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Monday, January 30, 2012
Shaky foundation a reason for WPS's latest hurdle

By Mechelle Voepel

A brain fascinated by construction was also flummoxed by even mildly advanced mathematics. All the TinkerToy, Lego and Tog'l playing in the world couldn't help me become a civil engineer. I had to accept just reading about how structures were built, not building them myself.

Some of the most interesting stories are, sadly, about structural failure, and engineering's progression has always been based in part on learning what went wrong, usually with the foundation.

Evaluating business failings are similar to those of structures. So, what went wrong for the Women's Professional Soccer league? It announced Monday it was suspending its 2012 season in the hope of resuming in 2013, a decision that came in part because of the expense of a continuing legal battle with Dan Borislow, the owner of the league's South Florida franchise. Almost like an episode of "Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?," the league went into business with Borislow before the 2011 season and has regretted it ever since.

That clash, on top of WPS's inherent financial struggles to establish itself over the past three years, has been crushing. (The last thing you need if you're in a lifeboat is for the occupants to be fighting over what direction to be rowing.) It remains to be seen whether WPS can recover from this suspension; the survival of the pro sports league impacts current and future generations of women's soccer players, not just here in the United States, but globally.

But Monday's news inevitably leads us back to musing on the birth of the pro league that preceded WPS, the Women's United Soccer Association, and how the foundation problems then continue to reverberate now.

WUSA was founded in 2000 on that wave of interest following the 1999 Women's World Cup, with play beginning in 2001. However, before the next World Cup in the fall of 2003, the league had to announce it was folding after three seasons.

WUSA began on what appeared to be sound financial footing. AOL Time Warner, Cox Communications and Comcast were in the ownership consortium. Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Johnson & Johnson, Maytag and Hyundai were among the sponsors. But the league suffered from disorganization, some very poor spending decisions, and a mistaken belief that its foundation was much firmer than it actually was. Expenses spiraled, and the sponsors dried up.

Could WUSA's fatal foundation flaw have been avoided if the league was built in a different way? Like all "road not taken" stories, it's difficult to know for sure if an alternate path would have worked better. Still, it's worth reflecting on it, not in a crying-over-spilled-milk sense, but rather to speculate on whether the foundation can be fixed or needs to be entirely rebuilt for WPS, or whatever may take its place.

Let's expand more on the core topic of foundation: After the 1999 World Cup, both WUSA, which was backed by U.S. national team players, and Major League Soccer applied to the United States Soccer Federation for the rights to operate a women's league. USSF seemed to favor the potential of a women's league operated by or in conjunction with MLS, which was admittedly then having its own growth and sustainability issues.

USSF's relationship with the U.S. women's national team had long been strained, as the women believed the federation always valued the men's program exponentially more. During contract negotiations between the women's national team players and USSF in 2000, media reports on the difference in funding between the programs exacerbated the tension. The instinct of the women's team was that whatever USSF favored was probably not in its best interest.

Ultimately, the players opted to "go it alone" and not attempt to formally work with or for MLS. Whether such a partnership actually would have happened or been successful remains conjecture, but, in hindsight, it seems that foundation might have had a greater chance to remain structurally sound. Especially with the building of soccer-specific facilities for MLS teams, that league still might benefit from another tenant with a women's franchise, plus help the sport's long-term continued gains with American spectators.

But some observers will say MLS has made enough progress in the past decade-plus that it doesn't need to even think about any future partnership with women's soccer. They believe women's pro soccer has to find a way to make it on its own, whether or not that ever happens.

Having covered the birth/demise of the American Basketball League and the birth/continued existence of the WNBA, I often think of the parallels to what has happened with women's pro soccer.

The ABL thought its go-it-alone philosophy was not only necessary, but also preferable to what it disparagingly called the WNBA's "little sister" business model. The ABL folded not long into its third season. The WNBA has undoubtedly had its ups and downs, including the demise or relocation of three franchises that won the league's championship. It has been through expansion and contraction, and its detractors and doubters pounce on every negative turn. There were even some who ridiculously blamed the NBA's recent labor woes in part on the expense of the WNBA, a rather preposterous notion considering the average salary of one NBA player is significantly greater than the combined salaries of an entire WNBA team.

Yet the bottom line is still the bottom line: Pro sports isn't about being perpetually propped up. The WNBA's goal is for all its franchises to be profitable, and the business model has evolved toward that end since the league's inception in 1997. Seven of the WNBA's 12 teams are now independently owned, with five still tied to NBA teams' ownership. Both forms of ownership have worked, and both have had their struggles.

It's crucial that any endeavor involving women's pro sports be based on good business sense and a belief in the product's viability, but also a genuine appreciation for the product and desire to make it as accessible and appealing to its potential audience as possible.

Opportunities don't come along as readily in women's sports. The fan base is smaller and the investors more limited. When chances do come, a lot has to go right to make it work. And if there's failure, it tends to be magnified, making it harder for the next chance to come along. Whether that's "fair" or not is irrelevant, it's the world we live in and what women's sports must deal with.

The oldest women's sports organizations in the United States -- the LPGA (founded in 1950) and the Women's Tennis Association (founded in 1973 with its roots in a 1970 "breakaway from establishment" tournament) -- have had some different assets and challenges from pro leagues for women's team sports. Yet when you look at the organizations' fundamentals, they had foundations built to weather all types of storms. Because there will be storms.

Frankly, WPS has existed on the margins for as long as it has existed. This is an Olympic year following an exciting Women's World Cup last summer, and so it stings those who love women's soccer to see the league -- even limping along as it was -- shuttered for 2012.

But it means, once again, that it's imperative to reinspect the foundation of women's pro soccer in the United States. It might be fixable, albeit with considerable effort. Or it might be prudent to wait -- as painful as that might be -- to rebuild. Not from scratch, per se, but from a better blueprint.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.