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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Don't put women's soccer on stage to fail

By Bonnie D. Ford

The Women's Professional Soccer league's first allocation of top players took place in mid-September 2008, mere weeks after the U.S. women's national team won gold at the Beijing Summer Games, the country's third championship in four Olympic tournaments. It looked like a great window of opportunity on paper. As it turned out, the timing could not have been worse.

The same week that national team players were distributed among what WPS then projected as eight teams, several major U.S. financial institutions crashed and domestic stocks started a luge-like descent, bottoming out at half their value by the league's opening day the following March. The ensuing (and ongoing) global economic crisis would have made it hard for any start-up venture launched during that period to find its footing, and WPS was no exception. That's not the only reason the league has struggled ever since, but it's an important factor. To re-establish a national-level pro league, women's soccer needed some high rollers to invest, and a lot of gamblers were, and still are, sitting things out.

On Monday evening, the board of directors for U.S. Soccer, the sport's governing body in this country, granted WPS a waiver that allows the league to retain its Division 1 status next year. This is the second year in a row that WPS has needed a formal permission slip. The federation's rules reserve the Division 1 designation for leagues consisting of at least eight teams. At the moment, WPS has five -- and, as always, a lot of moxie and promises about expansion and better days ahead.

Why claw and fight for Division 1 status? Because losing it likely would have prompted top players to defect to women's leagues in Europe and Asia (or simply train with their national teams in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics), partly to seek out consistent, quality competition and partly because playing in a non-sanctioned league could draw penalties from FIFA, the sport's international governing body.

With all due respect to the passionate and no doubt well-intentioned people who are giving up chunks of their lives to try to keep WPS afloat, I don't want to see women's sports graded on the curve. I don't want to see some of the most skilled female soccer players in the world limping along in a business model that isn't sustainable. I think this development only means a postponement of the inevitable, and it would be better to put the inevitable in the rearview, take a deep breath and rethink the future.

I might feel differently if this were the first go-round for the women's pro game in the United States, but it's not. The WUSA tried to springboard off the appeal of the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women's World Cup, one of the most memorable and charismatic collections of athletes of either gender in recent history. That league folded after three years. Similarly, WPS counted on this past summer's World Cup campaign to win hearts and minds, put more fannies in the stands and provoke someone with deep pockets to reach for a wallet.

As runners-up, the U.S. team delivered in every way a marketer could want other than the color of its final medal. The tournament introduced fresh new personalities and showcased clutch play. WPS attendance and TV ratings predictably spiked in the weeks afterward, but that didn't translate to anything concrete for next season. In fact, WPS contracted from six teams to five this fall when it booted a rogue owner in South Florida for defying league rules. (That action is the subject of ongoing litigation.)

Tracking the league's history during its three seasons of existence has been like watching a drawn-out Monopoly game move painfully toward conclusion. Deals evaporate and properties change hands frequently while a devoted few build hotels and wait in vain for the payoff. There are as many defunct WPS teams on the books as extant teams, and the CEO's job is a revolving door. There's no collective bargaining agreement, and the average player salary has dropped.

Yes, the women could use another layer of competition between college and international play to help keep up with their rivals. But like most women's professional team sports, WPS cannot field the depth of talent day in and day out that fans see in premier events on the international stage. That makes mustering sufficient corporate support challenging even in the best of economic times.

The kind of generously subsidized incubation period that women's pro soccer needs to have a shot at success just isn't going to materialize right now. Whether it ever can is hard to predict. Forty years ago, who would have foreseen that women's college soccer would go from near-zero to hundreds of programs because of a vast cultural shift and a federal law?

Here's the other inherent structural problem facing WPS. Two out of every four seasons -- two years in a row, in fact -- the league's best players go on leave during the heart of the schedule to play where it really counts in their sport, in the World Cup and the Olympics. The men's game in the U.S. faces the same issue in World Cup summers, but not during the Olympics, which is an under-23 tournament with a few elite players sprinkled in. One-year speed bumps don't slow the train nearly as much.

Women's soccer has so much going for it in this country. We have broad-based youth programs that offer hundreds of thousands of girls a chance to be fit, enjoy camaraderie and understand competition in a way that can only help them in the workplace later on; the best feeder system in the world via the NCAA; and a national-team tradition of excellence that has been maintained for two decades -- by the way, in the absence of a solid professional league. It would be optimal if top U.S. players could make a decent living doing what they love year in and year out, but that's not a birthright in a free market.

No one has solved the essential conundrum of women's professional soccer in the United States, least of all me. (Although former MLS and WPS team president Peter Wilt takes a great stab at it here, in my opinion.) Realism would seem to present three possible near-term solutions, in reverse order of feasibility:

(1) Find several rich backers in a hurry; (2) shoot for a lower-tier, more regional model, piggybacking on the semipro and amateur leagues that already exist in this country, and try to build some stability and continuity; or (3) cut the losses and start over again from scratch after the 2012 Olympics, hopefully in partnership with men's Major League Soccer, which has settled into a workable niche in proven markets and suitably sized, soccer-specific stadiums.

True support of women's sports doesn't mean toeing a politically correct line. It means gauging business potential with an objective eye and working the ball upfield with rhythm rather than taking shots from 35 yards out. The waiver granted Monday evening by U.S. Soccer keeps WPS on life support. Some will applaud that, and I understand their fervor. For now, I personally prefer to see women's soccer live in the spaces where it already thrives.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.