Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Professional women's soccer faces up to reality

You may not want to hear this, but it was as true last night as it has ever been. Soccer is a business, and it is as much the case on the women's side of the game as it is on the men's side of the game.

Professional women's soccer faces up to reality

A nearly-full house at PPL Park watches the U.S. women's national team's 4-1 rout of China on Sunday. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com) 

I admit up front that this post is a combination of fact and opinion, but I know you all well enough to believe that you will be able to properly separate the two.

As I walked out of the postgame interview area at PPL Park Sunday night, I took a moment to soak in the atmosphere created by the wall of fans who hoped to get one last glimpse of their heroes.

Instead of holding a formal press conference, coach Pia Sundhage and her players met with reporters on the field. There was nothing inherently wrong with this - in fact, it was quite convenient - but we ended up right next to the River End. The noise from the stands was racuous, and as high-pitched as you would expect from a throng comprised mainly of young girls and their parents. 

Passing through what remained of the sellout crowd on my way back to the press box, I thought to myself: 18,573 people make a great atmosphere at a soccer game, but they do not make a television ratings point.

You may not want to hear this, but it was as true last night as it has ever been. Soccer is a business, and it is as much the case on the women's side of the game as it is on the men's side of the game.

Indeed, soccer is not just a business in the United States. It is so all over the world, no matter how loudly people complain about it - and especially in countries where people ought to know better by now.

Soccer is a business in Manchester, Zurich, Barcelona and Dortmund, just as it is in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

The system does not always work the same in every country, but in general, one principle applies across the globe. You make money, and you spend it.

Some teams spend more than they have, in the hopes that they'll make enough to pay their debts off down the road. Sometimes they do, and they achieve great success; sometimes they don't, and they collapse.

Other teams claim to live within their means, and some of them really mean it. But I guarantee you that the so-called "means" of a well-managed Premier League club, even a relatively small one, include more money than you or I could dream of making in our lifetimes.

Why have I gone off on this rant? I think you know where I'm headed, but just in case you don't, here's the background.

Before Sunday's U.S.-China game, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati met with reporters for a few minutes in the PPL Park press conference room. To no one's surprise, Gulati was asked to discuss the demise of Women's Professional Soccer.

As I was live-tweeting some of Gulati's remarks, I was asked for my thoughts on a comparison between MLS and/or U.S. Soccer potentially running a women's league, and the relationship between the National Basketball Association and the WNBA.

One of my Twitter followers wrote something to me that I suspect is believed across a reasonably wide swath of the women's soccer community, and perhaps the wider American soccer community too.

USSF should want a professional league here for women the same way they wanted a men's league. Even under the same group (MLS) ... Use WNBA style model. Stadiums and clubs are intact, create from there. Run through USSF. ... That's clearly the best model! Because IT WORKED. No women's professional league in the US has been as successful!

Although it is probably not smart to respond to a 280-word question with a 2,400-word blog post, it's too late for me to stop now. So here goes.

My answer to the aforementioned question is that MLS and U.S. Soccer do not have nearly the amount of money that the NBA does, and they won't for a long time.

If that kind of revenue does materialize some day, it will be as great a triumph as anything any U.S. national team has ever achieved on any field. But the community of women's soccer in the United States does not have the luxury of waiting for the future. It can only deal in the present, and the present is this:

Professional women's soccer does not make money.

Say it to yourself. Then say it again.

Get the point yet?

In addition, having covered the WNBA for a few years, and women's sports in general for a good while now, I feel pretty confident that I can accurately make another blunt assertion:

Just because something exists does not mean it works.

Yes, the WNBA is now in its 16th season. But over that time, the league has seen six teams fold and three teams relocate. Only two of the total of 21 franchises that have ever existed have averaged more than 10,000 fans per game in their histories, and two have averaged under 5,000 - including the one in the nation's third-largest media market.

I say that as someone who believes as strongly in the value of women's sports, both professional and amateur, as anyone you will ever meet. I have covered the WNBA in the past and have the utmost respect for the players and coaches who work hard to live out the dreams that they fully deserve to have.

So I mean no offense to anyone who follows the WNBA - most notably former Inquirer women's basketball beat writer Mel Greenberg, whom I consider a dear friend - when I say that the league does not work.

It exists, because the NBA helps subsidize it. NBA commissioner David Stern believes strongly that there should be a professional women's basketball league and that it should be under the NBA's brand. Stern knows that the NBA generates more than enough revenue to take a loss on operating the WNBA, so it happens.

Stern's philosophy is manifest by the fact that NBA pays for the WNBA's league-wide operations, including officiating and marketing. The NBA also negotiates the WNBA's national TV contract with ESPN. I suspect rather strongly that the negotiations are helped along by the fact that ESPN broadcasts NBA games.

I have no objection to any of that.

But if the NBA decided to stop the subsidy, I am fairly certain that the WNBA would cease to exist about as quickly as both the Women's United Soccer Association and Women's Professional Soccer did.

As I understand things, it costs approximately $2 million per year to operate a WNBA franchise. Expenses include an 11-player roster and a 34-game season which involves travel to all four corners of the United States. 

Even though a number of WNBA teams are owned independently - including some which share markets and arenas with NBA teams - the WNBA does not work economically, and I do not think it would be able to stand on its own financially.

You can certainly argue that soccer is not the same as basketball. The number of players on a roster is bigger; the numbers of teams competing and games in a season are smaller; and the scale of facilities is completely different.

But there is one major similarity. Just as no professional women's soccer league has proved self-sustainable in the United States, nor has any professional women's basketball league proved self-sustainable.


