John Smallwood: No reason to thing this women's soccer league will succeed

Even Brandi Chastain, in the wake of United States' 1999 World Cup win, couldn't bring success to a women's pro team.    ASSOCIATED PRESS
Even Brandi Chastain, in the wake of United States' 1999 World Cup win, couldn't bring success to a women's pro team.    ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: November 25, 2012

If you've followed my writing, you know I am a

consistent proponent of both the sport of soccer and the advancement of opportunities for

women in sports. Combing the two, it would

figure that I would be gung-ho about the

United States Soccer Federation's announcement Wednesday that a women's professional soccer league will be launched this spring.

Perhaps I would be, if the two previous professional women's soccer leagues launched in the United States since the groundbreaking success of the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup would not have each folded after three seasons.

Realistically, if the Women's United Soccer Association, which last from February 2000 to Sept. 15, 2003, could not capitalize on the the stature of such legendary U.S. stars as Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry and Julie Foudy, I seriously doubt that a league composed primarily of a changing generation of USA players - many with little national name recognition - will develop the level of popularity needed for an extended stay.

After starting up after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Women's Professional Soccer folded just before the 2012 Olympics in London.

I applaud U.S. Soccer for finally showing more than just lip-service interest in sustaining the United States' top-level status in women's soccer, but the game is immensely more popular with fans on the international stage than on the professional one.

What they hope will make the difference this time, according to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, is that his governing body will add financial support instead of merely sanctioning status as a top-tier league.

Gulati said that plan right now is that while the eight teams will be privately owned, the USSF will pay for the salaries of the 24 U.S. national team players expected to participate.

The new league also says it has commitments from the National Federation of Canada to pay for 16 players, and Mexico to cover 12 to 16 salaries.

"We are subsidizing the private sector here to try to make it sustainable, to try to make the investments necessary by the private sector smaller," said Gulati, who said he has a "handshake agreement" with one national sponsor.

That's all fine and good, but it still doesn't necessarily give private investors reasons to put their capital at risk.

The WUSA, which included a franchise in Philadelphia, started with a $30 million initial investment, including $5 million from Comcast, and a various times at had games shown on ESPN2, TNT, CNNSI, ESPN2 and PAX TV.

Again, that league was coming off the boost from the 1999 Women's World Cup in the United States - which is regarded as one of the most significant moments in the history of women's sports. The crowd of 90,185 for the final between the United States and China at the Rose Bowl is still the most-attended sports event in history.

Nearly 2 million fans attended the 123 matches with the average crowd being 37,319. The USA never played before a crowd of less than 50,000.

That was as about as ripe as it was ever going to get to start the world's first women's soccer league in which all players were paid as professionals.

The WUSA originally began with a $40 million budget that was supposed to cover the first 5 years of operation. That was blown through in the first season of operation. By the time the league folded, it reportedly had lost about $100 million.

The WPS had more modest expectations, with an initial operating budget of $2.5 million for each of the seven teams, including the Philadelphia Independence, but still made it through only three seasons.

A workable business plan has yet to be found.

One encouraging sign is that the Portland franchise for the new league will be run by the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.

That type of association with NBA clubs is what carried the WNBA through its formative years and allowed it to stay around long enough to become self-supporting. In building the WNBA, the NBA put growing the game above financial interests, but it also had the financial clout to do it. Most MLS clubs are still too concerned with growing their own product right now to take up sponsorship of a women's team.

The problem for women's professional soccer is easily identified. The American public shows an Olympic-type fascination with national team. Every few years, when there is a World Cup or Olympic tournament, the team spikes in popularity, but fans have been interested only in seeing the national team players together as a unit.

Spreading the players out among a bunch of teams in a league hasn't attracted enough interest, but having no league means U.S. women have no place to develop, as the rest of the world continues to grow in strength.

With the next major international event not coming until the 2015 World Cup in Canada, the United States wants to protect its No. 1 ranking. It has a vested interest in making sure its players have a competitive place to regularly play for the next 2 years. In this case, they will play in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, western New York and Washington.

The idea that the USSF will pay the 24 national team player salaries for the new league is an enticement to keep top players from going to Europe - which doesn't pay great but is a place to play. However, they are basically saying up front that, to save the clubs money on salaries, most of the players in this league will be semi-pros.

The quality of competition also will be interesting, because the new league is not likely to offer high salaries to international players from such nations as Brazil, Japan and Germany.

"What we need is a sustainable model: less hype, better performance," Gulati said. "The hype will come if we have the performance."

History, however, isn't on the side of this new women's league.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: philly.com/Smallwood

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