Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Third Time Around - Will It Work This Time?

Women's professional soccer is giving it a third try here in the US.  The newly formed National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) will consist of 8 teams;  Seattle Reign, Portland Thorns, Western New York Flash, Sky Blue FC, Washington Spirit, FC Kansas City, Boston Breakers, and the Chicago Red Stars.

There is reason for hope that this time it will work.  Where the two previous attempts depended upon the traditional sports team/league setup, this setup is very different.  The US Women's National Team is the dominant team in the world, and has been for quite some time.  The problem is that the women on that team have very little competition to keep them sharp between the big tournaments - the Olympics and the World Cup.  Without a pro league to keep them in practice (and employed), it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the excellence.

Recognizing this, the folks running the National Team are heavily supporting the new league.  23 members of the US team have been allocated to the 8 teams, guaranteeing them a job playing the game while staying sharp for international competition.  The Canadian and Mexican National Teams have joined the effort, and each of them will have 16 of their players join the teams (two players from each of those countries will be allocated to each of the eight teams).  The three national teams will pay the salaries of the women they are supplying to the league, offloading that financial burden from the clubs and the league.  THAT is what may make it work this time.

The two previous efforts failed because the crowd sizes vs. costs simply wouldn't support the leagues.

The WUSA began in the heady aftermath of the 1999 Women's Cup, where 98,000 screaming fans saw the US beat China in a shootout in the Rose Bowl.  The WUSA was formed shortly afterwards with 8 teams, and huge expectations.  With the Cup win, and star power in the form of Mia Hamm, it seemed like a sure bet.  The league began play in April of 2001, and folded after 3 seasons.  The clubs ended up losing over $100 million collectively.  They found out that you simply couldn't fill pro football stadiums (and pay the bills) with soccer crowds. 

The WPS began play in March of 2009,  again using an 8 team format.  After the first year, 2 teams dropped out, leaving 6.  The league lasted only 2 years before folding.  Internal power struggles in the league office, combined with poor financial performance by the clubs, legal troubles with one of its club owners, and unsustainable travel costs doomed the effort.  This is spite of having star power in the form of the two best players in the world, Abby Wambach and Brazil's Marta, and a lot of big time international players.

I hope the ladies make it this time.  It is important for the National Team to have this kind of support for their players, and it is entertaining for fans of women's soccer (vs. an endless series of international 'friendly' matches - almost none of which are covered on TV).  However, there are already issues cropping up, and the teams haven't even had a single practice - the way players were allocated to the 8 teams was very subjective (certainly not by random draw) and has left a few teams as powerhouses and a few who will be doormats. 

(Sorry for boring you with this, but I've been a fan of women's soccer ever since daughter unit played in her youth - and she played pretty well!)

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