I pause here to make the point again that I am a sincere fan of women's sports, both of the individual and team varieties. I genuinely want to see professional women's sports succeed in this country. This includes soccer and basketball as well as better-established sports such as tennis and track and field.

I happen to most enjoy soccer and basketball among women's team sports, and I will be very happy if the day comes that professional women's leagues in those sports are financially self-sustainable.

But that is not the case right now, and anyone who cares about the state of women's sports can only afford to deal in the present.

At this point, I turn to some specific excerpts from Gulati's remarks yesterday.

Gulati was asked by Beau Dure of USA Today what role the U.S. Soccer Federation can play in helping to re-establish a professional women's soccer league in this country. Dure specifically asked what role the governing body could play in helping to reduce the administration costs for such a league, including reducing sanctioning fees.

After noting that the federation will be convening a meeting of multiple parties across the American soccer community to discuss the future of professional women's soccer within the next 30 to 45 days, Gulati said the following:

Let's not kid ourselves. The level of investment that is needed to run a professional league, whether it's on the men's side or the women's side, is enormous. And not an order of magnitude where sanctioning fees make any difference, frankly.

The budgets of MLS teams, or WPS teams, are far in excess of the sorts of numbers we're talking about for sanctioning fees or anything like that. So I think that's a red herring.

We have supported the leagues in recent ways. But to think that if this number is right for WUSA - and I don't know that it is, we don't have detailed financials - that $100 million was the level of investment over the three years of the league, to think that the federation - a non-profit governing body - would have the resources to make those sorts of investments is misplaced.

And the level of investment that MLS has made, which has probably got a different number of digits in it at this point - and successfully - only can be really made by the private sector.

That doesn't mean that we don't support the women's game. But those are the decisions that you have to make in a world of finite resources, and running the professional game has really been left to private entrepreneurs.

Gulati spoke those words having backed them up a few hours earlier, when he announced that U.S. Soccer will turn its under-17 and under-20 girls' national team head coaching positions into full-time jobs. The federation will also create a position that will oversee player development on the girls' side at all levels.

That's real money, not least when you consider the travel budgets those coaches will likely have at their disposal.

Gulati then revealed something that as far I know, no one in the press conference had ever heard before:

... that in order to help them [WPS] save costs at the league level, we would step in and help do the essential functions of a league office: scheduling, referee assignment, all those sorts of things. We talked about that 12 months ago - and to absorb the costs of that.

Gulati was asked what the response was from WPS.

I think it's safe to say that offer was not accepted.

I asked Gulati to respond to those in the public who have asked why MLS isn't stepping up right now.

My answer would be that's a question for [MLS] commissioner [Don] Garber. I can give you a lot of reasons. MLS has expended pretty rapidly over the [last] few years. Whether it's because of focus or economics, or whatever, I don't know.

Some teams have been involved. Obviously, AEG was involved.* D.C. United was involved, and the Revolution were involved in a couple of doubleheaders in some years. So whether it was the WUSA years or WPS, some MLS teams have been involved in different ways. But that's really a question for the commissioner, and the development of the league.

Seattle has obviously been involved this year, and Vancouver has been involved for a long time with women's soccer. So you've seen a number of MLS teams have been involved. Whether that leads to anything involving a fully-fledged women's league in the future, I don't know.

[* - Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Galaxy and part-owns the Houston Dynamo (and has in the past owned many other MLS teams), operated the Los Angeles Sol in WPS in 2009.]

I then asked Gulati for his personal opinion of when MLS will be at a point where it can financially sustain a professional women's league. His answer will, I suspect, resonate far beyond the women's soccer community.

I don't know how long they are away from being able to have an under-12 academy program that is fully-funded either. These are choices. So is it a women's pro league that requires a large investment, or is it an U-12 boys development program? Or is it more money for designated players? It's a central focus.

The only parallel we have is the NBA and the WNBA, and the NBA is far more mature in [its] overall development than when it started the WNBA, and even there you've seen a number of teams - most teams - now have independent ownership.

So I don't think that's necessarily the model. It may be, but it's not necessarily the model.

As Gulati's full-time job is teaching undergraduate economics at Columbia University, it should come as no surprise that he views soccer through an economist's lens: there is a scarcity of resources, so they should be allocated according to reasoned-out priorities.

But you do not have to be an Ivy League economics student (which I was not, before you ask) to get the idea.


MLS can run a women's league if it wants to, but it will have to sacrifice other things to do so. If Garber and his staff decide to allocate its resources differently, that is their choice, and they have the right to make that choice.

You may not like the choices that the league makes, but I suspect that a reasonably high percentage of the league's fans would not object to investment in either youth player development or increased salaries for marquee names. In fact, I suspect that said percentage is higher than the percentage that would like MLS to launch a women's league.

But even if a majority of MLS' fans are in favor of launching a women's league, the fan base does not constitute a democratic electorate (small-d, the demographics notwithstanding).

MLS is perfectly within its rights to allocate resources according to what it feels is the best way to grow itself and the sport of soccer, and if people want to complain about it they can go elsewhere.

(To Twitter, for example. Not that I could possibly think of anyone on there who ever disagrees with the way MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation are operated. Or who would like to see... okay, I'm digressing and I ought to stop.)

So I will conclude. I realize that I've dragged this post on for far too long, but it deals with a subject about which I care deeply and have cared deeply for many years.

Professional women's soccer is a great thing in theory, but in practice it does not work. The money simply is not there to make it self-sustainable. It has not been self-sustainable historically, and there is not much evidence at the moment that things are going to change soon.

You might not like to read that - I certainly wish it was not the case - but it is reality. And as has happened so often over the years, whether with women's soccer or men's soccer, people who care about the sport in this country are best served when they deal with things as they are, not as they want them to be.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
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.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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