By Tim Grainey
On January 30, WPS threw a spanner in the works of the very well received CONCACAF Women’s National Team Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Vancouver, B.C., announcing that it was suspending its 2012 season to deal with legal issues (i.e. magicJack owner Dan Borislow) and put together a viable structure for 2013. Less than 24 hours after the U.S. defeated Canada 4-0 before over 25,000 fans in the latest edition of the “Border War,” WPS officials announced that the league would not play this season—despite holding its 2012 player draft a few weeks before at the NSCAA convention in Kansas City.
WPS CEO Jennifer O’Sullivan said in a statement, “Over the last year the league has faced significant challenges, including a lengthy and expensive legal battle with a former owner [Borislow]. The litigation has diverted resources from investment in the league and has forced the Board to take action, suspending the 2012 season in order to address the legal issues head-on before moving forward with competition….The attention needs to be on growing the business. It hasn’t been able to be there. It would’ve been unfair to try to put out a season with this still hanging over our heads.”
WPS had filed court documents in the Borislow case late last year that stated: “The League will present evidence that Mr. Borislow’s acts and statements damaged the League, and that such damage likely will continue if the magicJack franchise is reinstated. League vendors and sponsors who have been insulted and not paid by Mr. Borislow are wary of any association with him. His continued presence would thus frustrate the League’s ongoing business.”
League owners had threatened to disband if they had to work with him. But a Florida Circuit Court judge found in Borislow’s favor, essentially that the league had not followed their own conflict resolution procedures when they booted his team.
WPS’s 2012 announcement took place just days after an announced settlement with magicJack’s Borislow, allowing his magicJack side to play exhibitions for two years against the remaining WPS members. WPS then backed away from this agreement, saying that it did not settle all the legal issues. One wonders if the move to suspend play was driven by owners who had stated previously that they would rather fold the league than work with Dan Borislow again.
A complicated situation
Borislow wants magicJack to be an independent team without a league, but still play the best opposition around—which as of January 29 was the other WPS sides. In order to satisfy U.S. Soccer and FIFA regulations, magicJack could affiliate with a local club or league. However, a major issue for Borislow to overcome is, will players sign with magicJack? An edifying view from the players’ side of life with magicJack was provided by Ella Masar’s website as she described the emotional abuse she endured from Borislow last season.
Maybe WPS owners realized that Borislow was unlikely to now be diplomatic and cooperative with them, a group he referred to as “infidels” in the past. The legal discussions continue but the league does not. I guess Dan Borislow won—purging “the infidels,” but at what cost to the sport?
WPS officials have insisted that they plan to return in 2013. The problem is no one believes it; the soccer world read the WPS press release as an obituary, not only for the league but for professional women’s soccer in this country, for the second time in a decade. Similar to the WUSA folding in 2003, five days before the start of the U.S. hosted Women’s World Cup, WPS’ timing of its “pity-party” stole publicity away from the U.S. National Team’s triumphal return to the Olympics to defend their crown, defeating CONCACAF opposition in 5 games by a 38-0 goal differential.
WPS’ declarations that they will return seem hollow and misleading, just as we heard when the WUSA folded in 2003. With WUSA, it was the players who perpetuated the impression that the league was simply taking a break, that it wasn’t really dead and would restart once sponsors and investors stepped in, despite the fact that WUSA lost over $100 million dollars in three seasons.
Julie Foudy, U.S. National Team captain and WUSA board member at the time, said, “People are coming out of the woodwork. People are saying, ‘What’s the deficit? Sixteen million dollars? That’s it? We should have done something?’” These statements were disingenuous and built up false hopes that were not based on any sense of reality. Using the WUSA name and logos, a task force including the U.S. National Team Players’ Association head, ex-WSUA executives and women’s sports leaders, attempted to lure sponsors and expansion teams by hosting festivals in 2004, along with a “Keep The Dream Alive” campaign with a goal to raise $2.5 million dollars. Poor attendances at the festivals combined with only $135,000 from the fund-raising campaign finally forced them to give up. Tonya Antonucci then stepped in, with U.S. Soccer support, to start work on WPS, which took five years to plan, develop and launch.
