WPS – We Pray for Sanctioning; or, Five the Hard Way

Posted on December 9, 2011 11:42 am

The whole WPS situation annoys me greatly, for two reasons.  One, I don’t think I can get away with a “magicJack Off WPS” post title.  Two, (three, four) - what are we fighting for?

I don’t know why people don’t listen to me when I say something serious and insightful – it might have something to do with my habit of posting ten page-long dick jokes – but I think there are some serious misconceptions about the challenges any women’s club sport would face.  I think that the idea of women working together for a goal still weirds out mainstream America.  I also think that mainstream America isn’t used to judging women on the qualities that make for good athletes.   I can’t think of a female athlete who would get away with one tenth of the personality flaws of a Roger Clemens, for example.

That’s not the same as saying they shouldn’t exist, mind you.  I’m just saying it takes a minute or two to change the way society thinks.  Not everyone was on board with interracial marriage, either.  Not everyone is even today, but at least now when they say so they get ridiculed.

Progress is anything but impossible – allow me to demonstrate.  Some of you out there may be preparing comments to this post along the lines of “women shouldn’t play soccer.”  Those comments will never be read, if I can help it, but stay with me for a second.  Would even the most porcine of male chauvinists say “women shouldn’t play tennis” or “women shouldn’t play golf?”  Perhaps, but the free market believes otherwise.

So, yay, the idea that women can be athletes at all is perfectly accepted.  Only took seven decades or so.  Babe Didrikson died for your sins.

The free market is a little more skittish on women’s team sports, which I think has to do with all kinds of reasons – and not simply among American men.  There are enough women out there to support professional women’s leagues, just like there are enough women out there to elect a President or two.

The good news is, women’s soccer has found a way to mainstream acceptance – wrap the game in a flag.  This year’s Women’s World Cup proved that the nation’s sports fans are more than willing to drop everything and pay attention to the USWNT, just like the 2009 Confederations Cup proved for the men.  People like the US National Team.  Both of them.  And when the national teams do something exciting or entertaining, America climbs right back on the bandwagon.

Transferring that to individual professional clubs…well, that’s not so easy.  MLS believes they have finally done so, even though Eric Wynalda thinks MLS goes under if SUM ever loses the Mexican national team.  But all MLS had to do was wear down resistance to the gay Commie sport.  Women’s professional soccer has to fight against the reluctance of audiences to pay to see women play a game.  Women’s college soccer can do it – in some places – but NCAA slave labor makes that possible.  The question is when it will be possible for a woman to live off soccer earnings without having to enter a tawdry dance competition to make ends meet.

So, women’s soccer is here to stay… at the national, Olympic, and college level.  By world standards, that’s pretty good – for women’s soccer.  The bad news is, in the short term, WPS is expendable.

You may protest that without the development and expansion of our considerable talent pool, the USWNT will lose ground to its rivals.  Don’t worry.  That’s already happened.  The past couple of World Cup teams, and the shortfalls experienced thereof, therewith and thereby?  Directly the result of the WUSA folding.   I expect a mild uptick in the next cycle, as the benefit of the last couple of years of WPS come into play – but not that big, because the professional pool has contracted so severely.

The absolute worst case scenario for women’s soccer fans – well, American women’s soccer fans; Swedish women’s soccer fans should be overjoyed that WPS is stalling – will be this: the best of the best women’s college players will continue to play after age 21 under a USSF contract.  That core will be supplemented by the best current college players, with perhaps a tiny contingent of Yanks Abroad.  (Heh.  Broad.)  (What’s wrong with being sexy?)  There will continue to be star players – the ones who survive being shoved into the spotlight before graduation, like Rodriguez and Morgan, or the ones who are determined enough to stick around in long apprenticeships for not a hell of a lot of cash, like Solo or Rampone.  Megan Rapinoe coming out of freaking nowhere will be a rarity to the point of miraculous.  Such teams will usually be competitive, occasionally victorious, never dominant.

