Hard Times in the Uncanny Valley: Part 3

The Total Package

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Abby Wambach

Extra Time

After another Olympic gold medal, the never-ending battle for U.S. women's professional soccer rages on

Less than two weeks ago, Abby Wambach stood draped in an American flag, surrounded by her teammates. They celebrated on the pitch of historic Wembley Stadium, the cheers of 85,000 fans drowning out their ecstatic screams. Wambach, Alex Morgan, & Co. had just won their second-straight Olympic gold, avenging a 2011 World Cup final loss to Japan. Euphoria abounded. But there was a melancholic undercurrent to the celebration. After leaving London, few of these women had club teams to rejoin. This gold-medal game was the last meaningful match many of them will play for months. Maybe even years.

The state of women’s soccer in the U.S. isn’t nearly as bright as that moment. In fact, it’s in danger. The edges are growing dull, brought on by years of inattentiveness. The Americans are no. 1 in the world, but they haven’t won a World Cup since 1999. Unlike competing nations Japan, Germany, and France, their advantage lies in athleticism and fitness, not skill. “[Japan is] the best team in the world right now,” U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said before play started in London. “I don’t know why we have the no. 1 ranking.” Solo’s words were part truth and part gamesmanship, but the Americans are far from the Mia Hamm days of yore. They are, quite simply, a team in decline.

There are two reasons for this, one about which nothing can be done and one about which something must. The former is that the level of women’s soccer is rapidly improving on a global level. That is both unavoidable and good for the game. Unfortunately, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) is also failing its country.

“U.S. Soccer is not being as proactive in the development of the youth,” Cat Whitehill, a member of the 2008 Olympic team and NBC commentator for the 2012 Games, says. “[We’re] so far behind other countries.” The USSF recently hired full-time coaches for the Under-17 and Under-20 teams, but the organization has to do more. Before the World Cup, Scott French, a journalist who covers the game for ESPN.com, plainly told me: “We’re not the no. 1 soccer country on Earth and we haven’t been for a decade.”

A June confab in Chicago set out to solve this problem. Ostensibly, the powers that be — reps from a series of acronym-laden organizations, including the USSF, Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL), W-League parent organization United Soccer Leagues, the defunct WPS, Major League Soccer, and more — met to discuss the future of the women’s professional game after the WPS canceled the 2012 season and the league folded earlier this year. But the subtext was more crucial: How can America regain the lead as women’s soccer world power? The core of the team remains strong, posting an 88-6-10 record under coach Pia Sundhage, but the Olympics revealed a squad whose wins had more to do with hustle and some favorable calls than superior skill. A viable league is the only way to cultivate future dominance.

Mike Stoller, the managing partner of Boston Breakers (a former Women’s Professional Soccer team), was a driving force behind the meeting. He and a few colleagues hope to start a new women’s professional or semi-pro league that will first compete with, then eventually overtake, WPSL and W-League. (The two existing leagues are trying to find ways to pay players, but executives from both watched WUSA and WPS lose millions, and they don’t want to go down that path.) Stoller’s group needs the blessing — and the sanction — of the United States Soccer Federation. USSF CEO Dan Flynn also had a hand in bringing people to Chicago for the discussion, but he and Sunil Gulati, USSF president and a Columbia University economics professor, continued to urge fiscal prudence. They’ve watched two leagues fail, and they need whatever comes next to succeed.

The atmosphere in the meeting room in the Windy City alternated between cordial and tense. There was a general agreement that the solution lies in a less ambitious model than the two previous attempts. But there were too many competing voices, too many executives in the boardroom, highlighted by the fractured relationship between WPSL and the W-League leaders. Their philosophical differences about business have extended to personal vendetta ever since the launch of WPSL, which began as the W-League’s Western Division, and then split off in 1997. “We’re free spirits,” Jerry Zanelli, WPSL founder and an eccentric collector of 14th-century books, says. His organization allows teams to come and go. The more professional and entrepreneurial W-League charges a franchise fee of $25,000 plus yearly dues. Both leagues think their format will work on a wider scale. Thus far, neither has.

But there’s a bigger challenge. Many of the sport’s most dedicated financial supporters have lost millions of dollars trying to build a sustainable league in the years since Brandi Chastain slid triumphantly at the conclusion of the 1999 World Cup. WUSA fell apart in 2003, less than a week before the start of the World Cup, after burning through $100 million in just three years. The business plan depended on big-money sponsors and fat television contracts, a miscalculation after the popularity of the ’99 Cup. “I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in 1999, and I mistakenly believed that level of support would flow over into the league,” John Hendricks, chairman of the WUSA board of governors, said at the time.

