Women’s League Soccer

We’ve had a decade and a half of professional women’s soccer in the U.S.which is often lost on people not paying attention.  Yes there have been three leagues in succession – because the first two only last 3 seasons each – but taken in total there has been professional women’s soccer in the U.S. since the famous 1999 U.S. world cup victory.  The first league, Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) launched a bit late – 2001 – to fully capitalize on the popularity of the U.S. women’s team victory but it did have most of that team plus a number of international stars.  It lasted three seasons — closing up shop after the Washington Freedom won the third championship in 2003.

There was a painfully long break after that with Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) not launching until 2009.  (In that gap there were two really semi-professional leagues –Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) and the W-League.)  After 1999, the U.S. won Women’s Soccer Olympic Goal Medals, but didn’t win the world cup again until this year (2015).  I don’t think the U.S. networks every fully invested in Olympic soccer the way they do for a World Cup — regardless there was never quite as much of a surge of popular interest after the Olympic victories as there was in 1999 and now in 2015.

The WPS played three seasons and probably would have limped into a fourth season except for numerous business issues adding up and the spectacular legal fight it had with Dude McDude Dan Borislow who bought the Washington Freedom franchise, moved it to Florida and renamed it magicJack, after his company.  Borislow was to say the least, not a team player as far as the WPS was concerned and the finances were more than tight enough that the prospect of a big legal fight was probably a legitimate reason to throw in the towel.

Both of these leagues had financial mismanagement or at least if not mismanagement not good enough management.  WUSA spectacularly blew through its planned 5 year budget in one year.  WPS had a number of franchises with financial problems in every season.  At this point someone at the U.S. Soccer Federation or maybe it was someone in the Canadian or Mexican soccer federations realized that a successful women’s soccer league was no sure thing and that if these three countries wanted to keep dominating (U.S.), step up to the elite (Canada) or become more competitive (Mexico) — having a successful women’s soccer league was necessary for current and developing players to get playing time at a high level.  All three federations put up money to help pay for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) which debuted in 2013 and has now completed three full seasons with no obvious problems preventing it from returning for a fourth season.

The good is that the NWSL is running on a super lean budget with assistance from the three federations so it will be difficult to to screw up the finances.  On the other hand they really are not paying the players much at all.  That is not a recipe for long term success (but important to remember that MLS paid pretty poorly too for many of its early years) and may leave space for a league in Europe or Asia to steal away international stars.  At this point MLS is in the middle of its 20th season and while it has a lot of work to do has many lessons to offer the Women’s game in the U.S.

First – get the right stadium in the right setting.  Almost none of the Women’s teams have anything close to this.  The only team that regularly draws in the five figures is the Portland Thorns who play in the Portland Timbers stadium.  As more and more of the MLS teams have obtained soccer-specific stadiums with 20,000 to 30,000 seat capacity the women’s league teams have to find a way to share those stadiums.  There is zero chance that any city is going to build a second soccer specific stadium.

Our local franchise the Washington Freedom Spirit is a great example.  They play in distant suburbia in a 5,000 seat stadium with bleachers on one side.  It’s hard to get to – it has limited concessions.  It in no way feels major league.  However, the MLS franchise, DC United has finally sealed a deal for a stadium in DC that will seat around 25,000 and has an amazing location in the city near the baseball park with a riverfront view..  It’s a very central, accessible and nice location in the city.  The only answer for long term success is to put the women’s team in the new DC United stadium.

Which also raises the real question of whether or not NWSL should be talking to MLS about greater cooperation, investment or outright ownership of NWSL teams.  The downside to greater cooperation could be a permanent second class status for the women’s team or a failure of MLS executives to understand the needs of the women’s game and its audience.  Or other things — I am fairly confident there’s a lot of digits spilled over this argument.  The upside though is leveraging the infrastructure of MLS teams — basic operations of running an organization, the stadium, the practice facilities and other assets that could be used by both teams.  Marketing if done intelligently could add cross-promotion to the mix.  And let’s not forget the emotional investment of fans.  MLS at this point has been around long enough to get some real buy in from fans.  At this point there are actually parents who have raised their kids to become fans of the hometown team — there are probably a growing number of three generations of fans now.  A separate identity for a NWSL team has to build its brand and raise awareness all on its own.  A women’s team linked to the MLS team could build off of that existing awareness.  I could be wrong but put the Spirit in the new DC United Stadium, put them in similar colors to DC United and sell me tickets to both and I think that works.  I’ve been a fan of DC United from day one (really before day one) and I could completely get behind expanding my love of that team to two teams under the same banner.

And while I know the existing NWSL has to keep treading carefully with expansion (it appears they have confirmed that Orlando will join them as their 8th team next season) I’m hopeful that with a greater alliance with MLS teams this could be a point of only growth for the women’s game in the U.S.  I suppose it doesn’t really work but there’s even an easy league name to adopt if a merger with MLS went through — WLS.  (I would also love to bring back the WPS logo – just rebrand it but keep the Mia Hamm silhouette.)

And it would be wonderful if not only did expansion continue but that it brought back former team names from the WUSA and WPS and that maybe the women’s league could consider the seasons and records from those first two efforts as part of this new league’s official history.  If money and ownership was not a problem (and again if MLS teams stepped up as well) it would be amazing to get to a fourteen or sixteen team NWSL WLS in a couple of years.

Western conference could be existing teams Seattle Reign, Portland Thorns, Houston Dash, Chicago Redstars and Kansas City FC (really that team would benefit from taking on the Sporting Kansas City name) and then it seems totally plausible to bring back a Los Angeles team — in partnership with the Galaxy or the new LAFC team.  I liked the WPS name for the  LA franchise – Sol.  You should also have a San Jose team — there was a San Jose team in the WUSA and basically one in the WPS (although they played in Hayward which is north east around the San Francisco bay).  I’ve heard as well that Vancouver – which had a women’s program – is a city that many hope will enter the league at some point.

The Eastern conference would be existing teams Washington DC Spirit, Red Bull Sky Blue FC (New Jersey), Boston New England Breakers, the new Orando team and the Western NY Flash who basically play in Rochester.  There is no MLS team in Rochester but the city has a long history of supporting soccer (Rochester Rhinos are the last non-MLS team to win the U.S. Open Cup). Great franchises to bring back would be in Atlanta where MLS is expanding to and Philadelphia where the MLS team already has a great stadium in place.  Both of these cities were in WUSA and WPS.  Last it would be great to get another Canadian team in the mix – either Toronto or Montreal would be a great location.

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