In order to build the sport above that level, we will need WPS (or something like it).  Only better.

In the unlikely event you’ve read this far, you are almost certainly aware of Mr. Dure’s dedicated and insightful reporting, the splendid blogging at the site which is dedicated to neither Real Madrid, New Zealand nor Stormfront, as well as the input of professionals like Mr. Wilt, Mr. Halstead (c/o Ms. Eisenmenger), Ms. Kessler (c/o Mr. Crossley).  I won’t recapitulate their fine work.

The problem isn’t Borislow.  Yes, Dan Borislow did a huge amount of damage to the league, and the sport, through simple negligence.  He owned the club that, starting about two seconds after the end of the US-Brazil game, featured a big percentage of America’s sweethearts.  To say that the stupid, blinkered, bungling fool pissed away the biggest marketing opportunity in the history of American club soccer is to understate the magnitude of Borislow’s failure.  The biggest celebrities in women’s sports in 2011 were tucked away in Boca Raton, playing for the private amusement of a megalomaniac like in “Plato’s Stepchildren.”

 

But the issue wasn’t Borislow.  It was the fact that Borislow was allowed to get anywhere near a pro team in the first place.  The fact that WPS heartily regrets its invitation does nothing to solve the reasons Borislow was invited to begin with.  WPS is, as of today, a tiny regional league trying to establish itself nationally in the face of a horrible economy and, as I mentioned, against the traditional model of club sports.

And this is where it gets stupid.  I’m sure there are plenty of fabulous reasons why the United States Soccer Federation felt they had to involve themselves in WPS business.  Literally the only one I can think of is so the USSF can defend its turf - after all, if WPS is allowed to flout USSF bylaws without getting a note from the parent or guardian, then any old USL or NASL can, too.  (Aren’t we about due for a re-enactment of that spitstorm, too?  Yay.)

And hey, as long as the USSF is demanding that once a league and its teams start a season, that season is completed – something that hasn’t always been accomplished at the level we’re talking about – then the Fed has the duty and responsibility to protect fans, players and other owners.

But that’s not what we’re talking about.  Here’s what we’re talking about – according to the USSF Policy Manual.

Policy 202(1)(H)-1—Professional Leagues

Section 1. Structure

(a) There shall be the following competitive divisions for men’s outdoor professional soccer (as soccer is described in the FIFA Laws of the Game):

(1) Division I;

(2) Division II; and

(3) Division III.

(b) There shall be the following competitive divisions for women’s outdoor professional soccer (as soccer is described in the FIFA Laws of the Game):

(1) Division 1;

(2) Division 2; and

(3) Division 3.

(c) There shall be the following competitive divisions for indoor professional soccer:

(1) Division A;

(2) Division B; and

(3) Division C.

(d) The competitive divisions referred to in subsections (a) – (c) of this section shall consist of professional leagues. Each professional league shall be:

(1) certified by the Board of Directors (BOD) based on standards established under these policies;

(2) subject to the authority of the Federation;

(3) comprised of at least 8 professional teams certified by the Board of Directors;

and

(4) subject to all rules and regulations of the Federation, autonomous in its operations.

(e) The professional leagues in the competitive divisions referred to in subsections (a) – (c) of this section shall consist of professional teams. Each professional team shall be:

(1) certified by the Board of Directors based on standards established under section 2 of this policy;

(2) in a professional league in a competitive division;

(3) subject to the authority of the professional league of which it is a member;

(4) subject to the ultimate authority of the Federation; and

(5) comprised of at least 12 registered professional players.

Section 2. General Provisions

(a) All players on professional teams in the Professional Leagues shall be registered with the appropriate Federation in accordance with FIFA and Federation requirements.

(b) There shall be consultation with the Federation in the scheduling of international and other representative matches involving professional players.

(c) All referees officiating in games of professional teams in Professional Leagues shall be registered with the Federation through a State Association in accordance with Federation rules, regulations, and policies.

