Sunday, November 25, 2012

Third Time's a Charm?

Amidst the orgy of turkey, Black Friday, and college football this past week you may have missed the announcement that, for the third time in the past 12 years, a women's professional soccer league will begin play in the U.S. this coming spring.

The WUSA was formed in the wake of the U.S. Women's National Team's triumph in the 1999 World Cup here in the U.S. Much as the formation of MLS following the men's World Cup in the States in 1994, the notion was that it was the perfect time to start a women's league with all the momentum that the sport had gained after the climatic final game, won by Brandi Chastain's famous pk.

That league folded after just three years though, drowning in debt caused, at least in part, by the signing of big name players from abroad and (based on the attendance and limited television exposure and dollars) high salaries for the players. The WUSA tried to hang on through the next year, holding a few "exhibition" matches which were essentially all-star games, but finally gave up the ghost.

Women's Professional Soccer jumped into the void for another three years, but it seemed even more doomed from the start. Feuding (and seemingly imbalanced), owners, lackluster crowds, and frankly dull play led to another three seasons, but even the most hard core fan would be hard-pressed to name more than one team, let alone more than one champion. The WPS played in 2009-2011, but in January of this year announced a hiatus and eventually disbanded.

The success of the U.S. Women's National Team this summer in London, however, led to renewed talk of another women's professional league. While the WPS had tried to associate with MLS and thus reduce facilities costs, the effort never seemed to take hold outside of, perhaps, Philadelphia. The announcement of the new league, however, came not from potential owners but from Sunil Gulati, the President of the U.S. Soccer Federation. 

Gulati, whose day job is a senior lecturer in economics at Columbia, believes he has finally developed a  "sustainable" economic model for the women's professional game in the States. The as-yet-unnamed league will work in cooperation with the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican Soccer Federations in paying the salaries of many of the players in the league. U.S. Soccer will also finance the administrative costs of the league, presumably while trying to ensure that costs are held in some close approximation to the revenues generated by attendance, television rights, and collateral income.

Gulati, at the press conference announcing
the formation of the new women's league.

The new league will also likely follow more closely the MLS model by limiting, at least initially, the number of foreign players allocated to each club ("foreign" meaning in this context non-American, Canadian, or Mexican) and to begin play in smaller venues to enhance fan participation and camaraderie.

While it remains to be seen whether a women's professional league is sustainable in the U.S., Gulati's plan seems to have the kernels of the model that could work. But what else would you expect from an Economics professor who has been called "the single most important person in the development of soccer in this country"? 

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