Although WPS attempted to lower costs when it launched in 2009, it still failed. Player salaries, low attendance, and poor ratings ultimately downed it. WPS teams lost an average of $2.5 million per team in 2009 and $1.7 million in 2010, and the league saw average attendance drop in each of its three seasons. There was a slight bump in attendance following the 2011 World Cup, but it tapered off quickly. Once again, WPS proved there’s little correlation between the success of the national team and sustained interest in a women’s professional league. (Similarly, success of the U.S. men’s team in big tournaments has had little positive impact on MLS attendance.) It’s one thing to watch a do-or-die match on television; it’s another to drive to a stadium in the middle of the summer and pay to watch a game. America has fallen in love with its women’s team, not individual players. Split Morgan from Wambach, Rapinoe from Solo, and the draw is significantly diminished.

So the meeting to discuss the future concluded with mixed results — and a great deal of politicized talk afterward. “It was very much a starting point,” said the ever-diplomatic Gulati. Amanda Duffy, commissioner of the W-League, wasn’t present but was briefed by her boss and USL president, Tim Holt. “I think collectively there’s an interest on everyone’s part to look at what the future of women’s soccer holds, but I think there are a lot of details that are yet to be determined,” she said. Zanelli, who speaks his mind, was more critical: “We don’t think it went that well. Everyone was just talking in generalities about what was going to happen without really checking with anybody, including myself and Tim [Holt].”

The meeting adjourned with promises to continue talks. Some former WPS teams, a new team in Seattle, and four other soon-to-be-determined squads announced the formation of a new league the day of the gold-medal match. The plan sets kickoff for spring 2013. The league almost certainly will not have Division I status — the designation for a fully professional league that comes with high minimum-salary requirements and high fees paid to USSF — and there are still many, many details to decide, including the details of those four other teams, the league structure, the salary scale, and pretty much everything else. Despite the announcement, it’s too early to say anything will happen for the 2013 season. Still, any progress is positive. American women are increasingly drawn to rich contracts in Europe — getting a league right this time is vital. The next year or two will very likely be the last chance to create a viable women’s league that can claim to house the best players in the world.

When WPS announced it would not have a 2012 season, there was a scramble to find somewhere to play. “A lot of time and effort went into making sure that the players didn’t have a gap year between WPS and whatever is next,” Boston Breakers head coach Lisa Cole said. The options: go to Europe or join the WPSL or the W-League. In an effort to create a more professional environment, the WPSL combined eight teams into the hastily constructed WPSL Elite. The division boasted a higher level of play than WPSL proper (which has 65 teams in 2012) and larger payrolls (roughly $200,000 per team), and included stars like Heather O’Reilly, Tobin Heath, and Lori Chalupny.

The WPSL Elite offers a vision of what could come next, but it’s far from perfect. The players took a significant pay cut from their WPS salaries, which already averaged only $25,000 per year. Leslie Osborne, who played with Whitehill on the U.S. national team and is currently on the Boston Breakers, said the value of her contract was cut in half when the Breakers transitioned to the new league. Zanelli proudly explained that WPSL Elite administrative costs were only $80,000 — $10,000 for each team — but perhaps he should have asked for more. Games started late or teams arrived without subs. The short season, sandwiched between the college season, ran from May 10 through July 28. The quality of play suffered.

“We had to play a back-to-back game the other day,” Cole said in July. “That’s not elite soccer. I don’t even think kids should be playing back-to-back-to-back, and here we are asking elite women to do it. That’s not an indication of who’s the best team on that day. That’s an indication of who’s surviving. That’s not what our fans want to see. They want to see world-class soccer.”

Other famous faces joined the W-League. Solo, Morgan, Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux, and Stephanie Cox signed with the Seattle Sounders in the winter, while Whitney Engen played for the Pacific Palisades–based Pali Blues. Currently, none of the 30 W-League teams pay because they rely on college women to fill out their rosters, so the teams need to retain their amateur status. Stars like Wambach, Christine Rampone, Heather Mitts, and Shannon Boxx aren’t on club teams at all.

The women can afford to play for their club teams for free or not play on clubs because they collect salaries from the USSF. (The fact that the NCAA considers a player like Solo “amateur” is a ridiculous distinction that only the NCAA can explain.) According to a USSF spokesperson, there are more than 20 players under contract, paid on a three-tiered system based on their skill level. He wouldn’t specify financial details, but Osborne says, “The USWNT salaries are good and they don’t need another job, only if they want. U.S. Soccer does and has done a good job of taking care of the players.” (The New York Times reported that top American players earn between $50,000 and $60,000 a year from USSF.) It’s in the USSF’s best interest to pay the women so they can focus on training and improving rather than working other jobs to pay the bills. But a viable league would help subsidize the American soccer program and provide monetary support for significantly more women than the federation can afford to pay.

A thriving soccer league would do more than provide entertainment. It would also keep talent in America. “We’re seeing that the European teams are willing to spend money on big-time U.S. stars,” says Jeff Kassouf, who runs EqualizerSoccer.com, a site dedicated to the women’s game. Yael Averbuch and Ali Krieger already play overseas. American Under-20 star Keelin Winters left the Sounders for German powerhouse Turbine Potsdam. Her former club teammate Megan Manthey is expected to follow her across the Atlantic. Most dramatically, 17-year-old prodigy Lindsey Horan recently signed a six-figure contract with French power Paris Saint-Germain. (European clubs can afford to pay higher salaries because they are part of larger sporting clubs. With a few exceptions, American teams operate independently of other organizations that would subsidize their efforts.) After the Olympics, more U.S. stars are expected to depart for rich contracts abroad, but U.S. Soccer is hoping to find a way to keep them in the States.

