Barely 12 hours after the United States women's national team wrapped up an extremely successful Olympic qualifying campaign, the women's soccer world was sent reeling this afternoon by the news that Women's Professional Soccer has suspended operations.
Here is the press release from the league:
Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) announced today that its Board of Governors has voted to suspend the 2012 season to permit the League to focus on the resolution of certain pending legal issues and the challenges that now face the League as a result of its ongoing dispute with a former owner.
"We are proud of what the League has accomplished in the first three seasons, but we do recognize the necessity to resolve our existing legal and operational issues so that we can continue to support and grow WPS the right way," said Sky Blue FC Owner Thomas Hofstetter. "This was a very difficult decision, but one we as owners feel is the best business decision for the League at this time."
The Board voted on Monday morning to suspend the 2012 season. Over the last year the league has faced significant challenges, including a lengthy and expensive legal battle with a former owner. The litigation has diverted resources from investment in the league and has forced the Board to take action, suspending the 2012 season in order to address the legal issues head-on before moving forward with competition.
"We firmly believe there is a place in the global sports landscape for Women's Professional Soccer," said WPS CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan. "Making the decision to suspend the 2012 season was a difficult and painful one, but it is necessary to take the time to address current issues and solidify our business in order to provide appropriate support needed to achieve the League's long-term goals. Those that take part in our League - players, partners and fans - deserve the best, and that is what we are taking the time to ensure we deliver when we resume play in 2013 and beyond."
WPS has established its plans to return to play in 2013, and all five owners of the League's existing teams - Atlanta Beat, Boston Breakers, Philadelphia Independence, Sky Blue FC and Western New York Flash - will remain active with the CEO, Jennifer O'Sullivan, in the governance of WPS throughout the current year.
"We are deeply grateful to our fans and partners for the tremendous support they have shown for WPS, our players and the sport," added O'Sullivan. "With our supporters and athletes in mind, we are committed to complete the hard work necessary to resume play in 2013 and reestablish WPS as the premiere women's professional soccer league in the world."
According to National Soccer Wire's Charles Boehm, the decision was made Monday morning in a unanimous vote of the league's five owners.
Boehm quoted part of an e-mail sent to players after the decision was made:
"Everyone has been trying so hard to keep things going - considering settlement options, discussing union legal action to intervene in the lawsuit, etc.," reads the email, "but we just couldn't manage to make things work."
According to the email, league officials "currently plan to maintain league and team front offices in hopes of resolving outstanding litigation and holding a 2013 season, but details are still evolving."
The legal battle in question, of course, is the lawsuit brought by former magicJack owner Dan Borislow. He issued a statement questioning the league's assertion that the cost of legal fees was what caused WPS to suspend operations:
"I still expect the WPS to live up to their agreement they made with us and recorded with the Judge a few weeks ago. I was also under the impression that Pal Fulmer, their lawyer, was donating her time or making a contribution to offset any legal expenses of the league.
If the league follows through with our deal, I can't imagine why there would be legal expenses. I hope to still put a team together but have to see what happens with a residency camp. magicJack stays committed to helping the US add another Gold medal to it's inventory. We will do practically anything to help the Women achieve this."
I suspect some of you might have wondered whether sublimating his ego to a greater cause falls within Borislow's definition of "practically anything." Or you might think that Borislow has done things right and WPS is wrong. Have your say in the comments.
By the way, it should be noted that Borislow is an alumnus of Widener University, whose football stadium was the Independence's home last season.
Sky Blue FC owner Thomas Hofstetter told the Newark Star-Ledger's Frank Giase: "I know people will say we are dead and there’s nothing I can do about that... If we come back next year with eight teams, people will say we did the right thing."
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati told the Washington Post's Steven Goff that "we will have conversations with WPS about resuming play in 2013 and beyond," and that WPS suspending operations "allows everyone to concentrate on determining the best approach to ensure long-term sustainability."
I'll be talking with Independence owner David Halstead later this afternoon, and WPS has scheduled a conference call for 3:00 p.m. today. Stay tuned for more details.
Until then, here's the text of a letter from Halstead to Independence fans that was published on the team's website. You will see a few sentences bolded. That is my own emphasis, and I think you'll understand why:
The decision has been made by Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) today to suspend the 2012 playing season in order to repair the business, and come out stronger in 2013. The fact is we have very serious legal and financial challenges facing us right now that are preventing the league from moving forward as a viable, sustainable business.
