New Women’s Professional Soccer League: Positives, Negatives and Questions

November 26, 2012

Last Wednesday, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati announced that starting in the spring of 2013, a new professional women’s soccer league will kickoff. The league will consist of eight teams located in Chicago, Portland, Kansas City, Seattle, Boston, New Jersey, Western New York and Washington D.C.

Here are four thoughts on the new league.

A viable professional league should be key to keeping American soccer on top

The USWNT’s continues to be the team to beat in international play, but anyone who doesn’t believe the gap has closed is simply deluding themselves.

From the 2011 Women’s World Cup and the 2012 Olympic Games, a series of new teams have announced their arrival at the highest levels of the women’s game including Japan, France and Canada. They join the United States, Germany, Sweden and Brazil as the teams to beat. In addition, there are a handful of other teams continuing to get better such as the youthful Australian team.

The French national team took 11 of their 18 Olympians from the French club Olympique Lyon (the French league is also home to Americans Ella Masar and Lindsey Horan).

The young and powerful German national team has a deep roster of women coming up through the Women’s Bundesliga (also home to USWNT defender Ali Krieger).

Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta as well as American striker Christen Press play professionally in the Swedish league.

The United States must have a viable professional league to give American women soccer players somewhere to continue their careers after college and continue to culture their talent for a potential spot on the USWNT.

And whether the league helps the USWNT or not, it will be important, if for no other reason, than to provide a good example and something to aspire to for millions of young American female soccer players.

The new league appears more economically viable than in the past

There are several encouraging signs that this attempt (the third attempt to establish women’s professional soccer in America) will succeed.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the national federations of the United States, Canada and Mexico have pledged to fund the salaries of 24, 16 and 12 players respectively.

That means that an average of 6.5 players per team, likely the most talented and therefore most expensive players, will be subsidized.

This will substantially lower the operating cost for each team.

This also means that each federation should also be able to keep its top talent in North America.

Gulati also said that each team will be seeking smaller, and less expensive, venues for their games.

For example, the Chicago Red Stars, who used to play their games at Toyota Park, will be playing their games next spring at Benedictine University just outside of Chicago in Lisle, Illinois.

These types of smaller markets just outside major metropolitan areas (the areas of suburbia where nearly every little kid plays soccer) can provide teams with cheaper venues and the possibility of a more direct connection with their fan base.

Gulati also indicated that the league had considered past attendance for national team games and Major League Soccer games in choosing the eight cities to host teams, indicating a realization that maximizing fan attendance was key.

There are, however, some serious economic questions about the league

When the WPS folded, many of its teams (as well as many of the USWNT players seeking to keep some continuity between the World Cup and the Olympics) joined leagues that had regionally-based conferences such as the W-League or the WPSL. The benefit of this structure was limited travel expenses.

The new league, with teams all across the United States, will not have this benefit (although, to be fair, this was probably unavoidable if the league was going to maximize the best soccer markets).

Also, Gulati admitted in the conference call announcing the league that many of the women in the league would likely have to have outside jobs because of low league salaries, opening the door for a semi-professional environment among the clubs.

One also has to wonder, if the U.S. will be able to keep its top youth talent if only 24 Americans will be subsidized.

It makes sense that these 24 players will be the women from the top of the national team pool.

However, what happens to talented young players that fall outside those hand-picked 24?

Lindsey Horan, who skipped out on an opportunity to play for the University of North Carolina to play for Paris Saint-Germain, reportedly did so for a six-figure deal.

Will the new league really be able, or willing, to shell out that kind of money to keep an unproven teenager from going overseas? Or, will the new league, much like MLS, have to resign itself to losing its best talent?

And, with such cost constraints, will the new league be able to attract the big stars, like Marta, that the WPS was able to?

Finally, Gulati indicated that the league had a “handshake” agreement for a national sponsor and “preliminary” discussions for a television contract. Neither of the words in quotes are exactly confidence inspiring.

Will the new league end up helping Mexico and Canada more than the United States?

One of the great unspoken truths of the men’s American soccer league, Major League Soccer, is that it has helped build the national teams of the United States’ CONCACAF competition as much as it has helped the USMNT.

The latest World Cup qualification cycle is a great example of how talent developed in MLS has actually made it more difficult for the U.S. men’s team.

On the women’s side, with Canada emerging as one of the great rivals for the USWNT, will the new league end up helping them close the gap more than help America widen that same gap?

And while Mexico may be easily dismissed by many fans of the women’s game, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Mexico beat the USWNT in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in 2010 and the U.S. had to play a home-and-away series against Italy to even make the tournament.

In the end, only time will tell if this new league is sustainable and if it will help develop talent for the USWNT. In the meantime, I for one, will be happy to be able to presumably watch my favorite USWNT players next spring playing right here in America.

John D. Halloran

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3 Responses to New Women’s Professional Soccer League: Positives, Negatives and Questions

  1. DE Dupuis on November 27, 2012 at 5:59 am

    Lots of questions about the new league – nice summary.
    At the end of the day its probably going to be the best solution to a tough problem, but a long way from an optimal solution.
    The biggest problem for me, and one you touched on, is that it doesn’t seem as though the needs of developing players are prioritized. If the thought is that, the better kids will play in college and by the end of college, at 21 yo or so, they are either good enough to make the top 24 or they’re essentially dropped, then this will miss the really really promising kids, who are basically too good for college play. Horan on the woman’s side, Gatt, Pelosi, Mix, Lederman on the men’s. So maybe these kids will just go to Europe and the MLS’s problems will be replicated as you mentioned. In which case, what this new league really is, is a stop gap to keep the current USWNT players domestic – without a long term plan or thinking.
    It is also interesting that there are no cities with hispanic majorities or near majorities in the league, San Diego, LA, Texas, Florida – are they saying they don’t think hispanic communities will support women’s soccer? Curious, no?
    I would think nicer thoughts about the whole thing if a rethinking of college soccer (by adapting FIFA rules, for a start) as a development tool went along with the new league – high school and college soccer as they currently stand are part of the problem not the solution.
    Still, we are looking forward to driving down to Boston to watch some games.

    • John D. Halloran on November 27, 2012 at 8:49 pm

      It should be interesting. It will be odd if each team has three of the best American players plus one or two of the top Canadian players and then fills the rest of their roster with semi-professionals–almost like the old NASL.

      I don’t know if you see the same thing where you live, but in Chicagoland, there doesn’t tend to be as much support for women’s soccer in the Hispanic community. The high school teams in Hispanic areas here tend to have very good boy’s teams and very poor girl’s teams. I’m not sure if that’s a cultural thing or a coincidence.

      To be honest, in all the online interactions I’ve had with Mexican soccer fans, I’ve never once found any of them talking about the Mexican women’s team, but I’ve found plenty who think its laughable that American fans are as proud of our women’s team as we tend to be.

    • John D. Halloran on December 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      Don’t know if you checked it out or not, but I did an interview with Brandi Chastain this week and her answers to my questions about the structure of the new league were pretty interesting.

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