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?

49 thoughts on “Fixing Pro Women’s Soccer in the United States: A Proposal

  1. Alyse

    I think that I appreciate you writing out this entire article! As frustrating as it is to watch WPS’ struggles and the fear of it disappearing, the thought of creating something entirely new and ‘fresh’ that may create a new perspective for all (including future sponsors and investors) is something that is very intriguing and hopeful. Bottom line is constantly cost management and responsibility and your numbers seem more in line with something attainable AND sustainable.

  2. Jane

    Interesting and thought-provoking ideas. But what is the benefit of adopting the USL hierarchy as opposed to realigning WPS structure against these fiscal objectives? And why did the SUM partnership fall apart in the first place? Would SUM really be that committed to helping secure broadcast rights and sponsorship deals if they are only sharing in a percentage? I didn’t think that they were that flush with resources. And finally, as histrionic as Dan Borislow is, I can’t help but wonder if he is right with regard to the value of the USWNT players (and international superstars). Why put a limit on what a team can pay its DPs? Limit the number of them, sure, but why regulate their compensation if it is outside of the salary cap?

  3. Peter Wilt Post author

    Thx for the comments.

    Jane, USL, IMHO, has better infrastructure and history in running leagues than WPS and would be more willing to participate and encourage their members to join if they were handling the administrative functions.

    SUM partnership dissolved, because WPS wasn’t satisfied with the revenue levels….i think now, they would kill for those levels. You’re right that SUM may not be interested, but i think/hope they would be committed if some of their teams participated. I believe the Cascadia teams along with Sporting KC, Toronto FC and DC United at a minimum would be very interested in this (speculation).

    Re: DP cap, I did not mean to intimate there should be a cap. There probably shouldn’t. $4k to $10k per month was just a range of where most DPS would fall.

  4. Peter Wilt Post author

    USL also has the best history in American soccer of selling franchises. They are well networked and positioned well to lead the expansion portion of a League like this.

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  6. Diane

    Every article I read on what WPS has to do/become to survive mentions MLS. Is it your opinion that WPS can not survive without MLS? They have seemed reticent, at the highest levels, to get involved with WPS although they do not discourage individual teams from working with WPS teams.

    I think if top tier non-USWNT players are capped at $3K a month for 5 months, that’s not the appearance of semi-pro, that IS semi-pro because no player can live on $15K a year and all would certainly have to have another job.

    Your plan definitely has positives, but I fear many fences would have to be mended before it could even be discussed among all parties.

  7. Matt

    So much to think about. Foremost for me is my impression that few pro sports teams/leagues break even, period, in terms of year-to-year operation. The NFL and most of MLB do, for sure, but few others. Especially in soccer. So it’s a huge challenge for any league.
    The partnerships you referenced — with MLS, USL, SUM etc. — are critical. Nobody can succeed in a vacuum.
    I am skeptical as to whether the big names can sell tickets on a consistent basis, at least to justify the type of salaries some might command overseas. So it makes sense not to pay a premium for most of them. A number of the U.S. stars are still likely to play in their home country, I think.
    Creating a true path from lower levels to the top pro league seemed to serve MLS well (Vancouver, Montreal, Portland, Seattle). That might provide the opportunity for franchises to not only grow into the big leagues, but fail on a less-conspicuous level if that is their fate.
    The notion of a semi-pro image is a real concern, but the larger footprint and hopefully increased time window that the lower-cost league would provide should offset that.

  8. Bill

    Peter – In your opinion, what does USSF actually want? Are they holding out for a new business model like you suggest? Are they merely trying to extract concessions with respect to the USWNT?

    I ask because holding out just for them to find a 6th team with the current business model doesn’t make sense to me.

  9. Elizabeth

    Peter, I thought I was going to hate what you were going to write but I ending up agreeing with most your ideas. If it were up to me, we would start something like this in 2014, continue on this path until reaching stability and sustainability. Once profitability is being reached and fan bases are growing consistently, then launch into a higher spending model gradually and maybe reach the spending level of WUSA one day (in the distant future). I like this as a long term strategy.

    As a short term strategy, I like having the USWNT play WPS teams in exhibition style matches in 2012. Then 2013 may have a decent boost (hopefully) from the Olympics and may be ok depending on investor interest. If 2013 isn’t a smashing success (which it probably won’t be), begin your format. This is what I would try to do if I were the boss.

    My only concern/problem is the possibility of most owners that will refuse agree to pay for extra DPs. This may leave some USWNT players and other “non mainstream” stars without a team or forced to accept something lower because all owners are not paying high across the board. The quality of play could also suffer from this. Maybe make a minimum amount of DPs mandatory (ie they have to pay at least 3 players at least x amount)? This would help spread the “higher draw” players as well.

    Thanks for the article, Peter. In all honesty, please consider being WPS’ next CEO.

