“In My Opinion……….”

Ray Alley

In 1999 America fell in love with the United States Women’s National Team. A crowd of 90, 197, the most ever for a women’s athletic event, saw the U.S. team win the FIFA Women’s World Cup title with a shootout victory over China in Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA.

Surely a professional soccer league for the U.S. players had a high probability of success!

Thirteen years and two leagues later, a new league has been announced. We’ll soon see if “third times the charm.”

The Women’s United Soccer Association was launched with eight teams in 2001, and lasted only three years. A multimillion dollar anchor budget went quickly. The money and the league was gone after three seasons.

A second try came with Women’s Professional Soccer, which had a more modest business plan, but one that was fragile from the beginning. Franchises came and were soon gone. The Washington Freedom, the iconic holdover from the WUSA days, was sold, departed for South Florida and became the “soap opera” of the WPS.

The WPS also lasted three seasons (2009-2011), quietly going dormant days after holding a hopeful player draft in January, 2012.

On Nov. 29, a third stab at the brass ring that once held so much promise was announced in the form of the eight-team National Women’s Soccer League. The league is expected to take the field in the spring of 2013.

This time the business model, if one can call it that, is different.

The NWSL is backed by US Soccer, which will operate the league office, handle administrative duties and will fund the salaries of 24 players from the U.S. WNT….three for each team.

Additionally, player salaries will also be funded by the soccer federations of Canada and Mexico, 16 players from Canada and 12-16 from Mexico.

“What we need is a sustainable model; less hype, better performance,” said US Soccer President Sunil Gulati when the league was announced. “The hype will come if we have the performance.”

With US Soccer providing much of the infrastructure, and without a huge marketing budget, two line items that put the WUSA into red ink right away, the new league has a shot at success.

With the three federations combining to pay the salaries of eight rostered players per team, and without the expense of high-priced internationals, the rest of the player budgets will also be manageable.

But launching the league with little or no marketing is likely to achieve modest results in terms of immediate attendance, sponsorships, and team revenue. But those involved at the highest league levels, and those within the organizations of the eight teams know that will be the case.

The plan, and the hope, is that the league and the teams will earn a following, and will grow.

Of the eight teams, only FC Kansas City comes in without either name recognition or a historical background for women’s soccer. The Boston Breakers is a club from the WUSA and WPS days, and Chicago Red Stars fielded a WUSA team. Sky Blue FC played in the WPS, and the Western New York Flash was the 2011 WPS champion.

Soccer is back in Washington, with the Washington Spirit playing at the Maryland SoccerPlex. The Spirit is the same organization that operated as the D.C. United Women in the W-League.

Portland and Seattle had solid followings in the USL W-League, and will field teams newly named Portland Thorns FC and Reign FC (Seattle).

National team players will be allocated before the first four-round college player draft that is scheduled for January 18 in Indianapolis, IN, during the NSCAA Convention.

“This is a league we have to build from the bottom up,” said NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey, former U.S. Women’s National Team General Manager.

“We have a group of dedicated owners and talented support staff at US Soccer to keep this process moving in a positive direction, while slowly growing the brand.”

Will this league succeed where two previous league’s failed? Much will depend on the product on the field and the entertainment experience for those who attend games.

The U.S. players need this league, and if this league is to succeed, much responsibility lies on the shoulders of those who will take the field this spring.

The ’99ers, those World Cup champions who once played before a crowd of over 90,000 that day in Pasadena, were ambassadors for the game. Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Carla Overbeck, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and the others were accessible to the fans.

And they played a brand of soccer that inspired a generation.

Only current U.S. captain Christy Rampone remains from the ’99ers, but this team is filled with that next generation. It is the time for Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Megan Ripenoe, Carli Lloyd. Kelley O’Hara and Sydney Leroux to inspire the next generation.

That won’t be a difficult task for the current players, as the U.S. women’s team has always been ready to connect with their fans.

But at the end of the day the product on the field must be exciting to watch. The games must be competitive and the stars from each team will have to emerge.

For this team, and for these players, this can’t be just another job, or just another league or just another opportunity. It’s all of that, but it also might be the best chance ever to succeed, and also the last chance.
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