ESPN's Beau Dure has the story to today that Women's Professional Soccer league has folded after three tumultuous seasons. There will do doubt be a lot of finger-pointing, blame (Dan Borislow-yeah I am looking at you), and moaning about economic conditions, travel, branding, etc. . But when the second effort at building a women's professional soccer league fails after three years within 10 years of the last independent league disaster, it makes it appear that those who want to have a professional women't league in America can't figure out either how to present the league or operate the league. That includes management, ownership, marketing and yes, the players themselves.
The way I see it there are three consequences for the American women. First, as has been seen, a lot of other countries are catching up the U.S. in terms of quality. Yes, Pia Sundehage has done a wonderful job bringing the WNT back to the fore, but Germany, Japan, Brazil, and even Mexico and Canada are coming on strong to challenge the dominance of the U.S. Second, the U.S. top women will have to be following the top men and moving to Europe to play. That is not a bad thing, but it puts players out of the American spotlight. Who besides avid women's soccer fans knew about how good Ali Kreiger was playing in Europe all the time. Third and finally, this is a black eye for the players as well as management. The players didn't seem to have learned anything from the WUSA's folding and neither did management. There are hundreds of thousands of girls out there playing soccer, and some of them play wonderful soccer. So why can't the league attract that kind of support? Why hasn't the league been able to tap into that market? What can they do differently? What different models are out there that can make matters different?
So we are left with the question of "What's next?" The way I see it, there are two paths that can be taken to build a league in the U.S. The first, what I call grassroots development, is long term--perhaps decades, and will take a great deal of long term focus and energy. Essentially, capitalizing on the very broad base of youth soccer, high school soccer and college soccer, the United States Soccer Federation should implement a Development Academy for girls. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy for boys is focused on preparing players for the next level, with high levels of training, competition and yes management for U18 and U16 boys. Given the success of the USWNT, I have always wondered by there isn't a development academy for girls. There should be--full stop.
Putting together a development academy for girls should be followed by and coupled with the development of amateur and semi-professional leagues. The W-League has been around for years, is established, consistent and has offered a summer season featuring elite players playing good soccer in regional leagues with a play-offs for championships. As young girls graduate from high school, development academy clubs could build their own W-league teams or the players could go to established W-league teams. Over time, there would probably be the development of two or even three tiers of W-League teams, slowing morphing in to more professional organizations as the quality of players, and support, improves.
I am talking decades though in order to build a grassroots W-League. That could be short circuited a bit by social media exposure, local television broadcasts for games, etc, but in reality, you are talking about 20 years, a very long time.
The shorter path is one fraught with more than a few legal and logistical hurdles. It is not a new idea, but in essence, it boils down to a WMLS, a Women's Major League Soccer. Just as MLS clubs have to have an Academy Program in the Development Academy, U.S.S.F. could make a condition of sanction as a top division, the creation and maintenance of a Women's side for each MLS club. Of course, this is not a new concept and it has been posited a number of times. But MLS clubs have the current infrastructure, staffing and for the most part facilities to field women's sides.
Say what you will about the MLS structure as a single entity, its leadership has guided a teenaged league through some pretty tumultuous times. While payrolls might be smaller, salary caps lower, and perhaps support a little less than optimum to the point where a womens' side might be a money losing concern on its own, tying the MLS men's and women's side together allows the women's league to tap into the marketing and financial know-how of MLS, tap into the executive who have learned a few lessons, and tap into a fan base already in place. MLS was a money losing proposition for most clubs until even recently.
Ideally, what would be nice to see is a combination of both these approaches. Just as teh men's side of the game needs to be nourished from the top down and the bottom up, so too does the women's side.
The WPS may have been victims for bad luck, bad decisions and bad timing, but if women's professional soccer is going to survive in this country, forming an independent league from scratch does not appear to be the solution. Either build a league from the ground up or partners with the MLS. That doesn't mean that there might not be a third way, but the primary third way is DOA--twice.