  10. Cesar (CRS fan)

    1. I would think that a minimum of 500-1,000 USD per month should be established.

    2. I hate expansion fees, maybe an expansion bond or something, but I guess it is the same at the end.

    3. Letter of credit should be more than 100K.

    4. It reads like he wants the League to be like the WNBA, would MLS LLC want that, I would prefer an independent league.

    Other than that not bad.

    He does say Regional to avoid travel expenses.

    But how about Mr. Wilt finds 5 other investors in the Midwest (or joins the WSL) and starts his own league, keep it regional and have a championship game vs the WPS champion.

    Western investors can do the same, Texas region investors can do the same, maybe 6-8 regional leagues that only play each other in September

  11. Cesar (CRS fan)

    “USL also has the best history in American soccer of selling franchises. They are well networked and positioned well to lead the expansion portion of a League like this.”

    USL also has the best history in American Soccer for failing franchises in soccer, I am not a huge fan of the USL.

  12. Cesar (CRS fan)

    I did not mean to sound harsh in my first comment, reading it again I can see how that could come across.

    I thank you Mr. Wilt for all you have done for Women’s soccer in the USA, I have much respect for you and people like you that support the game in this country.

    Again my apologies if I sounded harsh or unappreciative.

  13. bq

    @Diane, “no player can live on $15K a year and all would certainly have to have another job.”

    Now you are getting the idea and I’m not trying to be snarky either. I cover lower level mens pro soccer in the US and that is exactly what has happened to salaries. Where a number of years ago players could earn more in USL-1 then the lower level tiers of MLS, that has all changed.

    Mens soccer in the US has had lots and lots of teams come and go. In fact a 75% fail rate in D2. The salaries are now adjusting to what the market dictates. Players average between 15K to 25K with an occasional special player earning more, and yes, they have to have two, three or four part time jobs coaching etc….in order to make it. It sucks and I don’t like it but it’s the reality of soccer in the US at this point and time. I hope it changes, but for far too long the WPS has been spending and acting like MLS when the reality is it was unsustainable and should have been spending like D2 and D3 mens pro leagues are now. Even though MLS is finally becoming successful and we are all happy about it, everyone else is still trying to figure this thing out. Other soccer leagues success in the US is important for so many different reasons that it would take an article to really document why it’s important. But it is and we have to look at new models, as painful as it might be, in order to make pro soccer work in this country.

    Peter’s article is dead on and exactly what I’ve been hearing reporters say who have been covering the league as well as owners and executives within the league.

    Thank you Peter for having the courage to say what has needed to be said and doing it quite eloquently as well.

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  15. Andy Crossley

    Great stuff, Peter. One thing I would like to add…

    At some point, someone needs to approach the conundrum of professional women’s soccer from the revenue side. Women’s soccer doesn’t have an expense problem. It has a revenue problem. Or to put in another way, the expense problems are solvable (quit playing the Greater Fool with Marta’s agent, for one) but no one has ever proposed a realistic solution to the revenue problem.

    The monday morning quarterback’s assessment of WUSA and WPS is that both wasted an enormous amount of money. While this is certainly true, the latest generation of investors, managers and pundits always tends to smugly assume that the “waste” of their predecessors had zero economic value. If a team lost substantially more money than its original backers expected, then the assumption is that EVERY dollar spent on a billboard campaign or a $60K per year Director of Sales must have been completely squandered. But this isn’t quite it.

    Perhaps a good analogy for women’s soccer is that the WUSA Oil Company secures a lease on a highly speculative piece of land. The first year, they invest money to sink 100 wells on the property. They strike on 40 of the wells, but it turns out the oil deposits are smaller and tougher to extract than expected. Even the wells that do pump oil each cost more to drill than the value of the few barrels they produce.

    So after a few years, WUSA Oil Company gives up its lease to the field. WPS Oil Company takes over the lease on the land and they have a new strategy for the troublesome field: they are only going to sink 50 wells. What is the result of that strategy? You spend less, get less oil, and the oil you get still is economically inefficient to pull out of the ground.

    Now we’re discussing a third company taking on the same unproductive piece of land. They need to have a better strategy than saying: “We’ve got it figured out at last! We’re only going to drill 25 wells.”

    People need to start talking about entirely new approaches on the revenue side. For example, I would suggest that people should be talking about building and the revenue streams that flow from them, rather than which players are going to be playing in this league.

    AC

  16. matthew

    I was going to type up a huge diatribe about how the entire business model of American soccer is completely and 100% ass backwards, but I ended up deleting it because the people in charge are obvious clueless and have never run small businesses before in their lives, and I don’t really feel like wasting my breath.

    I like WPS. I like women’s soccer (although ofc I enjoy men’s more). As long as people try to use the single entity business model (with salary caps, top down planning, expansion fees, anti-union rules, etc.), these leagues are going to continue to go belly up.

