Sunday, January 25, 2015

WPS CEO, Atlanta Beat owner open up about league suspending operations

Here are some transcribed highlights from a conference call held with Women's Professional Soccer CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan and Atlanta Beat CEO T. Fitz Johnson.

WPS CEO, Atlanta Beat owner open up about league suspending operations

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I wanted to get to this yesterday, but there was far too much going on with the Union for me to have the time.

Here are some transcribed highlights from a conference call held with Women's Professional Soccer CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan and Atlanta Beat CEO T. Fitz Johnson. There's a lot to digest here, I admit. The call lasted over an hour, and this isn't close to everything that was said.

Still, I figure it's better to put more stuff out there on the record than less, especially in a situation like this. So here you go.

(A hat tip to Charles Boehm of Potomac Soccer Wire for helping me piece this together.)

Jennifer O'Sullivan

On the timeline for the Dan Borislow court case:

Any agreement that we have with our attorneys on legal fees, that's a confidential agreement, so I'm not at liberty to discuss our legal fees.

Our court proceeding is currently scheduled for Wednesday. That will be a continuation of the injunction hearing that we started last month. The judge did rule on the first part of that hearing, on the contract issues. Wednesday will be a discussion of the remainder of the issues related to Mr. Borislow's request for injunctive relief.

Once that's concluded, Judge [Meenu] Sasser will make her final determination [in Palm Beach County, Fla., Circuit Court] on whether to grant that injunctive relief.

On whether Dan Borislow will be involved in 2013:

I do not see that as a possibility, based on the current feeling among current ownership. I don't see that it will be a possibility for WPS.

On whether WPS would have folded without Borislow's entry and purchase of the Washington Freedom ahead of the 2011 season:

I think that the league has been faced with – and those of you who've been following us closely have seen it – a series of challenges and difficulties throughout the past year. It is a culmination of those difficulties and issues that has brought us to the point that we are at.

I think that Mr. Borislow has been a lightning rod for a lot of those issues.

I can't personally comment on what would have happened to the league if it had not brought Dan Borislow in last year. That would be speculating on what would have happened, what U.S. Soccer would have done at the time.... I don't know if another ownership group would have stepped up to purchase the Washington Freedom. I can only speak to what the league has had to go through since then.

As I said before, it's been some really challenging issues that have really detracted and distracted certainly the ownership, the league staff and the team staffs from what the focus should have been on.

We've come off of a tremendous year with the World Cup. Going into an Olympic year there should have been nothing but positive things for this league to focus on. Unfortunately it's been quite the opposite, and it's that fact – and the drain on our resources, not just financially that's been considered – that really has brought us to this decision today.

[...]

I think it would have irresponsible to both put on the season and deal with the legal issue if we found ourselves, at some point in the season, unable to move forward for whatever reason.

I think ownership really did feel that once and for all this is something that has to be resolved.

The issues with Mr. Borislow, as far as compliance, there are a number. You are talking about an owner who does not have regard for league authority, for other owners, for partners; who speaks disparagingly about the league and sponsors to the media; was detrimental to the league's overall business.

Those are things that sometimes are difficult to move past, and sometimes when the damage is done – which in this case it was – it's difficult to overcome that.

I think the league and the owners have really tried to come to a resolution on these issues several times, and found themselves just unable to.

On whether there was an apparel deal in place yet for the 2012 season, on whether that had a bearing on the league's decision to suspend play:

We did not announce an apparel deal, no... The league was in final discussions with a sponsor on apparel. The league had a couple of other national sponsors that it was set to announce, and unfortunately we were not able to complete those.

On whether there is a financial commitment from the owners to a 2013 season:

The ownership has their bonds in place for U.S. Soccer [sanctioning] for this season. We'll certainly talk about that moving forward into 2013, what that would mean as we work through this year.

I think everyone has that goal in mind [to be back in 2013], and that's the intent. At this point that's what we're working towards.

On whether there has been an explicit commitment from all the owners to be back in 2013 [this was a follow-up to the previous question]:

Other than what we've said, that's our intention, yeah. To get through this issue with Borislow and to get us back onto the field in 2013.

On whether there is any chance the league won't be back in 2013:

Gosh, I really would hope not. That's certainly not our intent. I think it's a concern when you're talking about some of the challenges we've had to face as a result of these issues with the litigation.

I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you what a judge is going to decide, or where things will go further on down the pike. I can only tell you what our intent is, and what we're trying to do, and our every intention is to get back on the field in 2013.

I would be extremely heartbroken if the result was that we don't get back on the field at all. I think it's just critical for everybody involved that we do everything possible to continue making this league a success.

