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WPS Under a Cloud

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Women’s Professional Soccer is awaiting a decision from the US Soccer Federation regarding its future as a USSF sanctioned league. WPS now consists of five teams after the league terminated its relationship with magicJack and its controversial owner Dan Borislow.  Borislow is currently engaged in litigation with WPS.

USSF standards for a pro league contain a range of directives pertaining to size, scope, structure, budget and staffing. At present, WPS does not meet these standards. The league now has five member clubs, with eight required by U.S. Soccer to apply for sanctioning, and even further away from the 10-team minimum suggested for leagues in their third years. WPS is entering its fourth year of play. Furthermore, all five teams (Boston,Western New York,New Jersey,PhiladelphiaandAtlanta) are located in the Eastern time zone, contrary to another directive that US teams in the first year be located in at least two time zones. The USSF can grant one-year waivers from these and other guidelines, which WPS has obtained to operate in previous years. A decision may not be reached for several weeks.

WPS came into existence in a period of economic uncertainty and has struggled through the loss of five franchises since its inception. It also faces conflicts next year over unavailable players due to the 2012 Olympics. Despite its problems, WPS puts a good product on the field and maintains the highest density of elite female soccer players of any league in the world. The second place performance of US Women’s National Team at the World Cup produced an up tick in attendance. The league also provides valuable playing experience and training for both US and international players.

Time will tell whether a compromise can be reached to allow WPS to continue to operate. It would a shame if the league, which has struggled to survive to this point and wants to operate in 2012, would be denied the opportunity to do so because of USS sanctioning rules. If unsuccessful, WPS will close its doors after three seasons, as its successor WUSA did in 2003. After the announcement of the closing of WUSA, the US failed to win the US hosted 2003 World Cup and has failed to do so since. Success in 2003 may have brought a women’s league back sooner. WPS did not begin play until 2009. Again this summer, I felt that anything short of  a US win at the World Cup would probably spell doom for WPS. I don’t think second place will produce any sustained interest going into next year.  As sympathetic as the Japan win was, it didn’t do any favors for women’s soccer as a whole. The international soccer community would be negatively impacted by the collapse of WPS.

Although WPS does have a dedicated core of fans, this core is small and retention of fans is a challenge. The league suffers from a lack of investment. WPS has learned from past WUSA mistakes and taken action to more tightly control costs, but sustained investment will be necessary to for the league to grow to the point of being self sufficient. To be taken seriously WPS has perform as a business, not plead for support as a “cause.”  To be fair, women’s sports in general in this country have suffered from a long term decline in visibility and reversing this trend will be difficult. Even improved media attention will at best be a short term fix. Money from sponsors and expansion teams will be needed to get the league on the road to survival. WPS finds itself in a bit of a chicken or the egg dilemma. To attract sponsors and investors, these parties must believe that WPS can deliver the eyeballs. However, audience growth and media exposure is often the result of investment. I would like to see the WPS get some additional time to resolve these dilemmas.

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