    I help run a family business. If the money doesn’t come in, my family doesn’t get to draw a check. During 2008, my father (who is also involved) had to use up my youngest brother and sister’s college fund in order to pay his family’s bills for parts of the year simply because the money wasn’t coming into our small business. That is how things work in real life. When you pay a bunch of pointless administrators (no offense to WPS executives) a shit load of money for doing absolutely nothing, you are already setting yourself up for failure. Mr. Wilt is far too easy on himself by slapping himself on the wrist for accepting a paycheck that was too big. This isn’t just a problem with American soccer. This is a problem with America as a whole. CEOs, executives, etc., are more than willing to take money they don’t deserve (and in some cases their organizations can’t afford) just because it is offered to them. What ever happened to being responsible business owners? Maybe credit is too easy to get or something?

    Until American soccer owners learn to live within their means (and learn that sports teams are just like any other business), they will continue to inflict massive harms on both the players, who rely on these salaries to live, and the communities who try to support these teams.

    Everyone wants to make too much money too fast. Things need to be built on the local level, and growth needs to occur from the ground up. When you put together a bunch of fat cats who throw darts onto a map and then sprout up football franchises from nowhere, is it any surprise that the teams fail to catch on?

  17. matthew

    I don’t mean to be a hater, and I’m not criticizing Mr. Wilt personally, but I found it especially telling that one of the league executive’s responses to this financial crisis is to double down on the dumb ideas that doomed the league from the start (salary caps, expansion fees, no NCAA eligible players, etc.) Why is it so hard to say that in order to join the league you must meet the following conditions: 1) must have X amount average attendance 2) Y amount average revenue 3) at least 10 years of balanced books, etc.? Yeah, it would take a whole hell of a lot longer for amatuer teams to work themselves up to be eligible for entry into a pro league, but if teams can’t meet these conditions as a local, organically-grown football club, how can you expect them to do so when the stakes are drastically higher, the salaries are drastically higher, and every team in the league is depending on every other team in the league to continue to operate in the black or the whole thing falls apart?

    If people really want women’s soccer to succeed, it has to be built from the ground up. I know you all want to 1) get rich quick, 2) be the best at everything because America is so awesome, and 3) believe that you are smarter than everyone else who has come before you, but the reality is that you all are deceiving yourselves.

    MLS has the power to brute force its way through its asinine business model. ESPN, adidas, etc.; all of these companies are willing to help the MLS over the hill to create a high quality league despite its business shortcomings. WPS (or women’s soccer) is NEVER going to have this kind of support. Think about this, and then think about doing things the “right way” next time.

  18. Diane

    @Andy – In keeping with your analogy, maybe the problem is that WSP Oil company has not embraced the new drilling technology and instead of using that, they have chosen to use fewer of the old drills.

    My whole question since I’ve started seriously looking into what makes the league tick, or not tick, has been why do things the way other leagues have? Arguably there are good things about most leagues, but there are also many things WPS has not tried that are a little “out of the box” when it comes generating revenue. There is nothing truer than “you have to spend money to make money” and the league has spent plenty of money, just not in all the right places.

    When you say people should not be talking about which players will play in the league, I have to disagree. It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg argument. If named players (NT and Internationals) do not play in the league the perception is that it isn’t top league and fans will not be made and revenue will not be generated. If money isn’t generated to pay top players they will not play. In both scenarios money is not generated and no amount of building will do that.

    My hope is that this mess with USSF will make both parties re-examine their plan. I think USSF should only require 6 teams for a specified number of years, realizing that women’s sports do not grow at the same rate as men’s do. They should fully support WPS as the top rung of their development program from Mr. Gulati to the groundskeepers. I think WPS owners and governors should realize they need to seek outside marketing help. WPS should be more transparent with their fans and supporters when it comes to what they can and can’t provide. It’s amazing what people will accept when they are treated like they matter for more than their money. The Players (and their Union) have to fully embrace WPS and talk about it at every opportunity. This riff with USSF is the first time I have heard players speak out so passionately about the game they love and love to play.

    I don’t want WPS to go backward, in sanction or expectation of level of play. With cooperation and careful planning (both lacking in the past) this league can grow and flourish, not just survive.

    @bq – No offense taken. I don’t agree with your assessment of what salaries should be (or Peter’s, either). WPS as the premiere women’s league in the US should have salaries that reflect that and that allow the league to attract and retain top tier players. Salaries and incentives combined should allow them to live above minimum wage standards. Many (most) players have a degree, let them work for the team in that capacity (as much as is realistic) to gain resume experience and benefit the team with no additional compensation. Invest the players in the team for more than their paycheck by being the support staff. In that capacity their salaries will be more than earned. I ramble, but the solutions are numerous if anyone is willing to look beyond the norm.

