Struggling WPS under pressure to succeed beyond upcoming season
Women's Professional Soccer escaped another near-death experience earlier this week. U.S. Soccer sanctioned the league as a Division 1 women's professional league -- the same it has been for its first three seasons of operation -- for the 2012 season.
In the end, very little changes for the fledgling league. WPS will continue with fewer teams (five) than the eight required by U.S. Soccer's minimum standards.
Five teams is an all-time low in a league that has contracted more than it has expanded since kicking off in March 2009, but WPS CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan and team owners managed to convince the federation the league is stronger than ever.
At the end of the day, this was always the likely outcome.
U.S. Soccer's initial delay to sanction the league brought attention to a situation that desperately needed it. WPS owners and league officials have spent the past two years rewriting the business model to make the league viable. But they still have not found a working model, evidenced by the constantly changing landscape of the league.
Of the five teams preparing for 2012, Sky Blue FC and the Boston Breakers are the only two founding teams. The other five originals -- Washington Freedom, FC Gold Pride, Chicago Red Stars, Saint Louis Athletica and Los Angeles Sol -- have bitten the dust, at least at the top flight. The league is at five teams after terminating magicJack (formerly the Washington Freedom). Whatever WPS said to obtain the needed waiver, it was enough for U.S. Soccer.
"The goal with WPS had been to be sanctioned as a Division I league, and they've been sanctioned as a Division 1 league previously and have met our requirements to be able to do that, obviously with a waiver on the number of teams," U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said. "That wasn't something we seriously discussed in terms of taking a hiatus or anything else." As Gulati clearly states, 2012 was never in doubt for WPS. To believe the federation of the world's top-ranked women's national team -- fresh off a World Cup silver medal -- would abolish its first division is ridiculous.
So what did this whole fiasco accomplish? Finally, it demands benchmark results out of WPS. No longer can the league contract and get away with still operating. One condition of the sanctioning: WPS must secure a sixth team for the 2013 season and field at least eight teams in 2014.
O'Sullivan said there are advanced talks with markets: One on the East Coast, one on the West Coast and one in the Midwest. Interestingly, O'Sullivan said the most progressed talks are not with the markets that have publicly been talked about, those being Connecticut, Chicago and the Pacific Northwest.
"Those are all potential teams that are still in the pipeline and very strong candidates," O'Sullivan said. "But there are three others that really do make their way to the top that we just can't identify at this early stage."
If that statement induces déjà vu, it should. WPS has talked a lot about a pipeline of expansion teams over the past two years, but has continued to shrink, even with the addition of expansion teams in Western New York (2011), Philadelphia and Atlanta (2010).
A colleague of mine openly asked if WPS just had a gun put to its head. Expansion teams may have gained considerable leverage in negotiations now knowing the league has to meet specific standards.
That's a valid point, but the owners in this league and the ones being recruited to join it are clearly committed to advancing women's soccer, even if it means enduring considerable financial burden to start.
Then again, at the end of the day this is a business. And businessmen won't stand for losing money forever.
What is certain is that Women's Professional Soccer now has its ultimatum. And if the league cannot find additional investors to meet minimum standards at a time when women's soccer is at its height, it will be very telling of the state of women's sports in this country.