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Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Can women's pro soccer make it in U.S.? Yes, but ...

By Julie Foudy

Last week, WPS announced it was suspending all operations permanently and dissolving the league.

Jane: Hey Sally, how do you know when a women's pro soccer league is collapsing?
Sally: I don't know Jane. How DO you know?
Jane: When NONE of the players even know it is collapsing.

It kind of sounds like a kid's joke; but, sadly, it is not just a bad joke (something I know/tell quite well), it is true.

From my informal straw poll, none of the Women's Professional Soccer stars I contacted had any clue their league was done-done -- as in lights-out done -- when the announcement came May 18 (via Facebook, not press release) that WPS' five remaining teams were officially ceasing operations and dissolving the league. The U.S. Soccer Federation didn't know the announcement was coming, either.

Excuse my statement of the obvious, but that is never a good sign.

The soccer community was not surprised since the league had already suspended operations, and it isn't surprising WPS officially went away with no advance warning, but still it makes you sigh out loud.

Of course, my next immediate thought is: Will women's pro soccer ever work in this country? Or is it just an oxymoron? Are the critics right?

After days (read: years) of reflection, here is my best answer to whether women's pro soccer can make it in this country:

Yes, but ...

To me, this is less of a gender issue and more of a pro-league issue. I would contend it is doubly difficult to get a women's league off the ground, but most men have a heck of a time, as well. Outside of the big four professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) -- and I'll add MLS in recent years -- name a pro league, men's or women's, that has made it on a large scale. And by large I mean the trifecta: gate attendance, TV deals and sustainable sponsorship revenue. (Note: I'm not talking pro "Tours," like the PGA, LPGA or WTA; I'm talking leagues.)

Some people may try to put the WNBA into that small group above, but most would argue they'd put it there only because of the NBA's assistance.

Which leads me to the most-asked question floating around right now: Should women's soccer join forces with Major League Soccer?

In 1999, I said no. MLS was only three years old. It was fully immersed in trying to get a men's pro soccer league off the ground; it was not in a position to add a women's component. And the women's national team wasn't willing to embrace MLS (read: the U.S. Soccer Federation) at that time. No need to rehash the details, but let's just say the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. women's national team were not singing Kumbaya together around the campfire in late 1999/early 2000.

Ask me now if it would make sense to have a women's side to MLS, I would say yes.

Yes, but ...

It may be a viable option for some MLS owners, but not all of them. And that really is the key moving forward for women's soccer to make it in this country over the long term. It needs a group of owners who want to do it because it makes sense financially and they believe in it, not because it is something they "should" do. For those of you who argue it doesn't make sense financially, I argue it does and will make financial sense for some MLS owners; they have their own stadiums, the staff infrastructure in place, a favorable local demographic and very deep pockets. They are at a stage when adding a women's team could complement and add to their current fan base and sponsorship potential. That was not the case 12 years ago. Back then, they were just trying to survive. Now, MLS is poised to thrive.

The next and hopefully final iteration of a women's pro soccer league will have MLS owners and independents combined. (Yes, as we have seen over the years, the number of independently wealthy owners who are willing to pour millions into women's soccer and lose it over consecutive years is a very small pool of people, but I think that pool grows with the added security of a larger entity.)

Add in a very popular women's national team with many dynamic young players, mix it up with a passionate soccer fan base, pepper it with realistic goals and, who knows, maybe Sally and Jane will one day be discussing which women's pro team they will be playing for and not telling bad jokes. Let's hope so. The world would benefit more from strong, confident professional women athletes than bad joke-tellers. I have that market cornered, anyway.