Solo "magicJacked" And Maybe Nowhere To Go as the WPS Ponders Its Future

Solo "magicJacked" And Maybe Nowhere To Go as the WPS Ponders Its Future
The many faces of Hope Solo

After this year, is there anyone on Earth who hasn't heard of Hope Solo? She's the "Dancing With the Stars" alum in the skimpy costumes who sobbed as she was voted off. Or, she's the athlete wearing nothing but a garden hose for ESPN The Body issue.  Remember?

That said, before she became the Erin Andrews of women's soccer, she was...and remains... a celebrated US goalie who helped lead the US Women's National Team to numerous CONCACAF championships, to Olympic silver in 2010, and three years ago, joined the WPS' Washington Freedom and became a star.

Yes, Solo's been everywhere and done everything. Now, she is facing something that millions of Americans also face...joblessness. Her team of the last year was the Florida-based magicJack,  which just lost its franchise license under a cloud of financial controversy.

The magicJack's demise was just the latest demise of a WPS franchise, whish has seen six teams disappear. The Chicago Red Stars, led by former Fire CEO Peter Wilt, opened to great fanfare in 2009, with skilled US and international players like Carli Lloyd, Cristiane, and Megan Rapinoe. Their average attendance at Toyota Park was nearly 4,000 strong, and they boasted an enthusiastic support group not unlike the Chicago Fire's Section 8. They lasted two seasons with the WPS, and re-emerged in 2011 as a WPSL franchise.  Other WPS franchises that had short runs included the Saint Louis Athletica, and the Bay Area's FC Gold Pride. Soon, all franchises were based on the East Coast.

The questions about the WPS, however, have been asked about every women's sports franchise since professional sports franchises for women began in the late 19th Century. Today, most arguments about the potential for successful women's professional sports leagues in America begin with the theory (not fact) that no one is interested in going to a professional sporting event made up solely of women; and ends with "if anyone's interested, they'd go to the games."

The viability of women making a living playing sports, and the "watchability" factor of glistening sweat, skill and athleticism among highly trained women athletes has been debated for decades. This past week, as the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league, like the WUSA (2000-2003)  before them, teetered on the brink of extinction....unless USA Soccer grants an exemption to their eight-team rule for Division 1 status, the WPS' days are numbered. Petitions are being circulated via social media to USA Soccer as a show of support for the five-team league, which lost its sixth franchise, the Florida-based magicJack, amid allegations of financial impropriety and other league violations. (that said, Abby "Head Shot" Wambach can still be seen in late-night infomercials for the company).

Will the WPS fold? Not so fast, naysayers. Women's Professional Soccer CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan isn't giving up, saying she is determined to make the three-year-old league viable, if not immediately profitable.  "While we take very seriously the issue of U.S. Soccer’s classification of us as a Division 1 league," she said in a letter on the WPS website, " We are both confident and undeterred in our mission to continue and to be the best women's professional soccer league in the world."

As noted on their website, the WPS has applied for a waiver from U.S. Soccer of the -team requirement to retain its status as a Division 1 professional league for 2012. Currently, it has five teams (Atlanta, Boston, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, Western New York).  WPS made this request based on the tremendous interest in women’s soccer, potential for growth in markets across the country, and expressed interest from viable expansion candidates for the 2013 season.

As O'Sullivan told the Marietta (GA) Daily Journal, “Stick with us,” she said. “We have every intention of being here and growing with the fans. We appreciate the support. We hope that we are around to keep providing them with that same great fan experience that we have.”

O'Sullivan was right when she said they are "growing with the fans." I maintain it takes a generation to integrate any new sports franchise into the daily lexicon, where people  will consider it a normal part of everyday life to take their children to  sporting events. 

 For example, as the WNBA's 15th season got underway, one of its stars, Naperville native and LA Sparks superstar Candace Parker commented that  she was 10 years old when the WNBA began, and she couldn't really remember a time when the WNBA wasn't there.  The WNBA had its best season ever, with attendance boosted by more than 20% across the franchises, and for the Chicago Sky, a 29% increase in attendance last year.

