Sustainability is key to new women's league

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.

7 comments about "Sustainability is key to new women's league".
  1. Jenny Arostegui, January 25, 2013 at 8:26 a.m.

    Another important part will be player to fan interaction! We went up to DC from Raleigh over Memorial weekend several years ago when Abby Wambach played for the then Washington Freedom. We bought gear and my girls wanted to have their ball signed. So we waited after the game along the fence between middle aged women fighting for an autograph and waited respectfully for our turn. just as Wambach got to us she had to leave for a private signing! She had only a few fans left and I told her "Handler" that it was BS. We haad come all this way and she couldn't sign five more autographs? He was like "sorry". If you want to keep this league got to have great skills with the fans. They buy your tickets and fan gear! in our case gas, hotel room and food as well. So think about.....if you want to make it.....keep the fans HAPPY!

  2. John Pepple, January 25, 2013 at 8:45 a.m.

    It shouldn't be that hard to get 10,000 girls into a stadium located in a big metropolitan area. Yet, apparently it is hard. Until this problem is solved, this new league won't flourish. Nothing in this article mentions what the new league intends to do to get more girls into the stadiums, so I'm expecting it to die along with the previous two.

  3. Steve Greene, January 25, 2013 at 9:40 a.m.

    As a parent of a young female player and living near Atlanta we had the Beat from the WPS and several high profile events as well (USWNT, WPS all star game) and it simply bewildered me why the powers that be would rather have a 1/2 empty stadium than do something to fill the seats. The 2 big events were well attended, but I think the only sell out was the USWNT event. Regular season games were pitifully attended, and this is an area with literally hundreds of youth girls teams and many colleges that player women's soccer - even D1 level. As mentioned, there has to be something done to get people in the seats and so far I have not seen it mentioned, much less addressed. I hope they figure it out, and I really hope this succeeds.

  4. Dennis Yunke, January 25, 2013 at 9:55 a.m.

    I hope the league bosses read these posts because it's their loss if they don't. I am not breaking any new ground here but I will tell you girls are a social bunch and want to be part of something special. Therefore, 1. Short autograph sessions before the game to get them there early. 2. Sell reasonably priced T-shirts. 3. Hold a raffle to have the stars of the Women's team pose with members of the attending girls team. Not just one team, pick 3. 4. Arrange special packages for whole teams especially those out of town. Include local hotels with deep room discounts. Cost is what keeps us away. 5. Have a 15 minute game at half-time between two visiting teams. Go 7 v 7. 6. Autograph sessions after the game allowing time for every autograph. Throw in a few pics (everyone has camera phones) 7. Send the schedule out to every club, elementary, middle and high school in the country. 8. Have a contest and special prize for the team that travels the farthest to the game. Base "team" on 80% of the roster. Special prize can be a picture with the team or an autographed team ball. 9. Publish all the above on Soccer America. Get everyone to sign up for Soccer America. I am constantly promoting the email link. 10. Above all, make it fan friendly every way you can. I have already put my high school girls on notice that we are going to a RedStars game. It is what I am doing to promote Women's soccer. It is up to you to join in.

  5. Ronnie j Salvador, January 25, 2013 at 10:36 a.m.

    I would hope that when Wambach left those few fans in the lurch, that was an isolated incident. We watched the WUSA final in Rochester 2 years ago. Wambach wasn’t in the game but someone had arranged for her to sign autographs. The line was many hundreds long. Dunno if she signed them all, but she did look patient and happy through it all. I realize the pros were there to primarily play the game, but, they certainly could have done a lot more fan outreach. The two teams marched from the dressing rooms to the field, and then after the game pretty much left the same way. They could have mingled with the fans after the game. The state of womens soccer isn’t to the point yet where they can ignore the fan base.

    Look at how successful World Team Tennis [WTT] has become. It’s all an exhibition and the players are prepaid per match or season, but it succeeds due to fan friendly atmosphere. I still recall watching Pete Sampras in a WTT match in our area. Pete certainly doesn’t need to sign anyone’s autograph nor does he need the money. But he hung out for hours BEYOND his required time until he did an autograph of every person who waited after the match. How many of these pro women would have done that?

  6. Thom Alio, January 25, 2013 at 8:57 p.m.

    Here's wishing this new venture the best of luck. It sounds as if Cheryl Bailey has done her homework and learned from the mistakes of the past. It would be wise if she would look at all the comments from the folks above and then some. Above all start slow and steady, bring the youth players in and their parents will follow. Women's soccer is a family affair, with love and hugs, this baby may indeed grow. well done US Soccer

  7. Christopher Tallmadge, January 25, 2013 at 9:29 p.m.

    No chance. No women's pro league will ever work. The product simply isn't good enough. We have had two soccer leagues crash and burn and the WNBA only lives because the NBA heavily subsidizes it. Anything beyond a part time type venture in a limited geographic area is a pipe dream.

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