WPS still fighting for survival

Publish date:

This is supposed to be the sweet spot for a professional women's soccer league -- the space between an interest-fueled World Cup and a promising Olympics.

Instead, it is another sticky mess.

Women's Professional Soccer, instead of building around stars minted in last summer's compelling World Cup and marketing toward an Olympic year, is once again fighting for survival.

In October, the league terminated the turbulent magicJack franchise, dropping to just five teams. Last month, U.S. Soccer delayed approving Division I sanctioning for WPS -- the league had been operating under a waiver from the rule that Division I leagues require eight teams. The federation gave WPS a deadline of next week to find a sixth team before making a decision on whether to extend the waiver. Without Division 1 sanctioning the league risks losing its lifeblood -- the national team players.

"We're trying to work it out," said Jennifer O'Sullivan, who has been the league commissioner for 10 tumultuous weeks. "Our focus is on retaining Division I status. We are very serious about trying to grow the right way."

But the WPS hasn't been growing. It's been hanging on for dear life ever since it was launched in 2009 into a gale force wind of economic bad news. The overriding goal has been to limp along to this moment -- when women's soccer is back on the map. And after last summer's World Cup -- which drew huge ratings -- the league experienced a bump in interest, a trend it hoped to continue through Olympic exposure.

Instead, it's in yet another crisis and public relations nightmare.

"Women's pro soccer has a place in America," Hope Solo said Thursday by text. "It's just about finding the right people to make it succeed. And I'm not sure we've done that."

Solo and her U.S. teammates enter training camp this weekend to prepare for Olympic qualifying in January. The fear within WPS is that if the league loses its Division I status, the national team players will opt for a residency camp leading up to the Olympics. A residency camp may offer them better pay and a more stable preparation environment.

There's also a perception issue: WPS has been touted as the best league in the world. But if it loses its Division I standing -- and whatever prestige comes with that classification -- the top players may no longer want to be associated with the product.

You can't really blame them. Though all agree a league is needed, it hasn't offered much in the way of either stability or status. Teams have been folding almost since the league's inception, and a league of five teams -- all in the Eastern Time zone -- is a far cry from the original vision.

The turmoil surrounding the magicJack, based in Boca Raton, is the most glaring example of the WPS' problems. When magicJack entrepreneur Dan Borislow bought the Washington Freedom and moved it to his hometown, he was touted as a potential league savior: a rich soccer dad who wanted to be involved. But from the start his renegade, unprofessional style -- berating emails, refusal to cooperate with league policy, refusal to even have a website -- put him at odds with the league. The WPS first sanctioned then terminated him. Borislow has filed suit against the league.

" It was a prudent business decision," O'Sullivan said. "It's important to note that a team didn't fold. It was a conscious business decision that strengthens the league."

That will be her pitch to U.S. Soccer. But U.S. Soccer has a history of indifference to the problems that plague the professional women's league. Though the federation has a mandate to grow the game, it has mostly been a disinterested third party in terms of developing a viable league to sustain its players.

Behind the scenes, some are pushing for a creative solution. One idea is to make the U.S. team the sixth team in WPS, allowing it to play the other teams in a barnstorming style in preparation for the Olympics. That would save on national team travel expenses and also provide exposure for WPS. Such a move would siphon off the marquee players from the existing teams, but could create interest and buy time until a sixth team can form.

Around the world, women's leagues are growing, usually through a connection to an established men's club. We saw the results of that growth at last year's World Cup, when teams like France flourished. But MLS isn't strong enough to absorb a women's league and MLS' primary backers -- such as AEG -- have already turned their back on the women's professional game.

Last summer's World Cup proved that women's soccer is still a draw -- the game has thrills, star power and plenty of fans. This should be a time of growth for WPS. Instead, it's just one more crisis.