  19. pasoccerdad

    Peter, Good points but the bottom line is the one cost that can be contained is player’s salaries…

    Player contracts should be done per diem… so much per game and so much per training session… taking into account injuries and paying if they are inured

    I understand that players want to get paid for a full season even they are not available for the entire season. Many teams got stuck paying full salaries for 8 games from many players

    I think the WPS can succeed with a buisness plan that aims for break even at 5 years… Puma was an OK fit, but they can do better

    Look at Sahlens model, it is basically getting his product and name known in many markets he was not really known previously. From that Standpoint, I think He was successfull… Magicjack was the same, just a way to get product into more hands… This could prove to be the way women’s soccer survives.

    Spent too much money on advertising
    Contrary to This, I think they did not spend enough… Most people have no idea in the entire region that Philly (or Sky Blue) exists. I talk to alot a fans at games. I hear all the time… “We just found out about the team”

  20. LE Eisenmenger

    Peter, you’re saying SUM would be compensated by severe reduction in player salaries to mostly part-time, yet some guy can buy himself a team of these women for 100k in chump change? Wait till you see what the cat drags in.

    Realistic model

    1) Renew partnership with SUM, which requires additional revenues from players and ownership.

    2) Player salaries are reduced, but all salaries remain full-time and are fulfilled by additional daily hours worked in team marketing by working with youth clubs with results measured in ticket sales, DPs excepted.

    No more embarrassing blogs in the NYT, Cinderella lobbying efforts on twitter or petition, or graduate work on WPS time. All PR attempts must be cleared by SUM and conducted in professional manner.

    3. New team owners must provide equity to cover two seasons of players’ salary and all expenses required by league for two years of operation, renewed annually for additional year.

    4. Bring Marta back to USA for 2013 and market her as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, akin to Pele or Beckham. There’s no other player on the planet like Marta and WPS diluted this obvious opportunity, which factored into the loss of the Puma contract.

  21. laura taylor (@livefierce)

    Hi Peter,

    Thank you for taking the time to put together a comprehensive plan.

    One issue I can see is the USL (i.e. W-League), WPSL, MLS & WPS don’t seem to like each other very much. None is particularly supportive of each other and it seems as though they in fact harbor a great deal of disdain for each others’ businesses.

    My point is, your model requires a huge amount of cooperation between leagues that don’t get along (and that doesn’t even include the USSF). I have a hard time believing all these conflicting interests will be able to bury the hatchet for the sake of the survival and growth of women’s soccer.

    But I remain hopeful.

    Thanks,
    Laura

  22. John G Riley

    A Crazy proposal

    None of the top players are going to play in the US for an owner who is going to offer them pea-nuts instead of a living salary. This proposal is a total joke. The action will all move to Europe. Please talk to the Sahlen’s before writing more nonsense like this.

  23. necron99

    RE: LE Eisenmenger about your point number 4. I suggest you read the interview with Ilisa Kessler on the funwhileitlasted site. http://www.funwhileitlasted.net/2011/10/10/42-fc-gold-pride/ She specifically discusses the financial non-impact that Marta had. She is a great player who is amazing to watch. However if the overall marketing of the league isn’t getting people to show up, then nobody knows she is here. After this WWC there are more people in the USA who want to see Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and Alex Morgan than Marta. Look how many people who showed up to the July 20, 2011 Flash vs MJ game for Abby’s homecoming. Of course the carryover did not stay that high. The one smart thing I saw WPS due this year was getting Abby to attend the WPS Final and sign autographs even though she wasn’t in the game. I am not sure if she did it on her own, Sahlen paid, or WPS did.

  24. peter

    Thanks for all the comments and good thoughts put into them.

    i’ll try to respond to all of the comments above over the next couple days. i’ll start at the bottom and work up as John’s may be the easiest to respond to,

    John, this proposal, while reducing player comp significantly, would still keep the US pro women’s soccer league as the highest paying league in the world. The best players would still be able to be paid the highest individual salaries in the world through the DP slots and the total team compensation would also be higher than all teams throughout the world. If a few top players choose to play elsewhere, i think that’s healthy for the sport as it will grow it worldwide.

    If all USWNT players boycott this model, because the average salary for nonUSWNT players is much lower than the past (yet still comparable or higher to all other leagues worldwide) that would be sad and counter productive, because it would be eliminating hundreds of positions that allow players to play with and against great competition and gives them a chance to develop.

    Laura, i agree that cooperation between parties is the most difficult part of this proposal. That is why, as much as i hated to write it, i limited the necessary participation to just three parties: US Soccer, MLS and USL. I also clearly spelled out responsibilities and incentives for all three. While far from a guarantee that these three parties could/would work together, I really believe it is possible. US Soccer’s involvement is selfevident leaving USL and MLS to agree to participate. While they have their own interests, i believe limiting and defining their roles will allow and even incentivize them both to participate.

    Teams from WPS and WPSL would need to agree to join, but those leagues would not be involved.