(d) Each player contract with a United States Citizen with a professional team in the Professional Leagues shall include the following language: Any United States citizen registered with the Federation shall be made available on request of the Federation for international games, FIFA and The Football Confederation tournaments, and Olympic Games competition, including preparation, qualification and final tournament matches.

The Federation will cooperate with each professional league and professional team in establishing procedures for the use of players for such Federation purposes and, to the extent possible, in avoiding scheduling conflicts.

(e) No professional league may admit teams into the league in violation of these policies.

Emphasis added, because that and paying your fees are the only requirements mentioned.  That’s it.  (To be fair, I didn’t know this until I was told.  Some well-intentioned, wide-eyed fan thought it was a six team requirement when she put up a change.org petition.  But it’s not as if that was coming from an owner, or even a player.)

And what’s the practical difference between the divisions?

Section 8. Professional League Members

(a) Division I League Fees

League Fee for up to 10 teams $350,000

Team Fee for each team over 10 $30,000

Team Fee for Player Registration $2,000

(b) Division II Leagues

League Fee $106,667

Team Fee for Player Registration $1,333

(c) Division III Leagues

League Fee $73,150

Team Fee for Player Registration $1,333

I’ve honestly tried to find any other differences between the divisions, but apparently what you get for Division 1 status is that you get to call yourselves Division 1 (I if you’re a dude, A if you’re agoraphobic).  It’s purely semantic.

So, naturally, it’s the most important thing in the world.  Ann Killion in Sports Illustrated:

There’s also a perception issue: WPS has been touted as the best league in the world. But if it loses its Division I standing — and whatever prestige comes with that classification — the top players may no longer want to be associated with the product.

I hope Killion’s wrong, and the players aren’t dopes.  The premise, apparently, is that Hope Solo would take (let’s say) $150,000 to play in WPS as long as it’s called a Division 1 league, but would throw the same (or greater) amount of money back in the league’s face if it were called something else.  Even though there will be no league above it, it will still be Division 2, and therefore worth less – maybe even worthless.

The premise also, apparently, is that being called Division 2 will force WPS owners to cut back.  Muppet news flash, that’s pretty much what’s going to happen anyway.  I’m gonna go way out on a limb and say WPS teams will spend pretty much what they can afford, no matter what division they call themselves.  Hell, if anything, the WPS owners would save money in fees if they called themselves Division 2.  Or 3.  Maybe if they said they were Division 4, they wouldn’t have to pay USSF fees at all, leaving more cash for players and stadiums.

Even sillier is the idea that the USSF is somehow necessary to force WPS to get to eight teams or more.  As if WPS hated the idea, or something.

“Oh, you want us to get to eight teams?  Well, goodness gracious, why didn’t we think of that?  Thank heavens you were here to tell us.  We were going to have fewer and fewer teams each season, until finally we didn’t have any teams or fans at all.  Thank you very much for showing us the error of our ways.  Do you have any other helpful tips to help us run our business?  We were thinking of instead of selling tickets, we would hand out $50 bills to every fan who showed up.  Is that a bad idea?  Would that be ill-advised?  Please help us.  Please show us the way.”

At least with the USL/NASL fracas, there was an opposing party and a reason for the USSF to mediate (and, in my opinion, they did a very good job in negotiating the reefs, their only mistake being refusing to allow NASL teams into the Open Cup last year).  There’s nothing here for the USSF this time.

If the Fed certifies WPS, and it fails, no one will blame Dan Flynn or Sunil Gulati.  But if the Fed doesn’t certify WPS, they’ve instantly made themselves into scapegoats – perhaps litigable ones.  Anyone who sues a federation will find themselves under FIFA’s wrath, of course, but at that point do you think any of the investors involved would care about getting back into soccer, ever?