“There are a lot of girls who have that dream to play and I hope that we can help fulfill them,” Solo said before the launch of WPS. Unlike the men’s game, women’s European soccer is rarely, if ever, televised in the U.S. Young fans and developing players have few opportunities to watch their heroes, especially with a three-year drought between the Olympics and the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Some version of a semi-pro league makes sense. Starting small is the key. The W-League and WSPL Elite have different models, but they both focus on grassroots efforts to drive interest. Women sign autographs after the games and spend time with the fans that support them. They appear at community events. It’s all part of the plan.

“You have to develop local heroes or heroines. You have to let people know where you play, and get a solid reputation behind you. And then you have to build from there,” Zanelli said. “The Boston Breakers have done a great job of that. They sold out every game, no matter what. But you don’t have to be Division 1 to attract people. You just have to play good soccer.”

The Breakers are one example. The W-League’s Sounders are another. They regularly sell out Starfine Stadium, the 4,500-seat venue where they play. According to Jon Billings, the team’s director of communications and broadcasting, the Sounders Women boast the 24th-best attendance of any soccer team in the country. (In a strange wrinkle, the Sounders probably will not be the team in Seattle that plays in the potential new league. POP Agency president Bill Predmore is currently the sole owner of the squad, although he says he is looking for partners.)

But those examples are few and far between. A league will need to cherry-pick the most viable squads from the WPSL and the W-League, the ones that have owners who aren’t afraid to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the two existing leagues are semi-supportive, they’re reluctant to create something new. Both the WPSL and W-League seem to believe their model will work if given time. They will let their teams leave, but they don’t want to work with each other to build a new spinoff league, whatever the format may be.

“We’re not going to go. [The new league] is talking $500,000 [for the roster], which means they’ll spend more than $500,000. That defeats the whole purpose of what we’re trying to do, which is to build slower than that. We’re trying to stay in the area of $200,000,” Zanelli said. “To go off on this other tangent now would be, for lack of a better phrase, insane.”

Instead of joining a new venture, Zanelli wants WPSL to extend its Elite league to three divisions in 2013, adding a Western Conference and a Midwest/Texas Conference to the existing Eastern. They’re in the process of vetting teams, ensuring potential clubs have enough capital to remain solvent.

The W-League is also exploring the option of paying players, but on its own terms, according to Duffy. (Operating costs for a W-League team range from $20,000 to $200,000 depending on location, which determines the amount of flying a team must do to reach games.) “We’re focused on what we’re doing here at the W-League, and I think we have a good model,” she says. “In 2011 and 2012 we hit a special milestone of 100 percent retention. It’s the first time we’ve achieved that. The W-League is stable. There is a consistent revenue stream. In addition to that, we have expansion fees. We have achieved stability.”

While the WPSL and the W-League argue about formats and philosophy, and the planned league attempts to find a model that works, the future of women’s professional soccer hangs in the balance. To some extent, the fate of the national team does as well. College remains a breeding ground for developing players, but it’s increasingly producing international talent, too. Nine members of Colombia’s debutante Olympic team currently play at universities in the U.S. But for women whose skills develop later than others, they wouldn’t have the opportunity if they’d stopped playing after graduation. The American team in London benefited from players who honed their skills in WUSA and WPS. Star American midfielder Shannon Boxx graduated from Notre Dame in 1998, but didn’t make her national team debut until 2003. That came after stints with WUSA’s New York Power and San Diego Spirit. Lori Lindsey graduated from the University of Virginia in 2001, then played for the Spirit and the Washington Freedom before winning her first U.S. cap in 2005. Take that opportunity away and the nation is in danger of failing to develop top-line talent as well as the depth that brought our 18-woman squad to gold in London.

The good news is that the important people are talking. The bad news is that virtually everyone has a different idea about how the future should look. Major League Soccer proved soccer can be a sustainable business in the United States, but proof of concept took 15 years and some deep-pocketed owners. Women’s soccer can work, but at this point, it’s hard to see how a totally new endeavor would come together in time for spring of 2013. But there’s some cause for hope.

“Is there enough money? In a $14 trillion economy, the answer is yes,” Gulati said. “But investors are looking for a sensible business model and we need to come up with that model before we go out and seek investors.”

In the interim, the WPSL and the W-League will continue to provide a place for women to play. A few will earn a living wage. The USSF will subsidize another couple dozen. It’s not about a galaxy of stars; most fans just want to watch high-quality women’s soccer. But Olympic star power has reinvigorated a decades-long debate. An incursion from abroad is underway. The U.S. has been slow to react. If we wait longer, a nation’s soccer programs will be left in its wake.

Noah Davis (@noahedavis) is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Filed Under: Soccer, Sports