    LE, i’m a little confused by your comment. You wrote: “you’re saying SUM would be compensated by severe reduction in player salaries to mostly part-time, yet some guy can buy himself a team of these women for 100k in chump change? Wait till you see what the cat drags in.”

    SUM (Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm or MLS) would be compensated by their own sponsor sales. As part of this collaborative agreement, they would negotiate a percentage of commission with a minimum guarantee of sales similar in structure if not in amount, to its original agreement with WPS.

    Re: the second part of your comment on the proposed $100,000 entry fee, I guess i would say two things:

    1) WPS’ standards for investor vetting, letter of credit and franchise fees allowed Dan Borislow in and he was one of the wealthier owners WPS ever had. I don’t think anyone would say that worked out well…Mr. Borislow included.

    2) Low franchise fees and low operational cost requirements broaden the pool of potential investors considerably. But this should not impact the approval process for the League. Each owner or ownership group applicant would still need to be vetted and meet whatever minimum ownership standards the new League requires. The lower operational costs means the net worth portion of the standards could/should be lowered from WPS’ $7.5 million minimum, which would allow a greater pool of potential owners and ultimately more teams. If operational costs are reduced, yes, less wealthy owners will be able to participate in the league, but only if the league agrees to let them in.

    For example, I would rather have an ownership group that is embedded in their soccer community and a net worth of $3 million than a $20 million lottery winner who has no connections to a soccer community other than hosting an end of the season party for his daughter’s team.

    Quality of ownership is really about the vetting process and the minimum standards that a League sets more than anything and that would still be controlled – hopefully better than WPS handled it last year.

    More responses later. Thanks again to everyone reading this and sharing their thoughts.

  25. LE Eisenmenger

    Peter, as I understand, WPS anticipated greater and faster return from the SUM contract and when SUM refused to renegotiate after the fact, WPS cancelled because they couldn’t afford it (although they couldn’t not afford it). If WPS re-enters into that relationship they will have a better understanding of that and have to derive operating revenues from elsewhere. You seem to prefer those revenues be extracted from players, not owners, and also assume players would return for far less or no pay and play for less sophisticated owners without a vested interest in longevity, and likely without TV coverage.

    Why would the players not go to Europe? How would the players find sustaining part-time jobs that did not require work on weekends and during practices and team obligations? With players folding shirts at Target most of the day, how would the team reach out to the community? At Target?

    necron99, try looking at this from general public perception, not just from the POV of women’s soccer aficionados, but also from the eyes of the much larger pool of general soccer fans, immigrant fans and men’s soccer fans. Also consider the dramatic increase in ticket sales MLS teams experienced from Beckham-marketed games. ESPN knows very well how much Americans love famous stars and events. Let women’s soccer fans argue the technical merits of Marta vs. USWNT stars, but let marketing firms use Marta and her world-wide recognition and undeniable flair to sell the game to people who currently are not attending.

    You can argue that Marta games didn’t always bring a substantial increase in attendance, but there was no Marta-focused advertising to back up that argument.

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  28. Beau Dure

    Matthew — Most of the owners in WPS have run businesses, small to big. And the administrators in WPS were hardly “doing nothing.”

    NCAA-eligible players can’t play alongside pros on the same team. You can have (and in some cases in W-League and WPSL, you have had) college players against pros.

    MLS didn’t impose itself on the soccer landscape. U.S. Soccer took bids for Division I leagues in 2003. They got three — MLS, APSL (the existing D2) and League One America. The latter proposed radical rule changes such as keeping players within specific zones of the field, and it got no votes. MLS beat the APSL by a wide margin. The big sponsorship deals came years later, when it was clear that their model was working.

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  30. Katreus

    @LE Because unless you’re well known, talented, and on one of the pro teams, your salary in Europe is pretty low. In Sweden, over 2k euros a month means that the team expects you to play soccer full time. However, most Sweden teams are semi-pro: you work during the day, you train in the evenings. For most teams, there are only a few players that will be dedicated full time players. Take a look at the ESPN article on Val Henderson and her comments on the Swedish league.

    Val Henderson league Link: http://espn.go.com/espnw/athletes-life/7095481/swedish-league-soccer-stars-work-overtime

    In France, the situation is similar. Unless you’re on Lyon (the one full time professional club), you work and practice in the evenings. For example, at Juvisy, Soubeyrand, the Juvisy and French team’s Captain, is a children’s teacher and works with the city as one of the ministers (of youth affairs, I believe). She does not consider herself a footballer nor does Gaetane Thiney, another Juvisy and French team player. Both of them, when asked, will say their ‘day jobs’ because they make their living wage there. There’s a great article out there on Laetitia Tonazzi, another Juvisy player, who spoke up on finances in the French league. She earns around 1800 euros per month from football and works for her living wage and is still using the same shin guards from her time at the Academy.

