WPS' future taking shape

The season is over, but things will be far from dormant over the next two critical months for Women's Professional Soccer.

Some of the offseason issues are typical for any league: free agency, talks with the players' union and so forth. Others are atypical: How many teams will the league have?

But for now, at least, the league seems to have put off the underlying question: Can the league survive to reach its fourth year?

Before the Women's World Cup, survival looked far from assured. The league continued play during the World Cup, with average attendance 2,714 before the World Cup final. The breathtaking United States-Japan final, which featured many WPS stars, provided a bump in attendance as the league's average rose to 5,126.

The season's final average was 3,518, slightly below the 2010 average of 3,601.

But the WPS, unlike the WUSA of the early 2000s, has a chance to build on the exposure of a World Cup. Since the Cup, fans have come out in greater numbers and stayed after games for lengthy autograph sessions.

Translating that interest into a sustainable league is a challenge. The WUSA overestimated how much interest remained two years after the 1999 World Cup.

The WPS hopes the wave of publicity this year can sustain its modest ambitions.

"I look at this year as probably the strongest year overall for the league, in terms of the financials of the league, in terms of sponsorship revenue, in terms of media," WPS CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas said. "What we've seen is that people have fallen in love with the women's game again, and we've tapped into that. It's on us to build on that."

Attendance is just part of the story. League officials say TV ratings on Fox Soccer Channel, which has WPS rights for another season, have surged along with sponsorship and expansion interest in the wake of the high-profile World Cup.

"We'll have a minimum of six teams next year," Atlanta Beat owner and WPS Board of Governors chairman T. Fitz Johnson said. The maximum is likely eight.

That number needs to be settled soon, before the league starts the more typical offseason business -- free agency, perhaps an expansion draft or possibly a dispersal draft if one team doesn't survive.

Johnson isn't worried about his team.

"We're going to be back," he said.

Sky Blue (New Jersey) president/CEO Thomas Hofstetter emphatically announced his team's intention to stay in the league on Twitter. The front office for newly crowned champion Western New York couldn't be reached for comment, but there's no indication that the team is going away.

Philadelphia owner David Halstead, reached via text message after his Independence lost in the final for the second straight year, left no doubt about his team's continued existence.

"Absolutely !!! We have a championship to win in 2012 dammit!" Hofstetter said in a text.

That leaves two teams in limbo for different reasons.

The Boston Breakers have announced a search for a new majority investor, and a couple of front-office staffers are departing.

The off-field story of 2011 was magicJack, the South Florida team whose owner, Dan Borislow, feuded with league management throughout the year.

Borislow did not attend the WPS meetings in Rochester, N.Y., that coincided with the final, but he has made positive comments since delaying, then dropping, a lawsuit against the league.

"We've had the issue with the magicJack team," Eileraas said. "That's something that the board's got to sit down and resolve."

Eileraas declined to name specific expansion candidates, wanting to let discussions play out in private.

"There are a lot of candidates," Eileraas said. "I have to say that since the World Cup -- we had positive discussions before the World Cup, and the depth of those discussions has increased. The picture really looks very strong for the next couple of years in terms of that pipeline for expansion."

Another issue that needs to be settled soon: How much can teams pay in salary? The league has just finished what Johnson called an "open season" in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement. Western New York and magicJack collected World Cup stars, while other teams opted to spend a bit less.

"Right now we're working with the union, and we will have a CBA in place prior to going into next season," Johnson said. "That'll tighten up the numbers and hopefully get us a little more parity across the league. We may not have the complete CBA in place by [the start of free-agent signings] but we'll probably have some parameters by then."

The league's "office" will continue to be a virtual setup. The six league employees were based mostly on the West Coast but did not rent office space.

"We met in person frequently, but we also spent a lot of time together on the road this year," Eileraas said. "In a way it was kind of good because instead of spending money on rent, we spent the money on getting out to watch games, meet with teams and meet with sponsors. I think for us it's been a productive work environment."

Johnson said he liked the setup, too.

"We'll probably see that model continue for at least one more year," Johnson said. "The efficiencies were tremendous. We had a profit in the league office, something we hadn't had the first two years. Credit Anne-Marie and Kristina [Hentschel, the league's chief financial officer] for really leading the charge on that."

Going without a physical office is one of several aspects of the league that requires a waiver from the U.S. Soccer Federation, which publishes a strict set of professional league standards. League officials were supposed to meet with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati over the weekend of the league final, but Hurricane Irene changed Gulati's travel plans.

"The league has gone through growing pains, some of which have been very public," Gulati said. "That was true for MLS early on, and it's still the case in a lot of our professional leagues."

WPS has helped the U.S. national team, with players such as Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn playing their way onto the U.S. roster and other players staying sharp with competitive games.

"Would [the league's survival] be a plus?" Gulati said. "The answer is yes. But are there other ways to get where we want to be? Yes."

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