What went wrong with the WPS? They tried to establish teams in markets where women’s soccer isn’t traditionally watched, such as the United States
The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) completed a modest inaugural season in 2013 and is now in full swing for its second. This is the third attempt to sustain a professional women’s soccer league in the US, following both the W-USA (2000-2003) and the WPS(2009-2012). Like most past efforts to kick-start a professional women’s league in the US, the NWSL followed a widely-watched event that the US Women’s national team won: this time the 2012 Olympics, where they won gold. But given the debacles that caused previous failures, there has been a lot of skepticism, contrasted only with cautious optimism, about the NWSL. This spoof report of the WPS’s failure from The Onion hits marks that are so close to the truth that they sting a little: “tried to establish teams in markets where women’s soccer isn’t traditionally watched, such as the United States,” and “many of the best players chose a more lucrative career path, such as unemployment.” When the WPS folded, players had no paying options left in the US, with only the semi-professional W League. Many opted for that just to keep in shape (the Sounders Women were particularly stacked in this period, with Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo all headed to Seattle), or headed abroad to more stable leagues in Norway, Germany, or France.
The collapse of previous leagues seems to be from problems in marketing and management. Coverage of the W-USA collapse focuses on their financial troubles, starting with almost $100 million and turning it into a huge loss. The WPS tried to avoid the same issues, but was not helped by the 2009 economic crisis. The economic troubles were further complicated by legal troubles, after MagicJack owner Dan Borislow bought the struggling Washington Freedom in 2010 and moved them to Boca Raton. It was ugly, and there’s plenty to read from sportwriters and players alike.
NWSL is tip-toeing towards the magical four-season mark that evaded the W-USA and WPS, hoping to avoid the same kind of spectacular failure by starting small. The salary cap for non-allocated players $200,000 per team, causing many to take on second jobs. This league is trying to straddle the line between keeping star players from heading to more lucrative fields, and keeping costs sustainable. The solution they’ve come up with is the allocation system: salaries of a few national-team players on each team from the US, Canada, and Mexico are paid by the national federations. The organization is investing for their own future: having a domestic league would help the national team immensely, keeping players closer to home and growing the talent pool by keeping all high-level players in competition for more months out of the year.
The new league has also showed the beginnings of another partnership that could help the league survive: between the MLS and the NWSL. For 2013 there was only Portland; with the Thorns and Timbers sharing ownership, a stadium, and to some extent, a fanbase. The Thorns were incredibly successful, winning the championship and having the highest attendance numbers by far. For 2014 the league’s first expansion team, the Houston Dash, followed a similar model in joining the Houston Dynamo in BBVA Compass stadium. Their opening match attendance was an encouraging 8,097 and as far as I can see, they have a good support system that will hopefully give the team similar success.
Moving forward for the league as a whole, this season needs consistency: national team players will be missing a number of games which means the teams will rely on their non-allocated players. It also needs a TV deal, which is a tricky thing to navigate: broadcasters are reluctant to take a gamble on a league with a small viewership and TV so key to reaching a larger audience. For the inaugural season, Fox Soccer picked up 6 regular-season games, as well as all 3 of the playoffs, but as of now, there is still no news on a deal for the 2014 season, which started a month ago. The Thorns have a local deal with CSN, as do the Dash, but for the rest of the league, there’s only YouTube and the promise that all teams are required to provide live-streams in HD this year. The live-streams are still lacking, with poor camera quality and connectivity problems that often leave viewers in the dark for 10-20 minute stretches. But none of this is a problem exclusive to this league, or to women’s soccer: it’s the tired argument that women’s sports aren’t marketable.
One ESPN writer claimed the lack of fantasy league contributed to the W not a very convincing argument for failure, given that men’s sports managed to get by just fine before fantasy leagues were invented. Nonetheless, if it’s any help, the NWSL has had a fantasy league since its inception. I think there is some value to it, as it gives fans a reason to watch other teams’ games beyond their own. I also think that online interaction does a lot to help the growth of a fan base outside of the W-USA and WPS’ tradition of targeting yound soccer-playing girls: they might be passionate and willing to buy posters of their idols, but an adult fanbase is crucial. Adults who have disposable income, who can buy season tickets, and who are educated fans. I have seen a growth of this kind of support through the growing popularity of social media. Each team and almost every single player has twitter, as well as supporter’s groups, that help connect fans and build their passion for the teams. The group I follow, Seattle Reign’s “Royal Guard” has an agreement with a bar in Seattle where they will meet up to drink/socialize before home games, and have convinced them to put the livestream on a big screen for away games. This is the kind of long-term, socially-based support that is crucial to the survival of this league. I remain cautiously optimistic: it seems that most of the previous mistakes are on the forefront of the minds that run the NWSL, and though there are growing pains, I think this slow and steady growth can turn into something lasting.