Well, it happened again: Just as American women’s soccer was enjoying the limelight, it was jolted by another major setback on the professional front.
In the fall of 2003, with the Women’s World Cup weeks away, Mia Hamm and the sport’s greatest generation were sidelined by the demise of the three-year-old Women’s United Soccer Association. On Monday, the day after the U.S. national team celebrated an Olympic berth by hammering Canada by four goals in the CONCACAF regional final in Vancouver, Women’s Professional Soccer announced it was suspending operations after three seasons.
Two strikes and you’re out? Perhaps.
League officials and investors say they will reorganize and hope to relaunch in 2013, but with each failure, the prospects of a top-tier women’s league succeeding in this country dims.
WPS closed shop less than two months after the U.S. Soccer Federation granted it provisional sanctioning as a Division I pro league. The USSF agreed to it even though the league didn’t meet D-1 standards. The federation was inclined to reject the request, but in the best interests of women’s soccer, threw the league a lifeline. (Without sanctioning, a league doesn’t have access to game officials, among other issues, and imperils the standing of its players.)
So things seemed on course for a five-club league this summer and, under terms of the agreement with the USSF, a six-team circuit in 2013 and eight the following year.
But soon there were signs WPS might not even make it to opening day. The Insider reported last week that several U.S. national team players, including Hope Solo, were not going to play in the league this year. WPS believes it has plenty to offer fans beyond Solo, Abby Wambach and others, but realistically, the foundation of support isn’t strong enough in the league’s fragile development to thrive without marquee American players.
WPS was also hampered by legal action – and the subsequent financial strain – brought by Dan Borislow, the notorious MagicJack boss, who went to court after being booted from the league last season for violating terms of ownership.
“I’ve only been onboard for four months, and the bulk of my time has been spent on addressing a lot of these other negative issues regarding termination of MagicJack and the sanctioning issue with U.S. Soccer and resulting issues with sponsors and such,” WPS chief executive Jennifer O’Sullivan said during a media conference call Monday afternoon.
“It is unfortunate that the attention and focus that needed to be on the business, growing the business and developing the game and the sport just hasn’t been able to be there. Until this [MagicJack] situation is resolved, I don’t believe we can fully put our attention to it. It would’ve been unfair to put together a season while we would’ve still had this hanging over our heads.”
Even without the Borislow distraction, one has to wonder about the lasting power of women’s pro soccer. In the big picture, women’s soccer is still an “Olympic sport” – meaning it captures the attention of the general public every few years for major international competition (in this case, the Olympics and World Cup).
It’s the same for Olympic swimming and speed skating: The public cares very deeply and genuinely when national pride and gold medals are at stake but otherwise isn’t captivated. Wambach and Solo, meet Michael Phelps and Apolo Anton Ohno.
America celebrates her Olympians, and the absence of an affiliation with a pro team or league doesn’t diminish their accomplishments. Solo and Wambach are as popular (more popular?) in this country as Landon Donovan, who performed World Cup heroics and has won four domestic pro league titles in MLS. Clint Dempsey is American soccer’s most accomplished export, scoring goals regularly for Fulham in the English Premier League, but he only wishes he were as well-known here as overseas in order to secure an invitation to “Dancing With the Stars.” (No, not really. He’s couldn’t care less. But you get the point.)
On a daily-weekly-monthly basis, women’s soccer struggles to find an audience and sustain a business. To repeat, this is not a reflection of the the individual players, who are some of the most committed, caring and community-oriented athletes I’ve ever covered. It’s more a reflection of women’s soccer’s inability to bust out of the “Olympic sport” genre.
So what happens now? It’s unclear where the U.S. national team players will land this spring. Most are under contract with the USSF and could enter into long-term residency of sorts to gear up for the Olympics. Some could head to Europe. Some might play for Borislow’s barnstorming team in Florida. When asked if that were in the works, he told me: “I don’t want to speak for any of the players. Getting [t]hem happy and to the Olympics should be all of our goals.”
Said USSF President Sunil Gulati: “We have had discussions with the [U.S.] coaching staff and will be increasing our programming over the next six months.”
A gold medal would help the WPS’s cause in attracting new sponsors and investors for 2013 – or so the theory goes. After all, the buzz created by last year’s Women’s World Cup in Germany offered only short-term dividends.
So after watching franchises in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago and the Bay Area fold within two years, the Washington Freedom move to Florida, MagicJack implode and then Monday’s punch in the gut, it’s unclear whether Solo, Wambach and Co. will have the opportunity to perform in a top-level U.S. league ever again.
While that would be disappointing to aspiring players and American soccer in general, it reinforces the fact that pro sports are a business, not a cause. And if the business isn’t working, the broader cause will suffer.