Throughout the various incarnations of women's professional soccer leagues in the U.S., one elusive goal has been finding a realistic business model, one where revenues were at least in the general ballpark of expenses. It proved too big a challenge for the WUSA in the early 2000s and for WPS, which ceased operations earlier this year.
But with the joint announcement by soccer federations from the U.S, Mexico and Canada that they will be subsidizing a new eight-team league that will begin play in March, the dream of finding a suitable business plan that can support the women's game is closer to reality. The three federations will pay the salaries of the international players who will be participating, with 24 performers coming from the U.S., 16 from Canada, and another 12-16 from Mexico.
USSF President Sunil Gulati, who has led the effort to create this latest attempt at a women's league, likened it to the government – in this case the three federations – subsidizing the private sector in order to make their capital commitments smaller.
“What we need is a sustainable model: less hype, better performance,” Gulati said during a conference call with reporters. “The hype will come if we have the performance.”
Gulati added that the as-yet-unnamed league will be one of the best in the world due to the involvement of the three federations and the success of their women's national teams. But that is a mantra that was also preached by the new league's predecessors, and it wasn't enough to stop those ventures from folding.
The key is to find additional savings beyond salaries, and according to Boston Breakers managing partner Michael Stoller – whose team is among the eight announced by the USSF – that will be the case this time around. The front-office operations of the new venture will be housed by the USSF, reducing overhead. A move to smaller stadiums is also in the offing, and the front-office staffs of the teams involved will be leaner than their WPS forebears.
“The numbers are substantially [less], and with the kind of sponsorship we think we'll be able to get over the next few years, this is truly, finally a sustainable model,” said Stoller. “We won't start off with the kind of deficits that we started off the last two leagues with.”
This comes as welcome news to former Chicago Red Stars CEO Peter Wilt, who has long advocated operating women's teams with much-reduced budgets.
“Even if this isn't a solution to breaking even, it's a solution to losing a lot less,” he said via telephone. “And it sets a baseline for growing the game and moving the game forward. There's also a good chance that it will be major league from a product standpoint. The teams won't be demonstrably worse than they were in WPS.”
All of this does come at a cost. Gulati admitted that players at the lower end of the pay scale will have to find second jobs in order to make a living. That calls into question the level of professionalism that will be present in this league. But if the goal is to keep player development moving in a positive direction, having a league with reduced funding is better than nothing, something U.S. international forward Abby Wambach knows all too well.
“We can't be too concerned at this point,” she said about the level of funding in a phone interview. “We just have to be positive-minded that this league will be good enough for the national team players to participate in. I think we all saw at the most recent World Cup and the Olympic tournament that the level of women's soccer internationally is getting better and better. We have to keep the national team on top.”
As for the league itself, a 22-game schedule that runs from March/April until September/October is being planned, with plenty of flexibility being worked in to one day accommodate international tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics. Of the eight teams involved, four of the clubs – Boston, New Jersey, Western New York and Chicago – have ties to WPS. The four additional clubs will be located in Portland, Seattle, Kansas City, Mo. and Washington, D.C. The Portland team will be run by the Portland Timbers of MLS.
With regard to sponsorship and television, Gulati said a “handshake agreement” had already been reached with one national sponsor, and preliminary discussions were already under way with a potential broadcast partner. Gulati also hinted that there would be more cooperation in the future with MLS.
Given some of the painful lessons MLS has learned over the years, that would appear to be a welcome development. But it all comes back to the economic plan and the commitment of the owners. That is precisely why Wambach is excited, yet wary.
“My biggest concern is where the concern has always been, the funding,” she said. “U.S. Soccer is trying to tackle that by paying its players. I think we want there to be a sustainable league, a quality league, a competitive league, so the national team players have a place to play when they're not in with the national team. You can't just train.
“I can only hope nothing but the best for this league. And I hope the owners are serious about dedicating not only their money, but their passion towards this league. That's what it's going to take. MLS had a lot of passionate, deep-pocketed owners when it got started back in the day. The reason some of those teams are turning a profit now is because of those deep pockets. I can only hope that the owners are as serious as the MLS owners many years ago.”
With a better business plan, the odds of this league lasting longer that its predecessors have certainly improved. Those involved with the women's game can only hope it stands the test of time.