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Why the survival of Women's Professional Soccer matters to you

After months of sweating out fears over its existence for the 2012 season, Women's Professional Soccer finally has been granted the waiver it sought from the U.S. Soccer Federation to exist as a five-team league.

Why the survival of Women's Professional Soccer matters to you

After months of sweating out fears over its existence for the 2012 season, Women's Professional Soccer finally has been granted the waiver it sought from the U.S. Soccer Federation to exist as a five-team league.

Here's the press release that U.S. Soccer sent out Tuesday:

CHICAGO (Dec. 13, 2011) – The U.S. Soccer Board of Directors sanctioned Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) as a Division 1 women’s outdoor professional soccer league in the United States for the 2012 season.

With only five teams, WPS requested a waiver from the eight-team requirement for a professional league. The Board approved the waiver for the five-team league in 2012, depending on certain conditions being fulfilled to ensure positive growth in the near future. All five WPS team owners have agreed to meet the conditions.

In order to be considered for Division 1 sanctioning beyond 2012, WPS must increase the number of teams in the league over the next two seasons to a minimum of six for 2013 and a minimum of eight for 2014. Other conditions have to do with financial requirements, both at the team and league levels, designed to ensure continued operation of the teams through the 2012 season and to ensure the participation of a sixth team for the 2013 season.

“After thorough discussions, our Board of Directors approved sanctioning WPS as a Division I league, subject to the league meeting certain conditions,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “WPS has agreed to these requirements. At all levels of professional soccer in the United States, our goal is to ensure the long-term sustainability of each league. WPS is optimistic about their ability to continue to grow in the next two years, and we believe these conditions will help the league accomplish those goals.”

Later on Tuesday, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and new WPS CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan held a conference call. Here are a few highlights as transcribed by Kerith Gabriel of the Daily News:

Sunil Gulati

On what led U.S. Soccer to finally grant WPS its sanction for 2012:

The league is quite confident that they will have 6 teams in the future of this year. It’s better for the sixth team to wait. We have a structure where we got certain assurances.

I’m not sure we should put specific instances in regarding a buzz. You see that notoriety and publicity in the short term that involves U.S. national team players, how that translates into a long term. Having a [sixth] team is a plus for the league, and we have talked about grassroots support for the game will help league going forward.

On other potential alternatives for WPS, including being sanctioned as a Division 2 league:

The goal of WPS is to be sanctioned as a Division 1 league. So anything else wasn’t something we originally discussed.

On discussions held with U.S. national team players regarding their involvement in WPS:

Decisions to play in WPS are individual decisions that players will make. Dan Flynn talked with Pia [Sundhage, head coach of the women's national team], and she expressed that she wanted players to play in the league. Without the league [in past years], we had a residency program. But that is not the model we are going to have this year.

On WPS going forward with five teams:

The league made a decision with a specific team with six. We are confident that with the teams in different markets they will meet their goals ... Anytime there is a situation where teams don’t meet [the standard] outline, there is a need for a waiver, but if there is progress, that is moving forward.

Growing ownership and stable owners will go a long way to showing us that this is going to work.

On concerns that professional women’s soccer in the United States isn’t viable:

The history of women’s sports is well documented. It’s not an easy path ... It will be better to be stable that to grow rapidly. We think some of things that the owners have put in place will be viable and will grow the sport ... It’s about having a business model that makes sense.

Jennifer O’Sullivan

On candidates for expansion markets in WPS:

This early, there is one on the east coast, one on the west coast ... Connecticut, Chicago and [markets in the] Pacific Northwest [are] all teams that are still in the pipelines, but there are three others that are making their way to the top. [We are] hoping to add three this year. our focus is on adding teams as slow and steady growth for us.


Whether you care about the women's game or not, if you care about soccer in general, the survival of WPS is a big deal. Soccer is soccer no matter who plays it, in a way that other sports in our culture are not.

If you need proof, you can just ask the millions of people who watched last summer's World Cup. The most watched soccer game ever broadcast on American television was a women's game, the 1999 final. The sixth-most watched game was this past summer's final. Even though it was on cable, it beat the 2006 men's World Cup final broadcast.

Furthermore, that U.S.-Japan game this year was the most-watched live sporting event from any sport other than football in ESPN's history. Only Monday Night Football and the 2011 BCS telecasts got higher ratings.

Indeed, the stature of the national team is the singular reason why having a top-flight professional women's soccer league matters. As cliché as it may sound, it really does matter that young female soccer players across the country should have role models in the game. 

But dreams and aspirations don't guarantee profit, which is why a lot of people feared WPS was going to crash out of existence this winter.

Philadelphia Independence owner David Halstead has been a major part of the effort to expand WPS' reach, as he chairs the league's expansion committee.

I've talked with Halstead a number of times - admittedly not recently, but more than enough to get a real sense of his vision and his desire to see WPS succeed.

As he said to me quite bluntly when we talked back in September:

We have to evolve from a charity – we’re putting great players on the field, and having the buzz and the great product, but it is a charity right now, because we’re all losing money – into a money-making business that puts great players out there on the field. If we can’t make that transition, we’re all going to fail.

At a certain point, it is just that simple. And yes, it is of some consequence that no one has figured out how to make it work yet.

I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that the ideal situation would be for Major League Soccer to run a women's league. The more you can share costs such as front office staff, travel budgets and office space, the better.

But obviously, MLS isn't in nearly the kind of financial health to be able to sustain what would surely be a sizeable loss line in the budget. It probably won't be for some years to come. Even if all the teams played in stadiums owned by MLS clubs, it would still be a challenge to make the operation profitable.

(Of course, playing doubleheaders would go a long way towards helping with that. And even with the current structure, let's hope there's at least one at PPL Park next year.)

There are plenty of people out there who want to cast women's soccer - and almost all women's sports, frankly - as some kind of charity. I find that demeaning to the women involved.

Women's sports shouldn't be a charity. The athletes and their sports should be respected, and indeed celebrated, for who and what they are, and the inspiration they provide to millions of people of all genders around the world.

That goes for soccer and basketball as much as it does for higher-profile women's sports such as tennis, track and field and golf.

I don't claim to know how to make professional women's soccer profitable. Heck, I barely know how to make my own company profitable, and I'm pretty sure you all know what we've been through over the last few years.

But I do think that there are people out there who are smart enough to sit down together and figure it out. I think Independence owner David Halstead is one of those people, and I hope there are enough people sitting with him to get this thing right.

It will be good for everyone involved in soccer if they do, and it will be bad for everyone in soccer if they don't.

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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