    Tonazzi link: http://www.rue89.com/rue89-eco/2011/10/31/laetitia-footballeuse-de-haut-niveau-et-fonctionnaire-territoriale-1893-eu – Just google translate it. It’s readable.

    German clubs, other than Turbine Potsdam and FFC Frankfurt (their pro teams), usually line up sponsors that will help employ players and provide some help like access to cars (if you get, say, a BMW or other car company sponsor). Even on the German national team though, there are “sport soldiers.” These are players who, because they are good at soccer, get part time employed by the military. They have to commit to military training to keep up their qualification and in return, the military will pay some money to them so that they can afford to play soccer. I think, recently, Peter, one of the German DFs, was held out of a friendly, I want to say Sweden-Germany, because it conflicted with one of her dates to maintain her “sport soldier” qualification.

    In other words, there’s nothing preventing players from heading to Europe, per se, but the money isn’t going to be much better (or really, at all). Also, many of the European leagues have foreigner limitations, that is the number of non-EU members they can have on their team. Therefore, there are less spots for American players anyway and not only will you compete against other Americans, you’re going to be competing against African, Asian, and South American players as well. However, if you’re good enough to get money from Europe and / or land on a pro team, you’re probably going to be good enough to grab a DP spot anyway in this framework.

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  32. peter

    Peter, Good points but the bottom line is the one cost that can be contained is player’s salaries…

    pasoccerdad, pay for play isn’t a bad idea. We did that with the Chicago Riot this year..plus everyone was paid the same. I think that should be a team by team decision as it’s not practical in some situations.

    i disagree re: doing better than Puma. Highly unlikely WPS will get seven figures cash from another supplier with only five teams and MAYBE 1-3 more following year. i don’t see any evidence that WPS can get to break even in five years going the way they’re going. I’m also advocating a business plan to provide a path to break even (for some teams in year one), but i don’t believe it can happen in WPS as currently structured.

    Sahlen and Magicjack model is fine, but it’s not profitable for the team or really for the product they promote. Using your sports team as an advertising medium may justify a few teams for their owners, butthat doesn’t help the rest of the teams. If you want to go that direction, i’ll propose another model along those same lin es: Find 20 billionaires willing to lose milllion dollar plus annually with no end in sight, because they have a passion for the sport. Same argument really as find 20 owners willing to lose a million dollars plus a year to promote their other business. Both models are not sustainable and from a pure business sense doesn’t make any. Sahlen didn’t sell an extra million dollars of sausage and DB didn’t sell a million dollars worth of magicJacks last year, because of their WPS investments.

    Re: advertising costs, pro women’s soccer is a niche sport and if you are spending any money on traditional media, your return will be less than your investment. Targeted grass roots community relations activities, social media and activated partnerships with sponsors and other stake holders are the best ways to get the word out to the people most likely to b uy tickets and merchandise. Reach out directly to those who are already economically and emotionally connected to the sport. $5,000 of print, outdoor and electronic advertising won’t sell $5,000 of tickets and merchandise. Sorry, it just won’t.

    if locals don’t know about the team, it means the team needs to do a better job connecting with local soccer community via phone calls, player appearances, coupon distribution and social media.

    Andy,

    Thanks very much. You say WPS doesn’t have an expense problem, it has a revenue problem. i contend hat it has both. My original post acknowledges that reduced expenses led to a proportionate reduction of revenues. Further cutting expenses will certainly result in more of the same, but i believe that reducing expenses in non-revenue generating areas (player salaries and travel to be frank) will minimize this effect and will lead to acceptable losses. Afterall, if a team only spends $600,000 in a season, it can’t lose a million dollars no matter how hard it tries!! :)

    Using your oil drilling analogy, i would say that WPS oil company needs to stop paying its oil workers the three times the salary that oil workers in Venezuela are making and concentrate their wells geographically near existing pipelines to reduce transportation expenses.

    Matthew,

    i agree with your insistence on business austerity, obviously as that is the core point of my post. I don’t agree with your inference that WPS was doomed by salary caps, expansion fees and lack of NCAA eligible players. Last one first, NCAA eligible players are not permitted to play with pros. Not WPS’ rule, NCAA’s rule. Re: expansion fees, i’m proposing an 87% reduction. If someone can’t pay $100k to join, i don’t think they’ll meet the standard that you’re insisting elsewhere in your comment. You really think salary caps hinder league growth and a lack of salary cap would promote fiscal responsibility? Again, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Regarding your suggestions, i also agree with them in an ideal world, but unfortunately until eight teams enter a League, they are not practical. Mandating minimum attendance levels and 10 years of balanced books before accepting a franchise would rule out every one of the current WPS teams. i do agree that examining and holding new franchises to tougher standards is important. It is important to recognize that the best way to do this is to have a critical mass of teams in the League, so no team can hold the league hostage as magicJack and others have done. To the extreme example, if you have 20 teams, you can start to become very judicious in who you let in and who you let stay in.

