Monday, July 9, 2012

WPS: The Rise and Fall

Soccer in America has always played 6th fiddle to the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and even the PGA.  Heck, golf even has its own channel on basic cable.

While I don't know the exact origins of soccer, its basic roots date back to the mid 19th century.  For those who are counting, that's mid-1800s.  England dates it back even further to the 18th century.  So if a game like this has so much history, why is it so far down the totem pole in America?  The game is touted to be the most popular sport with the fact that over 250 million people play it; why the lack of popularity then?

Specifically, why has women's soccer failed in the US not just once, but twice now?  The US women's team is arguably one of the top 4 in the world.  Along with Brazil, Germany, and you can throw in Japan now, the US boasts of some of the top talent ever.  Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Christie Rampone, Hope Solo, and (this writer's favorite) Alex Morgan are all household names in the women's soccer world.

So what gives?  I'd almost have to say that the league, and not to mention women's soccer itself, is a product of too much success.  After the first failed incarnation, the WUSA, the WPS reformed after the 2008 Olympics to much fanfare and hype.  The best in the world flocked to the league.  Unknowns became household names (among women at least), and stars were born.

I definitely think that women's soccer and soccer in general does not get the airtime it deserves.  An MLS and WPS partnership would do wonderful things, similarly to the NBA and WNBA (before the WNBA blew it and decided to go on its own).  While you would not need as many teams, young women and girls should have a sport to call their own and watch.  Its what Title IX was all about, yet we embrace it only sparingly.

So what do ya'll think?  Let the league stay folded, or should a partnership be in order with MLS to give both leagues the boost it needs?

Photos courtesy of and


Actually, Title IX was enacted to provide equal opportunities in educational programs, i.e., college sports. Title IX doesn't impact sports on a professional level at all. As for creating a market for the sport, I don't really know... In terms of attendance, MLS surpassed both the NBA and NHL last year and projects to do so again this year (in terms of average attendance per game, so no impact on numbers due to lockout). Whether the MLS is as lucrative - I doubt it, since it doesn't have any fat broadcasting rights. Still, I'm not entirely sure where you're going with the whole too successful argument. If big names flocked to the league, then why wasn't it successful? If the players became household names, why'd the league fail? I'm not following - expand on the idea, please!

well thats just my question .. why is the league failing? the talent here is undeniable. About the only thing i can think that adds up is that too much success all at once or the fact the american public really does not care about the sport except during certain times (ie world cup, olympics, etc)

Those times happen to line up with something that brings national identity into play. Not to mention that they're novel experiences - once every four years. A league happens day-in, day-out and only has a short off-season. It's difficult to commit that much time to following something that doesn't require a huge investment. Also, I should point out that I'm not entirely sure there's really all that much star power to soccer. I know of Hope Solo and Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach and maybe a few of the other names, but that's it. A league can't sustain itself on a handful of big headlining names, because if that occurs, you eventually have a break down like the current system in the NBA. You have a couple of teams that will consistently contend because they have two or more of the major headliners. The remaining teams will just get trounced and that's not fun to watch, regardless of the sport - the sole exception to this might be the NFL where on "any given Sunday" a loser team can upset a winning team. Moreover, America isn't a hotbed of soccer talent. As you mentioned, there are great players in Brazil, Japan and Germany. I'll bet that the majority of Americans have no clue as to the identity of the elite players in those respective countries. If you don't know about the stars, it's hard to identify and cheer for them.

Compare that to the other major sports - NFL, MLB, NBA, etc. are all predominately American dominated sports. Even if that predominance is weakening and the sports are diversifying, it's happening only after the sport has become an entrenched and iconic part of people's lives. This identification gives audiences an opportunity to relate to the super stars and aspire to be them. It's no surprise that MLS's popularity began to rise when Beckham came over the pond to play in America. People were used to seeing Beckham, knew who he was, and could cheer for him. They knew who he was. Even if it was another British superstar like Rooney that came over, the response wouldn't be nearly as big. Also, I think it's extremely important to note that women's soccer isn't lucrative elsewhere. Even in Germany, where a 12 team league exists, it doesn't have nearly the draw men's soccer does (also, a look at the German league exemplifies the worry of a couple dynastic team being terrible for the sport - two teams have won 13 of the 15 titles). It's a tough market to break, because unless you have several super stars - enough to get at least a star or two on each team (and you need like 12 teams at least) - it'll be tough to really market the league and put faces on teams to sell tickets. But in order to get that to happen, you might need to bring over international stars. But in order to do that, you're going to need money to attract them and get them to play here. But in order to that, you'll need a way to actually sell tickets and make money.

There's one scenario I think that makes this actually work:

The United States manages to win gold at the Olympics, which surges interest for awhile. Start creating a base of fans by pushing women's collegiate soccer get air time on channels like ESPN (not ESPN 5 or some lame shit like that). The US then builds on that surge in interest by also winning FIFA World Cup in 2015 - presumably some of the young gun players in FIFA will be the same stand-out players people were following in college. Start the new league with the surge of continued interest following FIFA with a HARD cap - I cannot stress this enough. Then, host a draft with college kids, and here's another pivotal point. The WPS or whatever the league is called, will HAVE to work something out with the NCAA that allows these kids to play for these teams during the summer and still retain the ability to play for their college teams. Hopefully, you'll have a base of soccer fans in the city's you start up in that will watch, and you'll get the people who cheer for their university players/alumni to also watch if their city doesn't already have a team. Once you manage to build a fan base, then expand slowly.

Sorry, post was too long, so I had to break it up.

I definitely like your plan Michael ... The MLS already operates under a cap system similar to hard cap. Each team being allowed DPs (designated players that allow them to go over salary restrictions, not cap, just salary). The system just needs an overhaul with a influx of college talent (like you said) paired with professional athletes to help bring more exposure to the game

The appetite for a professional women's soccer league just isn't there. There are just too many competing forms of entertainment, especially outside of sports. Networks don't want to take the risk of offering a big television deal because the ratings aren't there. People are not asking for more women's soccer to consume. For better or worse, I think once every two years (Olympics and World Cup) is enough for most people.

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