Imagine for a moment that the Indianapolis Colts, who fell just a bit short of the big prize this year, ceased to exist next year. Picture, for a second, the AFC champions being dispersed throughout the league in an expansion draft -- say, Peyton Manning suiting up next season for the Cleveland Browns.
Crazy? Sports franchises move all the time. But vanishing into thin air and scattering players around the league is an extreme way to go. Yet that's exactly what has happened to the financially bereft Los Angeles Sol, the supposed marquee franchise of Women's Professional Soccer that reached the inaugural league final last year.
After failing to find a buyer, the league announced last month that the franchise would cease operations immediately. Some might wonder what would have happened if the Sol were in fact the reigning champions -- might that have saved the team? Perhaps the league would be too embarrassed to dissolve the title-holders and would instead take on the expense of operating the franchise.
Winning four championships, however, didn't save the Houston Comets of the WNBA from folding in 2008. Like the defunct four-time champs of the top women's league in their own sport, the Sol couldn't find new ownership to run the organization full-time, either. Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of the L.A. Galaxy and Home Depot Center, agreed to shepherd in the franchise only during its first year. Talks to find a new owner broke down, and the Sol officially set in Los Angeles.
What's worrying to women's soccer fans, however, is that the Sol were, in many ways, the flagship franchise of the league, the Yankees or the Lakers within their own context. They also generated by far the most press of any WPS club. The team dominated the regular season and made the playoffs with games to spare with a 12-3-5 record.
Moreover, the team featured Marta, the best player in the world. She was considered one of the few players capable of drawing new interest from casual fans -- Lakers star Kobe Bryant flew in on a helicopter to welcome her the day of her presentation with the Sol. Now, less than a year later, the team no longer exists.
It's enough to make one very pessimistic about the future of WPS, except for the fact that franchises are being added elsewhere, including the Atlanta Beat, who are building a stadium for their new team. One important detail is that the Beat's new stadium has a capacity of around 8,000 -- about 20,000 seats less than the Sol had at the Home Depot Center, the stadium they shared with MLS' Galaxy and Chivas USA. Sol crowds, which averaged 6,382 fans per game, would have looked impressive elsewhere, but were positively paltry-looking at the HDC.
Viewed in the context of wise financial choices and recession-realistic decisions, the move to disband the Sol and keep the league more solvent with more modest franchise models doesn't seem a bad idea. After all, many would argue that it was a refusal to tighten budgets and plan practically that doomed the Women's United Soccer Association years ago. Very few would contest the logic that it's better to lose one franchise than an entire league.
Troubling questions remain, though, about the viability of WPS when it takes a step back on the national stage by sacrificing its glamour brand. With recognition of the league already low, axing the most visible team seems like a recipe for disaster.
There are also puzzling aspects as to how the dispersal draft of the Sol players was conducted. How does the four-time winner of the FIFA Women's Player of the Year get picked third? That's ludicrous based on reputation alone, even more so when you realize she averaged a goal every other game last season. (Marta moved up the coast to the San Francisco Bay Area's FC Gold Pride.)
It might be that other WPS teams are so financially strapped that they can't fathom taking on Marta's reported half-million-a-year salary. In which case, that's a discouraging scenario that any organization, let alone two, would pass up the female equivalent of Michael Jordan to save a few dollars.
Yet the league could also have acted unilaterally to keep its superstar happy, arranging for a move that would still keep Marta in a big West Coast city. If so, it would be in keeping with another apparent accommodation made when Marta first signed with the Sol. At the time, the club also signed her friend from Sweden, defender Johanna Frisk. It was a puzzling choice for a league that tended to recruit only the very top players from countries abroad. Frisk made only a single appearance for the Sol last year.
It's too early to judge whether the folding of the Sol was the latest death knell for professional women's soccer in the U.S. What's clear is that, even more than its inaugural season, this upcoming season of WPS will start to establish where the league is really going.
Taking the growing soccer scene and translating it into support for the women's game has proved to be a tricky task. Though successful in limited areas at the college level, women's soccer hasn't been a big draw recently. Even the gold-medal-winning U.S. women drew modest crowds on their victory tour after the '08 Beijing Olympics. In general, all women's professional team sports have failed to generate the interest and support of select female individual stars, such as those in tennis or golf.
But what might be most discouraging of all is the lack of outcry at the Sol's demise. If people don't know what they have until it's gone, it's not a good sign when they don't seem to miss it all that much.