This is extremely disappointing and frustrating but it's nothing to be ashamed of - it's part of business and is something the WPS Board of Governors collectively feel is the right choice at this time. Said a different way, it's time to stop driving this WPS car, hoping that the engine will suddenly fix itself.
It's time to make a pit stop, analyze, repair and fortify the engine's capabilities and then get it back out on the track so it can compete from a much stronger, durable, and solid position. This is what responsible business enterprises do, and it's what the WPS and Philadelphia Independence are going to do.
Despite our best efforts over the past several months to avoid this postponement, in Philadelphia and around WPS in Atlanta, Boston, New Jersey, and Western NY, we are damaged to the point that we can't go on with any hope of success in the current structure and environment.
The required repair work includes first and foremost getting out from under the current litigation distraction and uncertainty. This has been a most unpleasant and all-consuming experience and one that is impacting WPS expansion efforts and national sponsor interests.
Please recognize that suspending operations in 2012 is not ceasing franchise operations. The Independence and all WPS teams will remain committed to the fans, sponsors, players and partners to bring WPS back improved and ready to move forward for many years to come.
Our vision for WPS is still to provide the world's best women's professional soccer to all the great fans, as we have done since WPS launch in 2009, but clearly we need to spend more time on the business enterprise side. We already have in motion the development of specific business improvements - that will include milestones and timelines - in order to deliver a better, stronger WPS in 2013.
During this postponement period, we will work to modify the business model such that team revenues and expenses are based on realistic data from 2009-2011 playing seasons; realign franchise budgets so the business projections are built with an eye toward year-over-year, modest, grassroots growth; refine and bring clarity to our expansion strategy so owning a WPS franchise is a desirable and reasonable business venture; and grow and cultivate our working relationships with US Soccer Federation and the WPS Player Union so we all work as partners to expand a robust and proud female soccer community in this country.
It has been, and will continue to be, an honor for my wife Linda and me to own this franchise. Philadelphia and its surrounding communities have been as welcoming and supportive as any in WPS and we are proud of what we have built to date, and intend to continue to use this extraordinary foundation to make women's soccer in Philadelphia a permanent and successful part of the Philly pro sports landscape.
The committed and great work of Paul Riley and his entire coaching staff, in my opinion, is the gold standard for soccer teaching, development, and competition and Paul will continue to be at the center of my efforts to correct our business deficiencies, build a youth program with meaningful community connections, and re-launch in several months for 2013 with a roster that can win the WPS Championship.
Part of why we exist, why you support us, and what we are trying to accomplish is to provide opportunities and dreams to female youth and adult soccer players, so deserving of a team in this city and a strong league in this country.
To this end, the players that played for this franchise over the past two seasons have been tremendous talents on the field and ambassadors for the game off the field. Too many to name them all, the Independence has been blessed to have these inspiring young ladies in our club and I am grateful for the sacrifices they make and the determination they demonstrate - it is this show of sincere love for the game, commitment to the communities, and authenticity of purpose that gives us resolve to build a better, stronger WPS for 2013 and beyond.
To the terrific and passionate fans, sponsors and partners of the Independence, we will maintain - but not lose - the momentum of what promised to be a very special 2012. We worked tirelessly in the offseason to deliver the most talented team and best fan experience yet. This organizational commitment to you will not change.
We will be Back, Stronger in 2013. Together we have started something very, very special and unique. Please stay with us, stay involved, and remain supportive. Help us make 2013 the banner year for the Independence. We cannot succeed without your help!
Finally, let me say, building a sports league is hard…building a women's sports league is harder, and doing it in one of the worst economic downturns this country has ever seen is next to impossible. We have done some things wrong but we have done many, many, many more things right.
We have lost millions of dollars, individually and certainly collectively, and the owners will be addressing that issue. But this women's pro soccer venture is worthwhile on so many levels. I am grateful for the lessons learned and for the owners of the other teams, whom are still with me at the table today as committed to make this work as on day one.
A successful WPS is a journey…a marathon. We've just completed a couple of early miles to this journey and are re-hydrating and re-tooling for the next leg. Stay tuned.