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What’s next for women’s soccer?

Via Eric McErlain comes this article by Allen Barra about WUSA’a demise. Barra makes a pretty good point in that in terms of league building, the WUSA was putting the cart before the horse.

Lamenting the closure of the WUSA last week, Julie Foudy, captain of the current U.S. team and a member of the 1999 World Cup Championship team and WUSA’s board, commented, “The impact of the WUSA on women’s sports and millions of fans has been extraordinary.”

If that’s the case, where are the fans? If given a second chance, the WUSA would do well to learn from the history of other American pro leagues and focus not on TV contracts and corporate sponsors but on selling its product the old-fashioned way. Right now, minor league baseball, with virtually no TV exposure, is flourishing in more than 100 American cities and towns, even though many teams lose their biggest stars to major league teams as the season progresses. It seems hard to believe that American women’s professional soccer couldn’t sustain itself with the same level of grass-roots support as minor league baseball and cultivate its fan base from there.

Ms. Foudy is right. The impact of the WUSA has been extraordinary, but the league has promoted its product the wrong way. To paraphrase the ghostly voice in “Field of Dreams,” if you build a sport, TV and sponsors will come.

I’m fairly certain that the words “minor league” would be anathema to women’s soccer boosters, and to an extent they’ve got an incontrovertible point: There’s nothing “minor league” about what women like Mia Hamm and Sun Wen do. They’re the pinnacle of their sport. Wherever they’re playing is the major leagues.

The problem is that major leagues are grown, not created by fiat. Barra compares WUSA’a initial attendance to two existing major leagues:

[N]either the NFL nor NBA began with TV or corporate support. In 2001, riding the continued enthusiasm generated by the U.S. Women’s World Cup victory, the average WUSA attendance was more than 8,100 per game. Surely this level of support could have been built on, particularly considering that women’s pro soccer had no direct competition.

After 12 seasons of competing against the popularity of college football, the NFL, in 1934, began keeping attendance figures. The average figure of 8,200 attendees per game for that year was only slightly above that recorded by the WUSA in its first season.

A comparison with the NBA is even more revealing. From 1952 through the 1963 season, average NBA per-game attendance increased to 4,600 from just 3,200. In fact, it wasn’t until 30 years ago, during the 1972-73 season, that the NBA’s average attendance (8,396) surpassed that of the WUSA in 2001.

Barra could have added that Major League Baseball teams did not average 8100 fans per game until 1946, 70 years after the founding of the National League and nearly a half-century after the AL was born. By comparison, WUSA came blessed with a silver spoon in its mouth. So what went wrong?

Well, as I’ve noted before, WUSA’s cost structure was outrageous. They didn’t build on their success, and attendance declined. They bet the farm on corporate sponsors and TV contracts, and without to audience to justify them they went belly up.

What should they do this time around? I think the minor league model has some merit, but it should be noted that there are different kinds of minor leagues. Most minor league baseball, minor league basketball (I’m thinking the pre-Isaiah CBA), and minor league hockey is geared towards small towns where they’re the only game in town. That’s not an appropriate model for the WUSA, which can be reasonably compared to AA and AAA baseball, with teams in mid-to-large cities like Louisville, Portland, and San Antonio; the AHL, which has teams in Houston and Chicago; and (don’t laugh) Arena Football.

The AFL, which started out as a small-to-medium town league and now has teams in New York, Chicago, and LA, is actually a great role model for WUSA. There’s nothing quite like it, they controlled costs and built their brand from the ground up, and now, having grown an audience, are getting airplay on TV.

How would I follow the AFL paradigm if I were to be named the next commissioner of WUSA? Well, I’ll tell you:

– First off, think regionally. I’d start with a six-to-eight team league that’s all in one area of the country, both to promote rivalries and to minimize travel costs. The ideal region, in my mind, would be the Southwest – Southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas – which is a region that’s not only fast-growing, but which also features a large, growing, soccer-loving Hispanic population.

– My other reason for picking the Southwest would be that it would allow me to schedule all of my games between February and April or May, which is a relative barren spot for sports, especially in an area that doesn’t have too much hockey. It’s no accident that the AFL plays its games at this time.

– A relatively short schedule, mostly in winter and early spring, would allow my star players some flexibility to play elsewhere during the offseason, much as many WNBA players play in Europe, South America, or the NWBL outside of their season. This means I can keep salaries modest.

– Before aiming for a national TV deal, I’d work to get each team its own local TV and radio broadcast deals, including on Spanish-language stations (after all, before the advent of MLS, where else could you find soccer on TV?)

– Once I had a few seasons and some fan loyalty under my belt, I’d look to expand, most likely by creating another geographic division. That might force me to move the schedule back a bit into warmer weather, but if I can keep the bulk of it in the April-June time frame, I still won’t have that much other competition (college hoops will be finished, at least).

I admit, this has nowhere near the glamour of WUSA when it first burst upon the scene. I’m willing to bet it’d last longer, though.

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6 Comments

  1. William Hughes says:

    If you were to tell me ten years ago that there would be not one, but two successful minor league baseball teams in New York City, I would have thought you were crazy. Nonetheless, here we are with single-A teams in Brooklyn and Staten Island.

    The AHL also has big city franchises in Philadelphia and Toronto. The real test will be in Toronto, where the Roadrunners will be affiliated with the Edmonton Oilers. After all, Toronto is one of the two capitals of hockey in Canada (Montreal being the other, of course.), and the Maple Leafs are king.

    WUSA’s problem biggest problem was location. If you want to put teams in Philadelphia and New York, you need to put them where fans can get to the games. Washington had that ability since they had RFK Stadium and the willingness by DC United of MLS to have doubleheaders. MLS could have tried working with WUSA to do this in cities with both franchises, however, perhaps they were worried about competition between the leagues (MLS is not much better in terms of attendance than WUSA was. Giants Stadium draws about 12,000 for a Metrostars game, however, crowds have been as low as 1,500 a couple of years ago.). I think there is a place for professional women’s soccer, however, the best model may be the A-League. The A-League is considered the second division of professional soccer in the US, however, some cities are absolutely wild about their teams. This league could work with WUSA to develop both leagues.

  2. Thoughts on the WUSA and professional sports

    Charles has some thoughts on the demise of the WUSA and some ideas worth consideration, in my view, on what they should do from here. – First off, think regionally. I’d start with a six-to-eight team league that’s all in…

  3. Odds And Ends

    Charles Kuffner has his own thoughts on the end of the WUSA. Jeff Cooper remembers George Plimpton and his most

  4. alicia farquharson says:

    hey! i am alicia, i’m 22yrs old looking for a soccer team that i could join, i am a athletic jamaican young lady. I would love it if any memeber or coach of a team could contact me if i could join their team, i’m hoping to hear from you as soon as possible have a great day.

  5. Ronke says:

    hey! i am Ronke, i’m 20yrs old looking for a soccer team that i could join, i am a athletic Nigerian young lady. I would love it if any memeber or coach of a team could contact me if i could join their team, i’m hoping to hear from you as soon as possible have a great day.

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