New WPS boss Jennifer O'Sullivan ready for kickoff
Jennifer Pogorelec O'Sullivan didn't grow up playing soccer, nor has she held a leadership role with a soccer team or organization.
Yet the new CEO of Women's Professional Soccer has relevant experience to draw upon. She worked for the Arena Football League when it faced difficult times, with a tiny staff and owners pulling in different directions.
A few months after O'Sullivan started at the AFL, the indoor football league called off the 2009 season and declared bankruptcy. The employees were dismissed and top bosses quit.
"I became one of the last two remaining employees," said O'Sullivan, who was the league's vice president of legal and labor affairs.
She worked out of a New York office while another employee worked out of Chicago, sticking with the league until the assets were sold and the league was relaunched out of an office in Tulsa, Okla.
Compared to the AFL's year of inaction and bankruptcy, the WPS picture entering its fourth season seems downright rosy. And yet a little familiar. The front office is mostly virtual, and owners are still seeking the best way forward.
O'Sullivan sought the WPS position for the challenge of working through complex issues and having a hand in all aspects of league business.
"What I loved about my job at the Arena Football League was being involved in all aspects of the Arena Football League business," O'Sullivan said. " The NFL has their labor lawyers and IP [intellectual property] lawyers -- everyone is very siloed in the bigger leagues in what they focus on. At the Arena Football League, we didn't have that luxury, so you get thrown into everything. We worked in every aspect of the league's business."
"There's tremendous opportunity to be a part of something greater and larger -- to promote soccer in this country, to promote women's soccer, to provide a place for these very talented women to play is important."-Jennifer O'Sullivan
And she's willing to go through it again?
"I'm willing to go through it again," O'Sullivan said with a laugh. "There's tremendous opportunity to be a part of something greater and larger -- to promote soccer in this country, to promote women's soccer, to provide a place for these very talented women to play is important.
"It's extremely important to provide that inspirational and aspirational boost for young women in this country."
But O'Sullivan didn't come to WPS to impose the AFL/MLS business model. She has not yet spoken to MLS commissioner Don Garber, who as former head of NFL Europe shares O'Sullivan's background in nontraditional football, though she hopes to share ideas soon.
For now, O'Sullivan is tackling her new challenge out of a home office, occasionally checking in at the New Jersey offices of WPS team Sky Blue. WPS, born in the Bay Area, went without a physical office last year, and O'Sullivan expects to travel a good bit to check in with teams and fans.
"Within the next year or so, I'd like to establish some physical space for us, particularly here on the East Coast, which I think makes more sense for us being that we are primarily an East Coast league," O'Sullivan said. "I think we'll retain some presence on the West Coast, as well."
West Coast fans, though, will likely need to wait at least another year to have a team. The bulk of expansion talk has shifted from 2012 to 2013, though O'Sullivan and the owners are holding the door open a little longer for next season.
"There's an outside chance that maybe one group may be able to come in," O'Sullivan said. "But there are a lot of moving parts when you're talking about bringing an expansion team in. We're operating under a compressed time frame in order to be prepared for 2012."
That expansion would most likely be in Connecticut. Terry Foley, former general manager of the Philadelphia Independence, announced Monday on his Twitter feed that he has accepted a technical director position with a new Connecticut franchise, "assuming they join WPS in 2012."
Independence owner David Halstead, reached by text message, raved about Foley but couldn't yet confirm that Connecticut expansion was a done deal.
"They are a strong candidate, but we are working with the group to confirm entry," Halstead said.
Even without expansion, O'Sullivan expects the league to continue with the six teams it had in 2011. That includes magicJack and owner Dan Borislow, who feuded with the league and went to court over a proposal to begin termination proceedings.
"Dan very much wants to be a partner in this league," O'Sullivan said. "We're working with him on an internal resolution of issues that took place this past season and working toward a better understanding of how our six owners can work together for the betterment of the league going forward."
The other offseason question mark has been Boston, which has been searching for a new majority investor. While the team has not announced a resolution, it has proceeded with normal offseason business, selling season tickets and re-signing players.
Last year, the six WPS teams took several different approaches to their business. Borislow and magicJack were the most extreme example, devoting very little to marketing and signing as much talent as possible. Like Borislow, the expansion Western New York Flash loaded up on talented players and prominently advertised the owner's primary business: Sahlen's, a meat company known mostly for hot dogs. The Atlanta Beat went with an inexperienced roster that managed just one win and seven goals all season.
O'Sullivan recognizes the owners' diversity.
"I think every market is different," she said. "Every market is going to have different issues and different financial concerns. I don't think what works for David in Philly would necessarily work for Joe Sahlen in Western New York. I don't think being exactly the same in each market is going to help them or be good for them. But there's a certain amount of being on the same page with respect to what the overall financial or business model should look like. They're working on refining that."
The resurrected AFL brought its remaining owners together by borrowing a page from Major League Soccer's business model, going to a single-entity structure in which the league has more control over player personnel and other team matters.
"The Arena Football League had a difficult time with their ownership group trying to get on the same page with respect to the path that the league should follow," O'Sullivan said. "It was a difficult job to try to get all of that ownership group on the same page with respect to a single-entity model. There was a group that believed strongly in it. They were eventually the group that bought the league's assets out of the bankruptcy."
Could a previously fractious league like WPS move to a single-entity structure?
"There's definitely an openness and a willingness to talk about it and consider it as a possibility," O'Sullivan said. "Single entity is a pretty complex structure, and there's a lot of implications from a financial perspective. It's a very lengthy process. I don't think that our ownership group is willing to close the door on anything that might help with their model, but I don't know I can say for sure we'll go down that path. I can say we're considering all options."
Halstead agreed: "We're still in the infancy of the league, we're still growing it, refining and improving it, and we're looking for ways to ensure a long-term and prominent presence. Anything that helps us do that, we'll do."