Beau (EDIT – or, perhaps more accurately, Jenna Pel) reported that an owner or two would flee WPS if it weren’t sanctioned as Division 1 - well, those owners probably should flee anyway, to be honest.  I can’t picture a fan deciding whether or not to see Alex Morgan based on whether the league presenting the match falls under one bureaucratic classification or another.  If Division 2 status bothers those owners that much, perhaps they shouldn’t mention it in their advertising.  (Also, perhaps they should advertise.)  I’m going to put the financial losses of this particular downgrade at change under the couch cushions level.  It’s a hot topic among we who chatter of such things.  That’s, what, MAYBE five hundred people scattered across the country?  My local team is in Atlanta, for crying out loud.

The real issue is that WPS owners have to face whether they willing to run teams for the many, many years it would take to establish themselves as traditional features of their community.  I’ve been told that both WPS and AEG were perfectly willing to have the latter’s backing for the Sol for just the one year until a more permanent investor was found.  I still think that was madness.  AEG pushed the Sol – well, Marta – enough that you saw more of them around than, to pick an example entirely at random, Chivas USA.  The Sol didn’t draw as well as CUSA, probably because the Sol’s scheduling wasn’t optimal – the Home Depot Center is a busy place, and there’s nothing like a 10:00 am kickoff to keep paying customers away.

Besides, without AEG to underwrite Marta, her salary went from justifiable to onerous.  Ilene Kessler complained about it in the FC Gold Pride article linked above – which says that if Puma was paying Marta’s WPS salary, they sure weren’t paying all of it.  So instead of Marta being the female Beckham at the front of a consistent publicity campaign, she was exiled to the East Bay with no marketing support to speak of.  Because no one in 2009 said to themselves, “Wait, what if there’s no one to step in for AEG?”

WPS also didn’t ask “Wait, what if Jeff Cooper’s soccer empire is pure vapor?”, and although they weren’t the only ones Cooper fooled, they had the most riding on him.  MLS has also had its encounters with owners who couldn’t keep going when onesies turned to twosies, and those also nearly put MLS against the wall.  WPS, as we’ve seen, has much less wiggle room.

So, what is to be done?  Peter Wilt advanced the WMLS idea, but until MMLS is profitable across the board, I don’t believe they should be emulating the NBA.  Even assuming MMLS owners are receptive to a business model along the lines of “We’re now losing x money, how can we start losing x(squared)?”, if the Krafts are distracted from the Revolution, how much attention will they give the Breakers?

Besides, the “we’d like our own league, thanks” ethos that started the WPSL breakaway from the USL didn’t exactly happen in a vacuum.  If one prefers to deal in symbolism, consider that it’s the Philadelphia Union in one league, and the Philadelphia Independence in the other.  Coincidence?  Yes.  But unsconscious expression of synchronistic blah blah blah c’mon, let me have this one.

WPS should only go forward if it has the owners and investors willing to make the commitment necessary.  Not for a year, or even five years.  As long as it takes.  Otherwise, they’re just wasting our time.

If WPS dies, in the words of Will Durant, only the dead have died.

If WPS lives – and I hope it does – it will have to avoid any hint, any whiff, any tiny iota of goddamned embarrasing shit like this.  I realize I’m coming off as self-righteous, but charities are for the f*cking needy.  It’s for people who have lost their homes, whose kids are sick, who are wounded or dying.  It’s not for able-bodied women in their 20′s to make a living playing a game.  When the Big One hits, and I’m trapped under wreckage breathing concrete ash, pissing in Dixie Cups and having office non-dairy creamer for dinner waiting for rescue, I would not enjoy being told the Red Cross can’t come because all their money went to the f*cking Atlanta Beat.  Any women’s sports fan who advances this idea should be ashamed.

It’s folly as well as callousness, because spinach marketing – eat women’s soccer because it’s good for you – has been tried repeatedly before, and has failed each time.  As well it should.  Sports are supposed to be fun.  Soccer is supposed to be beautiful.  Leisure time is meant for entertainment.  Don’t call it a charity, for God’s sake, call it a long-term investment.  That’s what it is, after all.

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