Lower the Jolly Roger, and launch the USS Lollipop. Julie Foudy is ready to make nice.
It needs a group of owners who want to do it because it makes sense financially and they believe in it, not because it is something they "should" do. For those of you who argue it doesn't make sense financially, I argue it does and will make financial sense for some MLS owners; they have their own stadiums, the staff infrastructure in place, a favorable local demographic and very deep pockets. They are at a stage when adding a women's team could complement and add to their current fan base and sponsorship potential. That was not the case 12 years ago. Back then, they were just trying to survive. Now, MLS is poised to thrive.
The "It" she refers to is, of course, Cousin It from the Addams Family. No, it's the long-sought after professional women's soccer league, a subject close to Foudy's heart. It hasn't been difficult to get an opinion out of Foudy over the years - in fact, it's been so easy that one wonders why people feel the need to put words in her mouth.
Remember when Julie Foudy said she didn't want MLS piggybacking on the WUSA, riding on the coattails of the USWNT's 1999 success? No, you don't. She never said it. (Scroll down, and look for my name.) (Or take my word for it.) (Or do neither. I'm not your mom.) The coattails term was used by a writer as a side remark about the WNBA as a wholly-owned subsidiary/charity of the MNBA.
The"piggybacking" comment was from Brandi Chastain, on a completely different topic. Unless anyone out there is infuriated that the two World Cups aren't held at the same time, and wanted the women to piggyback on the MWC?
Look, I'm a big fan of pithy misquotes, like when Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski wrote back to Berlin and said "Oh, yeah? You and what army?" Foudy almost certainly held opinions along the lines of not wanting to work with MLS, but she wasn't exactly the Lone Ranger at the time. My column at the time, astonishingly, has not vanished into the ether:
The theory goes that if only the women placed themselves under the auspices of MLS, they wouldn't be in this mess today. Robert Wagman's SoccerTimes article is an excellent example of this theory.
Well, maybe. But I doubt it. We don't know how good the business plan was that MLS offered, but I'm going to go out on a limb and assume it was lousy.
.... Remember what MLS was doing in 2000?
That's right. Flatlining attendances. Propping up failing franchises in Florida. Drawing people by the non-drove in San Jose and Kansas City. Watching Lothar Matthaeus and Luis Hernandez bring the credibility of the league to new and wonderful depths.
Paying hideous stadium rentals and leases in Los Angeles, Dallas and New Jersey. Moving into suburban junior college stadiums in Illinois. Buying time for their TV broadcasts.
Yes, Columbus Crew Stadium was nice, and all, but other soccer stadiums looked like pipe dreams.
And they were still, after more than two years, trying to get the stink of the 1998 World Cup out of the air.
The WUSA would end up with teams in non-MLS markets such as Atlanta, Carolina, San Diego, and Philadelphia. Furthermore, the Boston Breakers and New York Power played in different facilities than their MLS neighbors.
Either MLS would effectively have expanded into four new markets (ask Tampa and Miami how that probably would have worked out), or they [the WUSA] would have had to write off three or four of their more successful teams.
And at the time, the only stadia MLS owners controlled were the ones in Foxboro, Kansas City, Miami and Columbus. None of those strike me as options much better than what WUSA found for themselves.
What MLS did have, of course, was ownership more committed to the long term than the WUSA ownership, and more realistic about how the growth of the league would probably go.
That doesn't mean that would have come across in the business plan, and that doesn't mean that in 2000 MLS was ready to subsidize or run an entirely different league with an almost entirely different fan base. And MLS players were still suing them at that time, a development hardly likely to have won over the women's national team players.
Should, in hindsight, the women have gone with a WMLS? I don't know. Is this article on the death of the WUSA two years old now?
Hindsight happens to be very kind to MLS, and very unkind to almost everything connected with women's club soccer. But to say WUSA and WPS failed because of Foudy's arrogance is to misunderstand the situation on many levels.
Unlike any other dying American league I can recall since maybe the ABA - many of the WPS teams are carrying on. The Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, and Western New York Flash are playing as I write this, in the WPSL-Elite.
Okay, the WPSL itself was and is a charmingly low-rent affair, and the W-League is basically a summer adjunct of the NCAA. But, if you're willing to be an extremely serious and attentive fan, and are willing to follow teams where local coverage is your own eyes and ears and road games are covered by hearsay, you will get a lot of out it, because the talent drop-off isn't anywhere near as vast as you might think. After all, these are now the de facto top divisions in North America. And given the shaky professional status of leagues elsewhere, WPSL-Elite is probably one of the world's best women's soccer leagues. It isn't as if people are lining up to throw half a million dollars at Marta.
Come to think of it, it isn't as if people were lining up to do so back in 2009, was it? WPS was bidding against itself, to please dopes like me who wanted to see if the league was "serious." Well, I bought in, but hundreds of millions did not. It does say something that a salary of two Edson Buddles was seen as a crippling factor in the finances of an entire league.