    And finallhy re: your critique of MLS’ business model, I think MLS should be complimented more than criticized. While far from perfect, MLS’ single entity structure, strict salary budget, slow growth, strict investor standards, insistence on control of venues, creation of SUM to control other soccer properties are all strategies that should be commended from a business standpoint. ESPN, adidas, NBC etc are not charities and have invested in MLS, because they believe these partnerships help their business. MLS did not use its brute force to get these businesses on board. You seem pretty strong on this opinion, without much evidence to back it up, so i’m guessing we’ll just end up agreeing to disagree on this one.

    Diane,

    Re: non-USWNT comp topped at $15k, please remember that is not for a year that is for 5 months and they can make more by coaching and/or playing the other seven months. They can also make money doing camps and other work in season like their European counterparts as Katreus writes above.

    I disagree with your contention that WPS needs to spend more money to retain and attract star players to get people to buy tickets and sponsorships. The League tried that – Marta, Cristiane, the entire USWNT…every star – except the Germans – played in WPS and it didn’t work. As Necron99 points out above, the column by former Pride GM Ilisa Kessler http://www.funwhileitlasted.net/2011/10/10/42-fc-gold-pride/ shows that even Marta didn’t move the needle for their ticket sales.

    Sorry i haven’t gotten to everyone’s comments yet, but i will!!

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    peter

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  34. WTM

    I am not particularly up to date with exactly how this is all panning out but I do find your post here very persuasive. I just had a thought and i don’t know if it is particularly relevent but here it is. I come from australia. We have 3 major sports for males over there Aussie rules, rugby league, rubgy union, the dedicated soccer community tried for years and years and years and to make our national soccer competition to work and it just kept falling over. What changed it in the end where now the national soccer league is doing very well was the fact that our mens team finally made the world cup and then Australia played in the world cup and do reasonably well.

    My point is that it is simply very hard to get somthing to start, to find 20 teams that has the ability to generate enough cash at present just may not be the case, yet if there was an event like a womens soccer world cup or the mens world cup and the us women or mens teams do well, that is the year that you should try to piggy back the positive interest and that would get each of the twenty teams that are needed started. So I guess the thought that i am putting forward is, and you may think its ridiculous, finding an soccer event that will generate enough interest in the game to get you through that almost impossible start up phase of any entity.

  35. kool-aide

    Youth pay to play clubs are organized as non-profit entities but they often (generally?) are on financially solid ground (those fees!) What are the real barriers to establishing a WPS team or top flight women’s league (where players are paid–ie professional) as a non-profit entity? Aside from it sounding weird to talk about pro sports as non-profit and it not being the way men’s pro sports are organized. I think there is a ton of potential for WPS or women’s pro soccer to be financially feasible as a non-profit activity.

  36. kool-aide

    @Matthew: You said: “Why is it so hard to say that in order to join the league you must meet the following conditions: 1) must have X amount average attendance 2) Y amount average revenue 3) at least 10 years of balanced books, etc.?” You do realize that these standards you suggest would have prevented MLS clubs from lasting/starting, right? Were you following soccer in the US in 1990 or 1996 or 2001? Why do you want to impose higher standards on women’s soccer?

  37. E Rimly

    Typical. Tweak it from the business end. Let me see, hmm, isn’t that what was tried the second time? You can tweak it all you want but that won’t make women’s soccer more entertaining. There is a way to make women’s soccer more entertaining, but gimmicks and shortcuts won’t make it happen. Watch FC Barcelona play. That’s the model, and it will require an entirely different training from youth through adult. I know the formula, I lived it, and there are no shortcuts.

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  39. Clay Berling

    Wonderful article and many cogent comments. But Peter has the experience which few of the responders have. Certainly there are middle grounds on some of the ideas. I’ve been an observor for about fifty years and know the wheat from the chaff. There is one ingredient which I think has been overlooked in all of the discussion: identification with the community. If a team wants to get support at the local level (the most critical in the early stages), its name MUST reflect the community. I know it’s great to have national and regional sponsors with their major sponsor dollars, and get them when you can, but local businesses (especially those attached to larger area identification) provide local support, ticketing opportunity, promotional venues, etc. at little or no cost. The Chamber of Commerce of the area can get behind the program, further enlarging
    the community’s interest. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Businesses connect with the community for maximum effect. Soccer teams, male or female, can do no less. Who the heck is “Sky Blue”?

