Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Problem with Women

Courtesy of Goal.com
If you happened to tune into NBC Sports Sunday night, you saw the United States Women's National Team (USWNT) knock off Canada 4-0 in Vancouver to win the CONCACAF Olympic Tournament and secure their spot in London this summer. The team was led by up-and-coming forward Alex Morgan who scored four minutes into the match, then provided two assists before finishing off her night with a second goal. Abby Wambach, the work horse of the US frontline, made up the other two goals on the night to run her all-time total to 131 in 171 matches; amazing statistic. The team is loaded with excellent players; Lauren Cheney, Hope Solo, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Christie Rampone, and Heather O'Reilly. To say the team rebounded from their last major tournament, losing in the 2011 World Cup finals to Japan, is a bit of an understatement. For the tournament the team accumulated victories over the Dominican Republic (14-0), Guatemala (13-0), Mexico (4-0), and Canada (4-0) for a margin of victory of 35-0. Give Canada some credit, their program has come from out of nowhere to be one of just 12 teams playing in the Olympics this summer and their performance on Sunday night was sub-par based on earlier matches in the tournament. We may be looking at the greatest USWNT in history based on their margins victory and just potential stardom of their players. But as the trophy was being lifted Sunday Night in Vancouver, the draft copies of a press release were being polished off for Monday release by the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league.

The press release that came out midday on Monday from the WPS stated that the 6-team league would be "suspending operations for the 2012 season" as they dealt with the on-going legal battle with team owner Dan Borislow. The issue comes down to whether or not the league could fold Borislow magicJack Florida franchise without following its own termination procedures. The mud flinging stretched through the entire 2011 season and the details of the issue are documented fairly well on other websites, so we won't go there. What is at issue is that for the second time in the last decade a major women's professional soccer league has formed and folded after just four seasons. The 8-team Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) formed in 2000 and closed up shop in 2003, now the WPS is all-but-gone after forming in 2007. How can a league which includes the best females players in the world be doomed to fail almost immediately?

The problem with women's leagues are similar the problems that faced MLS in its opening season; the leagues tried to feed off the success of teams in the world cup/Olympics as a full-time professional opportunity. This problem isn't unique to just soccer. Track & field, swimming, figure skating; all these events have massive followings during the Olympics and then are almost non-existent to the US audience for the 4 years in between events. Both track & field and swimming have international leagues and competitions, similar to tennis where the governing body sanctions events throughout the year all over the world with fairly lucrative paydays for the winners. Although figure skating has a similar governing body that establishes events, the bulk of earnings are found in exhibition tours (aka Stars on Ice) that travel the country once a year. So how does women's soccer find a way to fill the gaps between world cups, Olympics, and friendlies if a professional league cannot succeed in the US? There are really only two options 1) partner with MLS or 2) "Celebration Tours".

If you look to the English Premier League (EPL) most of the franchises have two additional teams that play regularly in league sanctioned matches; a reserve men's team and a women's team. The matches for both of these teams are either played following the EPL team's match a day to either side of the league fixture. Both of these team's allows team owners to draw additional revenue, but more importantly, they allow for men and women to gain regular professional playing time. The same could work with a partnership in the US with MLS. The overhead from adding a women's team to a few of the stronger franchises would be minimal as most of the front office staff would be shared for marketing, accounting, communications, etc. The only cost factors are players and travel which can be further reduced if the women's teams play before the MLS team match and travel together. Training facilities could be shared and it would offer owners a chance to expand their branding into a new audience. To me this is the best option if a women's professional league is going to exist in the US.

The other option is to put the USWNT against either Canada or Mexico in a series of matches throughout North America particularly to smaller markets and venues. ESPN's blogger for the USWNT highlighted the "Celebration Tour" that took place last fall when the women came back from the World Cup. The team played Canada "in Kansas City 16,191 fans came out to see the team, and 18,570 turned out in Portland" at JELD-WEN Park. The opportunity to see the best players in America up-close in a smaller venue is a tremendous draw and a great chance for each country's soccer federation to make some money and share with the players. Sure it is expected that the US will win most if not all of the matches, but both Mexico and Canada are improving fast and the additional matches will help build a rivalry; we all know that rivalries equal more ticket sales.

The problem with women's professional soccer isn't the product on the field, but the owners and leagues that are trying to make money from the player's success on the international level. The opportunity should exist for these women to have a league or match system that allows them to display and improve their skills in regular competition. My daughter is turning 3 in March, I'm sure I am one of many fathers and mothers who would relish the opportunity to take our daughters to see the women's best soccer players up-close and on a regular basis.

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