Joe Cummings on the success and challenges of women's pro soccer

The nine-team NWSL kicks off its sixth season on March 24. The two previous American professional women's leagues -- the WUSA (2001-03) and WPS (2009-11) -- each lasted only three seasons. But the Boston Breakers, who had played in every season of all three leagues, folded two months before this season's NWSL season start.

Joe Cummings served as the Breakers President and General Manager during their time in the WUSA -- when he was named WUSA Executive of the Year twice -- and during their WPS launch before serving six years as CEO of United Soccer Coaches (formerly NSCAA). Cummings' work with the Breakers was sandwiched by stints with MLS's New England Revolution and he also worked on the women's 1999 and 2002 World Cups and 1996 Olympics. He is currently president of Manage Your Soccer Club.

SOCCER AMERICA: How did you feel when you heard the Boston Breakers folded?

JOE CUMMINGS: How did I feel? I’m saddened. I was part of the Breakers family, and the Breakers were part of my family.

SA: Why do you think, after such a long history, the team couldn't survive?

JOE CUMMINGS: Having been away for so long, I have no insight into the why or how, besides what I read, which was evidently that present ownership informed they were not continuing in 2018. And the league really went looking for local investors, and then throughout the United States for a relocation option.

SA: What do you think it takes for women’s pro soccer to succeed long-term?

JOE CUMMINGS: I think there’s always an enthusiasm about it from ownership groups. That enthusiasm must be balanced by solid business practices and best practices, relying on the experience of others who have been involved in the sport, so when you build your budgets, when you put revenue figures in, it's been tested. That’s the advice I would give to anyone. To make certain that the budget that you build and the pro forma that you offer is accurate, given the history of both the men’s and the women’s games. Make sure the budget they’re going to live under has been tested and vetted. That people who have lived it take a look at it and offer a suggestions if it’s skewed in the wrong way.

FURTHER READING: The legacy of the Boston Breakers

8,102 WUSA 2001 (Nickerson Field, Boston)
8,120 WUSA 2002 (Nickerson Field, Boston)
6,931 WUSA 2003 (Nickerson Field, Boston)
4,665 WPS 2009 (Harvard Stadium, Boston)
* 4,490 WPS 2010 (Harvard Stadium, Boston)
4,444 WPS 2011 (Harvard Stadium, Boston)
-- WPSL Elite 2012 (Dilboy Stadium, Somerville)
2,427 NWSL 2013 (Dilboy Stadium, Somerville)
2,437 NWSL 2014 (Harvard Stadium, Boston)
2,853 NWSL 2015 (Jordan Field, Boston)
3,570 NWSL 2016 (Jordan Field, Boston)
2,896 NWSL 2017 (Jordan Field, Boston)
* Led league in attendance.

SA: On the other hand, it has been impressive that the NWSL, in a nation where it's long been a struggle for pro soccer to be viable, is entering its sixth season ...

JOE CUMMINGS: I’m extremely proud of the work that the leadership of the NWSL has exhibited over the past number of years -- from Amanda Duffy as the managing director, to [former U.S. Soccer President] Sunil Gulati and [U.S. Soccer CEO] Dan Flynn, and the U.S. Soccer board. And of the players themselves, some of who have come back, and the players who have come from the college level. We’re talking about a team folding, yet still I couldn’t be prouder of the way the NWSL is performing right now.

AVG. TEAM (2016 AVG.)
17,653 Portland (16,945)
6,185 Orlando (8,785)
4,578 Houston (5,696)
4,389 North Carolina (3,868)
4,037 Seattle (4,602)
3,491 Washington (3,782)
3,198 Chicago (3,005)
2,896 Boston (3,570)
2,613 Sky Blue FC (2,162)
1,788 FC Kansas City (3,162)
5,083 LEAGUE (5,558)

SA: There was in the wake of the Breakers folding criticism of U.S. Soccer, including from U.S. Soccer presidential candidates, about its support for the women's game.

JOE CUMMINGS: In the age of soundbites and in this age of instant information, whether right or wrong or true or false, opinions are formed sometimes based on misinformation rather than information. I will tell those who want to say those negative things -- we should be extremely proud of the work that has been done in supporting NWSL, financially and professionally -- and that is the result of U.S. Soccer’s support of a women’s professional league.

4,271 2013
4,139 2014
5,046 2015
5,558 2016
5,083 2017

SA: When it comes to women's pro team sports, the WNBA, which has been around for two decades, averages 7,700 fans while depending significantly on financial support from the men's NBA. Is MLS subsidizing women's pro soccer the solution?

JOE CUMMINGS: It was always a conversation in the earlier leagues, hoped for support from MLS, and there are examples of that right now. And it is a possible route in the future, but what I think we should want is that the women's teams themselves are able to stand alone based up their business models — that they get 18,000 or 20,000 people in the stands.

You talk about the U.S. Soccer, but the MLS support has been equally rewarding. I’m proud to have been involved with an MLS team also. I’m equally proud of some MLS teams supporting NWSL teams in their areas. Sometimes they play the under the same roofs, playing in the same stadiums, sharing the staff. Those things have happened over the last seven or eight years and it shows the cooperation that exists among the two organizations, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

I do think it's an avenue I hope teams will continue to explore.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The NWSL's Houston Dash, Orlando Pride, Portland Thorns and Utah Royals are operated by the owners of MLS's Houston Dynamo, Orlando City SC, Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake -- and play in the same stadiums. The NWSL's Chicago Red Stars play in the same stadium with MLS's Chicago Fire but have different ownership.

SA: What did you think about the U.S. Soccer presidential election? Especially from being there for the weekend in Orlando last month?

JOE CUMMINGS: I don’t have a vote. I’m just there as a guest. But I thought watching the political process, listening to the conversations, and the positions people were taking, and the candidates interacting — it was incredibly exciting for our sport.

People asked me who I thought was going to win. And my answer was the same to everyone. The sport is going to win. And that’s how I feel about it.

SA: But there was a lot of negativity during the campaign. It seemed that the American soccer community was more divided than ever -- but you believe it all turned out positively?

JOE CUMMINGS: Yes, I do. Look, I get there was some negativity, but people are very passionate about things like this.

I think the negativity, however much it bubbled up, by the time the weekend was over, the support came together for Carlos Cordeiro. And I think took care of the negativity.

SA: What advice would you have for new U.S Soccer President Carlos Codeiro?

JOE CUMMINGS: My advice to Carlos is spend a good amount of time listening to the membership and asking them what are the important topics, what things should we be working on. No matter what size an organization is, that is important -- spending a lot of time listening.

And that was something that all the candidates spent a good amount of time on during the campaign for 60, 90 days. I think all the candidates showed us that. They asked questions and they listened. That has tremendous value.

1 comment about "Joe Cummings on the success and challenges of women's pro soccer".
  1. Ben Myers, March 1, 2018 at 9:10 a.m.

    Cordiero needs to see himself as the agent of change, rather than a continuation of the past.

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