The Future of US Women’s Soccer

With the almost-inevitable shuttering of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), a vacancy exists in the soccer landscape for a venue where the top talent in this country and around the world can ply its trade.  The Women’s Premier Soccer League has formed an Elite Division comprised of former WPS teams and long-standing members of its amateur ranks, with the 2012 season scheduled to kick-off next week.  The W-League, under the auspices of the United Soccer Leagues, has also stepped up its game as it tries to become the premier place for women’s soccer players in this country.  Is the future bright for one or both of these to “replace” WPS, or does something new need to be created?  I believe the soil is ripe for a bigger and better league structure to replace WPS, but all parties involved must take a step or two back from the seven-figure operating budgets and six-figure salaries that were testament of WPS and its predecessor, the WUSA.  This can be done with a focus on developing a national footprint for the sport built upon local control and autonomy.

The future of women’s soccer cannot be built from the same model which brought us WUSA and WPS (that is, a league of franchises doled out on a limited basis with high hurdles for entry). Instead, it must be built through local clubs stepping forth and elevating their current offerings, where the cost of league entry is low, the ability to grow their product on and off-the-field can be done over time, and where ultimate responsibility for success or failure rests in the creativity and resolve of the individual entrant, not the league as a whole.  For this to happen, most if not all decisions must be made on the local level, such as the development of revenue streams that are self-sustaining and foster a connection between the club and the local business community and the recruitment of players who have roots within the community to the extent that the club is not responsible for “putting them up” in the area during the playing season.  Financial management of the individual clubs must be based not on turning a profit but on providing the best product possible on and off-the-field within the revenue available to the club.

Now let’s talk about the players.  First, there needs to be a realization that a women’s soccer league in this country cannot live or die on the basis of a sliver of the available player pool, that being the US Women’s National Team.  Building a future for women’s soccer in the US based on how it affects or will sustain the National Team will not in the long run work because it ignores the best interests of the 95% or more of players who aren’t in the NT system and will unnecessarily limit the growth of the game in markets where such talent hasn’t risen.  Beyond that, players must come to grips with the sobering notion that the dollars are not there currently for salaries of the level that one can live solely off of playing and thus they will need some supplemental form of income (be it a regular 9-to-5 job, an internship, sponsorships, graduate school stipends, a well-paid working spouse, etc.).

The future of women’s soccer in this country is bright, with expansion in both the WPSL and W-League bringing more teams and thus more players onto a regional and national stage.  These entities could be the way forward, but it will not happen without a “meeting of the minds” regarding their business models.  The WPSL’s is more in line with local autonomy, room for growth, and long-term sustainability than the W-League’s, but both are much more grounded in the community than what was seen from WUSA and WPS.  We must re-think what it means to be a “professional” athlete in a sport that currently doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay self-sustaining salaries and transition back if you will to a place where an athlete’s off-field pursuits will carry them further economically than their on-field ones.  Think of Major League Baseball or the National Football League before the advent of big-money television contracts, when players would have off-season jobs because playing in and of itself didn’t provide a level of income to sustain them or their families over 12 months.  It’s harsh, but that’s the exact place women’s soccer is currently, and the sooner it is realized and accepted, the sooner a sustainable model for the professional game in the US can be fostered and grow.