On whether WPS fans should expect anything similar to what she went through working for the Arena Football League, which suspended operations for a year in 2009 and then returned to action:

I think there are a lot of similarities. The ownership group that we had at the Arena Football League, there were certainly some very committed and dedicated people who believed very strongly in it, believed that there was a market and a fan base for it.

It was a lot of work and energy and commitment getting it back out on the field. I think that's going to be a very similar situation here. The good news is, we have that group of people and we have that energy and belief that there is a market for this, that there is a fan base, and that it's important.

I have that dubious distinction of saying that yeah, I've worked for two leagues that have suspended operations. I'd like to have the pleasure of saying that those two both made it back onto the field.

On what degree of confidence people should have that WPS will come back in 2013:

I think that people should have all the confidence in the world that those of us who are involved with WPS are going to do everything we can to bring it back out onto the field, and that their continued support is what's going to help drive it.

To know that we have those people relying on us - I know that when we were at the Arena Football League, that's something we knew we could count on, the fan support and players. The union worked with us, sponsors worked with us. There were a lot of people who made it known that they were going to stand by the league.

I think knowing that in this situation will go a long way towards helping us keep up the momentum, and help us keep doing what we're doing to get back onto the field.

On what it will take to strengthen the infrastructure of WPS:

I certainly think that moving forward, we will be taking a look at the business structure and ways that we can strengthen it. You learn from every mistake that you make. Looking back on things – of course, hindsight is 20-20 – you can look back on WUSA, you can look back at when WPS was launched, how it was launched.

You can say that mistakes were made, and let's try to correct them. I think we're going to use this as an opportunity to also look at the business of WPS and see how we can strengthen it.

I have said before that I welcome, and would love to be able to connect with, people at MLS to help find ways to grow this league and grow this sport. So I'm certainly open to those types of discussions.

Anything that I think could help grow this league and grow the business the right way long-term is something that is worth considering for us.

On what sponsorship deals were lined up for the 2012 season:

This year, we had solidified sponsorships with Sahlen's [hot dogs] and Citi. We were in renewal discussions with the Coast Guard and were having discussions with U.S. Soccer. That's four national sponsorships, and we were having new discussions with others that we were in final negotiations with.

Those sponsors that we had signed deals with, we'll be in discussions with them about extending those agreements for next season.

And Fox Soccer. I would be remiss if I didn't say Fox Soccer. We had to share the unfortunate news with them today. The discussions we've had with them certainly have been positive thus far, and hopefully will continue as we move closer to next year.

Fox Soccer was to go through the end of this season, and we were in talks about renewals for next year.

On who will pay the salaries of O'Sullivan and the rest of the league headquarters' staff:

The current ownership is still invested in the league, and will continue to be invested in the league and their teams at this time.

On whether Puma, which had been the league's merchandise supplier, was one of the sponsors that pulled out because of the Borislow case:

I don't know that I can say I've had discussions with every former sponsor. Puma was not around when I joined the league. I can say that I do think it had a negative impact. I do believe that there were discussions with Puma that perhaps Mr. Borislow had a very negative impact on.

I do know that there has been negative impact with other potential sponsors, and other national sponsors who were not happy with the situation. I think that's fair to say.

I don't think that I'm in a position to identify others if they haven't come forward to make public statements about it. But I can tell you that it certainly did have a negative impact on the league's sponsorship efforts.


T. Fitz Johnson

On the main stumbling blocks that caused the other WPS owners to kick Dan Borislow out of the league:

I think you can look to one place, and that's compliance. We have a set of basic rules in our operating agreement that we all intend to abide by to make this league a success, and magicJack just was not complying with the operating agreement. It just went downhill from there.

On the personal nature of the confrontation between WPS and Borislow:

Well, I'll answer that very tactfully. I don't know that there were any personal attacks coming from our board to Mr. Borislow. Sure, there were some underlying issues, but it all had to do with our operating agreement and trying to do what's right for the league.

You've got to remember that the ladies playing on the field, the product that we put on the field, that's what this ownership group is about. So for as much noise as was being made on the outside, we were trying to concentrate on making sure that our product was pleasing to our fans and entertaining.

I don't have anything personal against Mr. Borislow.

On whether he realized, at the time of the termination decision, that this would be the end result:

No, I didn't. If we're all in this for what's right for these players and our fans, this is not the conclusion that I would have gotten to.

On what specific things have changed since the WPS Draft a few weeks ago, when it seemed like the league was making real progress towards solidifying a 2012 season:

We were struggling at that time, but I will go back to the fact that we have owners that actually wanted to play the season. I think there's not one specific thing, there were several issues that we were dealing with all at one time.

I believe it just became too much of a risk to try to play a season, and we decided it would be better to make the business decision to step back and take a look and work through these issues, rather than get halfway through a season and possibly embarrass ourselves and the league.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

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