to play in Europe if they feel the competition won’t be as good in the new league or if enough teams don’t use their designated player slots as generously as needed to compete with European offers.  With up to 20 teams, there could be as many as 60 DP slots, which may or may not be used.  This is more than enough to accommodate full USWNT and many international stars – if the owners are willing and able to pay the $4k to $10k per month to keep this level of player in the new league. USWNT players receive their US compensation wherever they play.  Club salary usually increases their compensation by an additional 50% to 100% for most.  This proposed model shouldn’t change USWNT compensation much if at all.  More teams means it could actually increase competition for them and drive up their compensation.
  • Second tier US players forced into retirement, because non DP compensation would top out around $3k per month.  Playing for a pro team provides a “business card” of sorts that gives players credibility and networking opportunities that help them gain decent paying coaching positions in youth and collegiate soccer.  This augments their “pro” compensation and provides a stepping stone to a post playing career.
  • Top international players less likely to play in US.  DP slots would allow many to still play in the league.  And truth is, the depth of international talent has exploded over the last five years meaning those that choose not to stay can be more easily replaced than in the past.
  • Many experienced coaches and administrators won’t be able to continue in women’s professional soccer at lower compensation.  There are only five teams, so there can’t be that many coaches and administrators that will lose their jobs.  Plus many more jobs, albeit low paying, will be created to seed a new generation of coaches and administrators.  Others will be able to finad a way to make it work by double dipping with other coaching or administrative positions.
  • Lower salaries and operational budgets will create a semi-pro image that will further reduce sponsor, fan, broadcast and player interest.  It’s a step backward in image, but the reduced expenses are needed to bring fiscal sensibility to the business.  Increasing the number of teams will result in a growth of the base, get more people involved as investors, players, administrators and cumulatively as fans.  Critical mass of teams will ultimately generate more interest from sponsors, supporters and broadcasters in the future at which time teams can justify increases to their operational and player compensation budgets. If MLS teams indeed do join this League, they would be able to provide infrastructure that would be more professional than what WPS teams now offer and would serve to improve the image of the League for all stakeholders.

So there you go, my proposal to blow up what I helped create and start something new intended for long term growth and sustainability.  Some WPS teams are already embracing some of these recommendations, but not all.  Atlanta, for instance, is now a leader in controlling player costs.  Sky Blue FC has been a leader in business austerity from the beginning.  The current leaders of WPS should take control at this critical juncture and work with US Soccer, MLS, USL and the thousands of “Save WPS” petitioners to lead professional women’s soccer to a new and sustainable future.  It will require collaborative and unselfish work with great sacrifice for many, but I believe it can work.  What do you think?

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