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Women's professional soccer announced its third incarnation, which will include eight teams, on Wednesday. What lessons can this league learn from its predecessors to be successful?
By Graham Hays
It's easy in moments like this to trot out the line that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. It's trickier to actually live by the credo. Take, for instance, the joy I felt at news of another attempt at a women's professional soccer league. If history suggests feeling anything, it isn't unbridled optimism, but here I am, ready, willing and perhaps doomed to believe a league can work. So it's reassuring to see the people involved in this endeavor have already taken some history to heart and acted more rationally. They can't afford to believe a new league will work simply because they really want it to this time.
One lesson already learned is evident most notably in the active involvement of the soccer federations of the United States, Canada and Mexico in the new league. In addition to simply lending credibility to the effort, the benefit of having the federations responsible for up to 52 players puts the league on better financial footing from the outset.
Likewise, the apparent commitment to smaller stadiums, eschewing cost-prohibitive venues like Toyota Park in Chicago and Harvard Stadium in the Boston area is a positive sign. Strictly as a matter of logistics and costs, I still struggle with any women's professional league as geographically diverse as one with eight teams spread across three time zones, something that has been a staple of all three soccer leagues at their inception (granted, only covering the two coastal time zones in the case of the WUSA). That said, it's difficult to find fault with the eight markets selected from what U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said were 11 interested parties. It's a mix of established soccer markets like Portland and Kansas City and places where women's soccer has proved viable, like Boston and Washington, D.C. Put another way, not putting a franchise in Los Angeles for the sake of having a franchise there is good news.
Don't bet the farm on a television deal, don't spend beyond means on players and don't be afraid to be small.
Gulati put it best when he said what's needed this time around is "less hype, better performance." The overriding lesson? The WUSA and WPS didn't fail because of the soccer on the field.
By Melissa Isaacson
One of the most important lessons to be learned from a failed professional sports league is to have a better business model the next time around.
The newest women's professional soccer league is at least promising that with a financial plan that has U.S. Soccer paying the salaries of the 24 national team members and the league's front offices, as well as private owners and a promised national sponsor and TV deal.
The key, though, is marketing. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati promised smaller venues and "less hype." But rather than less, he should have simply vowed to be different this time around. The first two failed incarnations focused on the fact they were women's leagues with the marketing all about the women and targeted to women and girls.
The new league would be better served gearing its marketing to true soccer fans, who do not necessarily care whether they are watching men or women as much as they care about the product.
The new league also promises, as did its predecessors, to feature U.S. Olympic gold medalists. That's fine. But the new league should put forth as much effort looking ahead to the next World Cup and Olympic competition and establishing a direct link between the new league and a new generation of stars.
By Kate Fagan
It seems the key difference between this incarnation of the women's professional soccer league and its predecessors is the strength of the founding partner. As in, this version has the backing -- in terms of salaries paid -- of the national teams of the United States, Canada and Mexico. That also means this league has a certain stamp of approval, an official seal of importance.
In a way, having this solid financial support at the outset is similar to the model used to launch the WNBA, which of course had (and still has) the support of the NBA. The WNBA is gradually developing a business model that works -- a few franchises currently make money -- but that was only allowed to happen because the NBA provided marketing support and capital in the early years. The WNBA was allowed, because of a strong founding partner, to find its own path: to create salary structures that worked, as well as roster sizes and marketing plans that fit the needs of a small league. And even with this support, the WNBA is still finding its way, proving how important a strong partner is for a women's league.
But the key point is that this new version of women's soccer will have a strong and wealthy supporter at the outset -- an organization with a keen interest in seeing the operation succeed.
And that's something possessed by neither of the previous soccer leagues.
By Jane McManus
Soccer is a seeming no-brainer when it comes to a professional women's league, so it's been disappointing to see leagues fail in this arena. Any new league will have to learn from past mistakes, especially financial ones. There isn't an NBA to back this women's league, but there are the soccer federations of Canada, Mexico and the United States. This league seems like it plans to be thrifty in other ways, as well. Geographically, the eight teams will be in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, western New York and Washington.
There is a sense of inevitability about professional women's soccer, which stems from consistent excellence on the part of the U.S. women's team. It is much harder to make a go of a women's league, but persistence is important, and starting small is smart. This league may not make anyone rich yet, but if soccer can finally tap into its natural fan base that could be down the road.
By Michelle Smith
It is both exciting and nerve-wracking to see the incarnation of another professional women's soccer league. Here's hoping the partnership with U.S. Soccer can provide a stability and a foundational financial base that has been missing in the WUSA and the WPS. U.S. Soccer has the potential to be to professional women's soccer what the NBA has been to the WNBA, a home base that helps give the league leverage with marketing partners and sponsors, credibility with fans and investors and the source of some of the in-house services (i.e. media relations, game operations) that have been resource-drains for the previous two leagues. The subsidies provided by federations in Canada and Mexico should help shore things up. It is to the benefit of all of North American soccer to have a viable women's league.
The biggest lesson to be learned is the creation of a financial model in which expenses don't overwhelm revenues. If it were easy, it would already have been done. But what women's soccer needs to embrace is that it's OK to be leaner, even smaller, than previous incarnations. That having pro women's soccer in smaller venues with realistic salaries and a dedicated fan base is better than having no pro women's soccer at all.
By Melissa Jacobs
Admittedly I did not follow the first two versions of women's professional soccer. But because we are coming off a World Cup and Olympic year most sports fans are familiar with at least a few of the names who will be front and center in this new league. While an advantage, it is certainly not enough to pave the path to success.
The new league needs to market like crazy in a way that focuses on the field. It will only succeed if it can convince fans to care about players, and more important, outcomes. Too often you see new or reeling leagues try to trumpet attendance with gimmicky promotions, a strategy hard to sustain without an outpouring of cash. The public relations push for this new league needs to be enormous, particularly focusing on players with current name value or intriguing backstories. Make us care.
This league needs a name -- pronto. We need to hear it a lot. We need to know some of the players who are involved, and they need to talk about the league through all their channels to the public. A lot. Generate some enthusiasm, and have a strong, confident message when answering the obvious question: Why will this league succeed when the first two did not?