February 22, 2011

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Chicago Red Stars sit-out another sign things at WPS are not good

14 Dec, 2010

By Chris Hummer

It was announced today that the Chicago Red Stars of Women’s Professional Soccer will "sit out" the upcoming season, reducing the number of teams scheduled to compete in 2011 to just six. Even though insiders pretty much knew this was coming, it's a really big shoe dropping, and I can't help but wonder if the other one will drop before another ball is ever kicked in this potentially doomed league.

Let me be clear up front that I am a huge supporter of the women’s game, and in no way want to see WPS fail. That said, I also think far too many people involved with the women’s game drink from the same cool aid, and some things just need to be said.

Things are not good.

This makes the fourth team to drop out of an original seven teams that started WPS just two years ago. Only thanks to new franchises in Philadelphia and Atlanta last year, and another new one in Rochester this year - plus a last-minute savior in Washington - is there even going to be a league in 2011... maybe.

The good news is that the six remaining teams are much more regionally based, creating a triangle-shaped footprint from upstate New York, over to Boston, and down to Atlanta, Georgia. Hardly a national professional league in reality, but it's much closer to a more regional growth model that really should be followed for building a professional soccer league in this vast United States.

I think the footprint is still far too large to create any fan rivalries, but at least it's a bus trip or train ride for all the teams except Atlanta - that is unless the league is dumb enough to allow the new Washington Freedom owner to host home games down in Florida without forcing him to pay the additional travel costs for the visiting teams, as has been proposed by that owner in the press.

The bigger question is if six remaining teams, even all on one coast, are really enough for WPS to look anyone in the eye and still call itself a league? Say it with me... s-i-x teams.

A six-team league means there aren't even enough to have a playoff system that doesn't qualify over half the teams. With only six teams, a 20-game season means they’ll each play the other four times. A 25-game season would be 5-times each. Do you really need playoffs after that to determine the best team? I hope not.

Hopefully WPS will solve that problem and become the first pro league in the US to go to a single-table championship format, awarding the league title to the team at the top of the table after the regular season. With so few teams – each playing each other four or even five times, such a format could start a playoff race from day one. An exciting proposition only supported by the added product quality in having the league’s talent spread over fewer teams.

I digress. Back to today’s news of Chicago folding - sorry, "sitting out". I think that says a lot more about the state of the women's game in the US than some may realize. The team right in the back yard of the United States Soccer Federation, which is based in Chicago, could still not find an investor willing to gamble on the women's game for the relatively small number among the pro sports world of around $2 million per year. What does that say about what USSF thinks of WPS’ future? Why would USSF not go to bat for the women's pro team right in their back yard? Or, maybe they did, and still got a big fat “no”, which would be even worse.

Another troubling sign is the league's apparent lack of due diligence in their desperation to save the apparently soon to be re-named Washington Freedom. Unless the new owner – a telecom millionaire “soccer guy” - is speaking completely out of class, it sounds like he is going to change the team name, and even wants to play half the home games down in West Palm Beach, Florida. More power to him, and he's got some interesting marketing ideas. But if WPS sold out without protecting the most recognized brand in women's soccer in the world, and they are even considering allowing a team to have two homes, they've completely lost the plot and deserve to be no more.

From day one, WPS has always seemed to me to be run more like a marketing brand or media company than a sports league. They seemed to be operating on the assumption they could go to the bank on the clean image of the league instead of the reality of the soccer on the field. Yet, now they may have sunk to selling out that brand to the lowest marketing rung above porn - an infomercialer.

Even if they thwart the re-naming of the Freedom, there have been plenty of mishandled situations by the league office in their brief history. Look no further than the LA Sol participating in last year’s draft only days before folding. And there are still plenty of signs the WPS front office is in shambles.

They are going to need to get it right to survive. They need to not rely on any World Cup bump. They need to assume no more than $250K in sponsorship per team, and no more than a league attendance average of 2,500 per game. If that model works, then they'll survive. If they can't operate at those low levels, I fear for the well-intentioned owners and fans that it's just good money being thrown after bad.

Need proof things are far from strong? Check out the current content on what is essentially the most important page of the WPS website - the one soliciting new franchise owners. I kid you not, though they may change it once I point it out here, as of 4 PM, Tuesday, December 14, 2010, this is what that page reads:

"WPS's third season of play kicks off in April 2011 with eight teams and the league is looking for interested investors for its 2012 season and beyond.

The eight WPS teams playing in 2011 are based in Atlanta, the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, New Jersey/New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Western New York. This gives the League a national footprint of five East Coast, two Midwest and one West Coast franchises.

We have created a business plan that is supported by a diversified investment group and is based on a realistic focus on strong markets and business principles. If you are an interested investor, we encourage you to contact us to learn more about our business model and investment requirements.

Please direct all inquiries to:

Anne-Marie Eileraas, CEO

Wow. They can't even keep that page updated? Arguably the most important page on the entire league website right now - the one asking for new investors?

Things are not good.


Chris Hummer is Founder and President of HummerSport, LLC, publisher of The Soccer Wires and numerous other soccer-focused web sites. Off the field, Chris spends his days running his soccer company and writing about the greatest sport in the world. On the field Chris is a B licensed head coach with FC Virginia and Potomac Falls High School, while still finding time to extend his 31-year playing career in the Northern Virginia Soccer League’s Premier Division. You can reach Chris at Editor@PotomacSoccerWire.com.

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