By Paul Kennedy
In contrast to WUSA and WPS, which burned through millions in startup money and never made it past the third season, the National Women's Soccer League is starting out slowly. Perhaps too slowly for the likes of many. But NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey says the goal of the league, managed by U.S. Soccer in its startup phase, is sustainability.
"We need to be fiscally responsible and show how to grow the league," said Bailey, a former college athletic administrator and general manager of the U.S. women's national team.
The NWSL's challenge will be to manage expectations.
Stars like Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach may be among the most popular women's athletes in the country -- as popular as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly were in the aftermath of the 1999 Women's World Cup -- but the league will be -- by necessity -- a low-budget operation.
By subsidizing the salaries of U.S. national team players allocated NWSL teams, U.S. Soccer assured the new league it could sign the stars it needed sign without having to pay them.
WUSA and later WPS attracted many of the world's top women's players and paid them accordingly. Indeed, Brazilian Marta was the marquee player in WPS.
NWSL teams will each be able to sign only two foreigners besides the Canadians and Mexicans they already have, but they will have to pay them within the confines of the league's cap on individual and team salaries. (Bailey would not reveal the individual or team salary cap for non-national team players, but each team's cap is believed to be in the range of $200,000.)
WPS died a slow death as teams cut back spending to the bare minimum -- the bare minimum its survivors will start off spending in the NWSL.
WUSA was a spectacular failure, burning through an estimated $100 million with massive overspending, and suffered an ignominious demise on the eve of the 2003 Women's World Cup.
The 2003 Women's World Cup was notable because, like the NWSL, it was a U.S. Soccer project. The tournament was supposed to be played in China, but FIFA moved it to the United States five months before it was supposed to begin because of the SARS threat.
The NWSL is hiring a technical director and operations manager, but much of its initial staff support comes from U.S. Soccer staff, much like the 2003 Women's World Cup and 2010 men's D-2 League the federation managed.
After the failures of WUSA and WPS, the pressure is on U.S. Soccer not to let another women's league fail. Bailey sees the NWSL as much an opportunity as a challenge.
"It's an opportunity to show off what we have," she says. "It's an opportunity to show what women's pro soccer can be."
She admitted the federation's reputation is on the line -- which explains the baby steps it is taking and the costs it is keeping to a minimum.
There was no glitzy event to showcase the league's initial allocations. The college draft was a closed event held at the NSCAA Convention in Indianapolis.
"It is a model we believe can work," Bailey says.
There is no expectation U.S. Soccer will operate the league forever. (The D-2 League was a stop-gap measure before teams spun off into the NASL and USL PRO in 2011.)
Bailey says the goal is for the NWSL to become a free-standing league operated and owned by its investors.
For now, U.S. Soccer is happy to get the show on the road.