The WNBA is still with us because NBA Commissioner David Stern had the foresight, the patience, perseverence, and dollars to invest and help it grow.

Historical Perspective on Building Sports Franchises:

What do you think the crowds were like when the National Football League started in the 1920's? It certainly wasn't always the nation's most popular sport. Anyone see the George Clooney movie "Leatherheads" as reference?  Did anyone say that to George Halas when he started the NFL's Decatur Staleys, now better known as the Chicago Bears? Or Curley Lambeau, up north in tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin, with a little NFL franchise called the Green Bay Packers? 

Consider an excerpt from "The People's History," discussing the tumultous history of the NFL:

"While professional football was still trying to organize itself in the 1920s, college football ruled the sport. In 1925, the NFL made a giant step towards gaining significant national popularity (though true fame was still decades away). The college game’s biggest star was a halfback named Harold “Red” Grange from the University of Illinois. After finishing the season at Illinois, Grange, nicknamed “the Galloping Ghost,” left school and signed a $100,000 contract with the Chicago Bears (which would be worth $1.2 million today). After hosting a Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Cardinals attended by 36,000 people, the largest crowd in pro-football history at the time, the Bears went on a barnstorming tour...playing nine games in the South and West of the country, including a game in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum attended by 75,000 people. In the remainder of the decade, the NFL’s team count ebbed and flowed: teams popped up in places like Frankford and Pottsville (both Pennsylvania) and Kansas City (Missouri)."

And consider this:  Wikipedia sources indicate that "the National Hockey League, which originated in 1917 with four Canadian teams, had a tumultous first quarter century, until they found stability in the Original Six era (1942 – 1967) with four franchises in the United States joining two Canadian clubs. How'd that play in the Midwest? According to Wikipedia sources, The Chicago Black Hawks (the original spelling) joined the NHL in 1926 as part of the league's first wave of expansion into the United States. They were one of three American teams added that year, along with the Detroit Cougars (now the Detroit Red Wings) and New York Rangers.

World events, including the Great Depression and World War II took a toll on attendance and players throughout the NHL as teams came and went. The league was reduced to six teams for the 1942–43 NHL season: the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Though the Blackhawks have seen lean years, when I attended the game Friday night at the United Center, they had more than 21,000 fans in the seats (and likely, standing room only). Why? Because they adjusted their business model and created a product to be seen. Thank you go to founder Frederic McLaughlin, Arthur and Rocky Wirtz, and of course, Team President John McDonough.

How to Save The WPS:

Like the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, and all other franchises, the WPS must be malleable enough to build with what it has, in a difficult economic time for the world. Wilt, who has built several successful soccer franchises over the past 30 years, has written, what I believe, is a business model that will help the WPS franchise build the way a franchise should grow. Like the environment, it changes slowly, and must adjust to current trends to survive.

As Wilt writes in his "Pitch Invasion" column this week: " Women’s Professional Soccer (upper case) and women’s professional soccer (lower case) are both in trouble in the United States and scrambling for survival.

I have the perspective of being intimately involved in the creation and launch of WPS from 2007 through 2009 as founding President of WPS’ Chicago Red Stars.  I also have some strong opinions about the sport’s future direction.  Frankly, my own failure, along with that of my WPS colleagues, to rein in expenses is the reason WPS is on the verge of collapse.  While I was preaching fiscal responsibility from the beginning, it wasn’t enough.   I took a sizable pay cut to join the Chicago Red Stars, but I was still paid too much (as was just about everyone else associated with the League) relative to where the revenues ended up."

Read the rest of Wilt's business model of survival by clicking on the link below. , And I'll make a suggestion: Peter Wilt needs to be Commissioner of the WPS. Please consider this as you read his modest proposal. Ms. O'Sullivan, the next move is yours.

Fixing U.S. Pro Women’s Soccer: A Proposal

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