The WPSL is also its Own Thing, true to the spirit of women's soccer not wanting men's clubs to piggyback on their success. Take, for example, Foudy's idea that existing MLS staffs and stadiums could effortlessly accommodate a WMLS. As a former LA Sol season ticket holder, let me be among the first to testify that no, there's a little more effort required from even the largest sports entertainment omnivore than to assign their long-suffering front-office serfs yet another unpopular ticket package to flog. And ask Revolution fans about all the great synergies their club gets from the New England Patriarchs NFL team. Second-class teams get second-class attention, and women's soccer would be seen as second class squared.
I also tend to smile when people take it as axiomatic that MLS is rolling in dough. They have enough to establish promotion and relegation, they have enough to bid for Europe's most famous players, they have enough to carry a women's league. Has Don Garber updated us lately on how many of our little teams even use black ink in their books? How many were profitable last we checked, three?
"But then why are investors buying in?" SUM, I imagine. Major International League Friendlies. It's possible that MLS owners lie as enthusiastically as MLB owners about their profitability, but even so, all a WMLS would accomplish in the short term would be to piggyback on the success of MLS and opportunities women's clubs don't have. And by short term, I mean ten years.
Were this the George Halas era, I could confidently predict that the small but devoted base of women's soccer fans bodes very well. Women aren't going to stop playing the game, after all. And girls are always going to need role models.
If women's soccer were played in a vacuum - it would be horrifying. Lungs imploding, eyeballs bursting, corpses floating over the field with their faces frozen in agonizing death. I'm terribly sorry, I don't know why I went there. Let me try that again.
If women's soccer were played in a vacuum, outside the cultural domination of men's soccer worldwide and men's professional sports at home, the sport would be doing acceptably, if not great. Only a few people can make a living off the sport, which isn't wonderful. But again, that was true until the television era for most professional athletes of either gender in any sport. It's still true today for the most athletes, when you think about it. I don't know what the best biathlete in the world pulls in, but I'm guessing it's not Beckham bucks. (Beau Dure would know, I should ask him.)
But there are a great number of outlets for fan and player, unless you want to watch club games every week. If it seems pitifully inadequate compared even to women's golf or tennis or figure skating, well, like literally everything connected with American soccer, it's better than it used to be.
And it's not going to go away, the Women's World Cup last year taught us that. People like women's soccer. People are willing to take time to cheer on a particularly successful US team. Sure, with no pro program, there's a monstrous gap between college and national team. And if this were men's American soccer, we'd be screwed. Fortunately, the US is likely to remain good enough to compete for every competition they enter, even if we may never dominate again.
Even if the very, very worst happens - the US loses to Mexico and Canada in the same qualifying year, and watches either the Olympics or the Women's World Cup on pay-per-view (since without the USWNT, no one will be lining up to broadcast women's soccer) - you still have those millions of girls playing for thousands of scholarships.
Probably the fundamental difference between men's and women's soccer in the US is that women's college soccer is keeping the US competitive, something that no one says about men's college soccer. In fact, the college structure actually provides an advantage to the US women's program, since there's no remotely equivalent amateur system abroad that can keep so many players in the game and out of the 40-hour work week.
We can debate the efficacy and future of men's college soccer - which has nothing that much to be ashamed of - but glance at the college careers of the current US men's roster. Good debate on whether collegians such as Dempsey, Goodson, Bocanegra, Rimando and Cherundolo (if you want to count his two years) are more indispensable than direct-to-pros like Donovan, Howard, Altidore, Bradley and - well, obviously Jones and Johnson and Torres and such. The point is, any such debate on the women's side is silly. Try to picture a scenario where the women's national team consists of anything except college stars.
So even if the US spends one cycle in perdition - the talent isn't going away. Girls are still going to keep playing soccer, and that's going to be enough to sustain the women's national team...at least, on the level of any other national team.
So the sport has a foundation, and a pretty solid floor. The George Halas NFL model suggests that years of patient labor will build today's little lovable clubs into cultural institutions. What's probably going to happen is the NASL/MLS/WUSA model - another group of billionaires will once again bet there's money to be made, and establish another "big-time" league on top of existing second division teams. Maybe the very very very strongest of the existing teams make the jump (or attract investors), but most will be shoved aside.
Foudy's article marks where women's soccer bottomed out, at least in the post-90's era. And yes, Foudy's surrender is depressing - picture Grant saying to Lee "Never mind, we don't want you back after all." But I think that's the lowest we'll get anymore. It's all uphill from here.
Unless someone starts a Lingerie Soccer League, I suppose.
*edit* - no one got on my case for leaving a blank line as a placeholder for the Poland 1939 joke? Wow.