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  41. KG25

    A UK perspective on Womens Profesional Soccer.
    A definition of madness is to continue to repeat the same mistakes and expect a different outcome.Women`s Soccer cannot and never will compete with Men`s Soccer as a fan based attraction.No fans,no sponsors,no revenue=NO BUSINESS.You are still establishing the MLS and with support from the likes of Adidas and ESPN hopefully this will develop into a League which can attract the best players from Europe and The Rest of the World to improve the quality of the product.If you can continuously improve the brand then new sponsors and fans will follow.Notwithstanding this,the MLS competes against your number 1 sports of football,basketball and baseball at the various levels and will always play second fiddle to the history and inherent passion you have for these sports.This is one helluva list of competition to pit yourself against in terms of the MLS let alone Women`s pro soccer.Very few Soccer clubs worldwide actually return a profit and this despite hundreds of years of tradition and huge fan bases.
    As a new business start-up without an established product and no confirmed revenue, I would expect to be considered crazy if I told you that i intended going competitively head to head with Amazon and Apple.
    Here in the UK, Women`s Soccer (Football) has been moved to a summertime schedule so that it does not compete directly with our number 1 sport of Men`s football. It still only attracts miniscule numbers of fans and this will not change.The product itself is of poor quality in comparison to Men`s soccer although,as a grass roots participant sport, womens soccer has shown growth year on year for a good 5 years.This does not make it a marketable product for profit.I suspect that this is where it sits most comfortably, as a good alternative Amateur sport but certainly not one to attract huge numbers of paying customers or investors looking for a decent return.

  42. Matt R

    Hey Peter,

    You’re the expert, and I think you would know more than most about team finances, expenditure, etc. I certainly don’t know anything about it.

    However, what I do have a decent handle on is selling soccer, and the perception of pro women’s soccer amongst a demographic that is crucial to any pro team or league: the 21 to 35 year old city living, professional, social, active soccer fan. This person probably played some HS soccer, maybe some college, and has been playing recreationally most of their adult life. They follow European leagues, some will watch the MLS but most don’t even know the WPS existed.

    In the last six years that I’ve been involved in soccer here, I’ve never found any front office staff in any pro league who has been able to unlock the key to this EXTREMELY important demographic, and at worse don’t even try or realize they need to. I have always seen them focus almost 100% on the low hanging fruit: youth clubs, suburban families and, to a lesser extent, ethnic minorities (hispanic, etc). The reason they do this is because its cheap, its easy (it doesn’t take a front office genius to figure it out) and it gives immediate returns. While these returns are important, they should be a small piece of the pie, not the only piece. These demographics will never sustain the long term growth of the team. Historically they’re fickle fans and are only involved if either their favorite player is in the team, or they don’t have anything better to do that day.

    It isn’t just the WPS who is guilty. Several MLS teams that I have worked with are too. I can tell you that the Chicago Fire is making great, great strides to do the hard but important work needed to unlock the magic door. It takes commitment, guts, the willingness to think way outside the box and your comfort zone.

    So in conclusion, and as a a few people have said here, for me it doesn’t have much to do with internal team finances. It comes down to revenue and the perception of women’s pro soccer. If the WPS or front office staff don’t figure out how to get that key demographic engaged, they’ll never survive. I’ll never forget standing in the Toyota Park parking lot one WPS season trying to give away 50 free tickets to a Red Stars game the following week and not being able to give away a single one. Some didn’t know who the Red Stars were, some knew but would never go to a WPS game because of how overly youth/family focused it was, and some had no interested in women’s pro sports in general.

    It sucks – you and I know these women are amazing athletes – but when you’re fighting for fan dollars, we have to deal in perceptions. We have to embrace the way people think and tackle it from within.

    Disclaimer: I fully support women’s soccer. I have two young daughters and wish for them to have a pro league to watch and play in one day. And… I love women!

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  44. InWoodbridge

    Peter — This sounds more like an enhanced W-League. I always thought that a Woman’s Division 1 League could be grown from the W-League. One of the WPS teams was in the W-League (winning the championship) 2010 before joining and winning the WPS in 2011. It may be that the trick may be using the W League as a proving ground as you stated and that there be promotion and relegation in the Woman’s league model. Since all the teams are going to remain relatively modest in size even in Division 1there is not that big a jump from one league to the next. This approach may make for more compelling national interest for both D1, D2, and D3 ranked leagues. WRT national interest I am not getting crazy here it is a niche spectator sport even with the the likes of Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. The Euro-traditionalist may like to see the experiment work and may even get involved fan-wise just to see that their promotion-relegation beliefs are supported.

    If there are two soccer teams in the area people are going to see their MLS team first and the WPS team will be second no matter how good the level of play. The WPS had pretty compelling play on the field. A remember an amazing lead up and goal by Alex Morgan with the outside of her foot…amazing.

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  46. Sgc

    Peter,

    “Last one first, NCAA eligible players are not permitted to play with pros. Not WPS’ rule, NCAA’s rule.”

    The NCAA changed its amateurism rule about a little over a year ago so that college teams can add players who have played with professionals. I am not sure of the details on players playing with pros during their off-season once they’ve already begun college (except that I know they can practice and play reserve matches, as some men’s players do), but I suspect they can do this now.