July 13, 2015
By Charles Cuttone
What’s next for women’s soccer?
So, what’s next for women’s soccer? The United States won its first World Cup in 16 years, drawing a record TV audience for a soccer game of some 25 million, as well as a throng estimated at 200,000 for the victory parade down New York’s ”Canyon of Heroes.”
Lots of flag waving, lots of painted faces—both male and female -- and much adoration for the players who brought home the trophy.
Does that mean the women’s game is on the edge of massive success at the professional league level? Far from it.
Look back at the history of the women’s pro game in this country. The first pro league was born out of the hysteria surrounding the 1999 Women’s World Cup. A World Cup played in the United States, that was won by the U.S., with a bunch of players who seemingly overnight became household names. The final of that World Cup was the most-watched soccer game in United States history until last Sunday.
The players on that team were given a say in how a new pro league was launched. There were at least two groups looking to launch a women’s pro league at the time. One was Major League Soccer, which at the time, was itself a nascent league going through its own growing pains.
One MLS owner, who was involved in the discussions with the players on the formation of the league at that time, told me years later that the players basically did not want MLS screwing up the women’s game. So they went with the other group, which not coincidentally gave the players a far too large say in how the league was operated.
Their salaries, based on what the league could be expected to draw, were excessive. Executives, many of them with no skill or background in running a pro sports league or pro sports franchise, were also overpaid. One thing the league did have was well-heeled ownership. Most of the teams were backed by television money, Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Discovery Channel. But there was no great demand for the product—either in person or on TV -- and corporations, being corporations, who have no great convictions about anything, pulled the plug.
The Women’s United Soccer League lasted three seasons. The announcement of its demise was made just as the U.S. was about to host another Women’s World Cup in 2003.
Two years later, Women’s Professional Soccer was born, with more modest aspirations and more modest owners. The U.S. Women’s national team captured the attention of the country with a gritty performance in the World Cup, going to penalties to beat Brazil in the quarters, before eventually falling to Japan on penalty kicks in the final. The league was hoping to capitalize on the returning heroes, and for a few weeks it did. Attendance in some markets went up. Nevertheless, the league, suffering from internal problems and a lawsuit from a rogue owner, as well as ownership without very deep pockets, folded before the next season was to begin.
A handful of the teams left over from WPS decided to form yet another league, which was when U.S. Soccer decided to step in and help manage the process. The current National Women’s Soccer League benefits from the U.S., Canadian and Mexican federations paying the salaries of National Team Players. Otherwise, the salaries of the other players are fairly modest, with many of them having to live with host families in the cities where they play. The problem lies mostly in the wherewithal of the owners backing the league(s). None have had either the deep enough pockets to sustain the losses or the confidence in the product to see the long term upside.
The week following the U.S. Women’s victory in the World Cup, NWSL crowds barely cracked 3,000. Hardly the groundswell of support needed to make the women’s pro game go, and even if the league’s crowds double or tripled, for the short term, the sustainability still has to come from strong committed ownership. Two MLS teams already operate teams in the league. Others are interested.
The hope for the long term stability of the women’s game now has to be the same ownership the women’s players rejected 15 years ago.