Wishful thinkers who prayed America would again fall in love with women's soccer, and that affection would serve to springboard the proposed women's league, had their hopes dashed. I say, "Good!" Better to erase forever the illusion that winning the World Cup can deliver the sport. Now, the league will have to build from a different perspective, and I hope a sounder one. I want this nameless new league to get off the ground and flourish.
Was it because so few people in the U.S. watched the games during the early-hour live telecasts, or because "the best team you've never heard of" so significantly under achieved? In any event, WWC could not attract an audience for itself.
We learned from the 1999 WWC, that enthusiasm for our national team could not generate enough paying spectators for a professional league. The same "apples and oranges" perspective applies to the Olympic Games.
Few Olympic sports other than volleyball have generated momentum for professional women's sports. And let's be candid, flesh is a big part of volleyball's appeal.
The national team is just that. Support for the team is largely about nationalism. Abbey Wambach with a bunch of players who were not on the national team, against one or two or her former national teammates makes the national team connection irrelevant. Sprinkling international WWC or Olympic stars on U.S. pro team rosters will not be the solution either. Ice skating proves that. Marta may be the best player in the world, but maintaining interest in her week to week is a different story.
If women's professional soccer is going to make it in this country (and that is a GIANT "if" given the plight of other women's sports) then it will do so on three conditions:
1. A Unique Version of the Sport
In this day and age, it isn't enough just to see women do what men have done. One reason why women's professional volleyball is more popular than men's is that the women rely less on power and more on teamwork and strategy. Likewise, the LPGA has found a following because the "big drive" is less a factor in course management than in the men's game.
2. A Consistently Entertaining Product
My greatest criticism of the WWC and MLS (caliber of play aside) telecasts is the announcers never shut up. Where did this notion come from that maintaining a dialogue of "filler" and personal opinion enhances the action? Tell me who is involved in the play, so I can begin to identify with the individual. Occasionally, have the color commentator tell me about a strategy observed on the field, and then LET ME WATCH THE GAME! Were the WWC announcers paid by the word? Broadcaster babbling (Yes, Eric Wynalda, I'm talking about you), and non-soccer hoopla detract from the sport. Have respect for the game, and its ability to hold my attention between the lines.
3. A Relevant Spectator Perspective
Hats off to Peter Wilt, the former Chicago Fire GM who is spearheading the women's franchise in Chicago, and Flo Dyson, president of the Illinois Women's Soccer League (IWSL). IWSL made a financial commitment on behalf of its 16,000-member league, translating into the equivalent of 5000 season tickets for its members. As part of the agreement, the team must carry at least two former IWSL members on its roster. The holy grail of branding - "I see me!" is being served.
Women's pro soccer gets another chance to prove something. It can be more than just females doing what guys do. Let's hope they get it right this time.
Jim Paglia is a nationally recognized brand strategist who lives outside Chicago. He has an extensive background in soccer ranging from the NASL, to NCAA Division I, to World Cup 1994, and 30 years of club administration and coaching. Contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.