The amateur summer league
Women’s Premier Soccer League or WPSL--based in Sacramento, has come to the rescue of the women’s professional game. Last season, the WPSL fielded 62 teams across the country. League founder and Commissioner Jerry Zanelli has been working for over a year to establish a professional division so that pro players could compete without dropping down to amateur level. Many WPSL teams field college and high school players, and NCAA rules prohibit the former from playing in a professional setup.
Zanelli said, after WPS folded, that he would accommodate any WPS teams for the 2012 season: “As a women-only soccer league, it would be very appropriate for them to join us intact, as an elite arm of the WPSL, since we already have pro teams playing.”
Zanelli did the same a year ago when the Chicago Red Stars left WPS after the 2010 season. The Red Stars, who finished runners-up in the 2011 WPSL Championship game, are happy with WPSL and, sources indicate, have no plans to return to the troubled WPS.
Zanelli has had to work very quickly after WPS’s sabbatical was announced and created a new league for sides with professional aspirations—the WPSL Elite League. Zanelli targeted 2013 to launch the new loop but will play in 2012 with two WPS sides joining—the reigning champions Western New York Flash and the Boston Breakers.
The Flash will attempt to win a third consecutive championship in three different leagues, after winning the W-League title as the Buffalo Flash in 2010. They will join five current WPSL sides who will step up to the new Elite level: the Chicago Red Stars, FC Indiana (league champions in 2005 & 2007), New England Mutiny of Agawam, Massachusetts (near Springfield--league runner-ups in 2004 and 2007), ASA Chesapeake Charge (Metropolitan Baltimore), and Aztec MA—who formerly played as the Boston Aztecs and was a feeder team to the Breakers. An eighth team signed up last Friday; the Philadelphia Fury is a new team to WPSL but owner Matt Driver has owned/managed three previous WPSL sides. Zanelli is looking to add another couple of sides, primarily on the East Coast but with one Midwestern city, which may move up from WPSL, as a possibility.
WPSL Elite expects to have 8-9 teams (10 at the most) playing this summer and then to add West Coast franchises for 2013, including possibly Los Angeles area-based sides such as reigning WPSL champions Orange County Waves and L.A. Vikings, which has been a home for WPS players during the winter. WPSL has said that it also has commitments from groups in San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle for 2013.
WPSL Elite teams will be registered as amateur teams with U.S. Soccer but can field a side consisting entirely of professional players or a mixture of professionals and amateurs. This new structure would accommodate U.S. National team pool professionals as well. League franchise fees are $10,000 and Zanelli said that minimum budgets are $200,000 but teams could spend up to $500,000—depending on their player budget, stadium expenses, and other costs--which are still far below the $2-$3 Million per year that teams were reported to be losing in WPS. Sky Blue FC—committed to a March training trip to Japan—have also been rumored to be exploring joining either WPSL, the USL’s W-League or playing an independent schedule.
Zanelli’s laudable efforts should result in an elite national women’s league within a year or two. Certainly the players will not receive the level of compensation that they did in WPS or WUSA but they will have a place to hone their skills and continue their development and keep pace with other international countries which are developing top-tier loops. England recently launched a semiprofessional loop with eight teams. Australia’s national league just completed its fourth season, where a handful of North Americans play every year. Even Ireland started a national league this season.
The next step for women’s soccer leaders to take to further the game would be to have a few top W-League sides—such as Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders, Ottawa Fury and Atlanta Silverbacks--join together with the WPSL sides, along with the former WPS sides Atlanta Beat, Sky Blue FC and Philadelphia Independence, if they continue operations. The latter side, the Philadelphia Independence, is taking another route during WPS’ yearlong siesta—being true to its moniker, but in a different manner from Borislow. Head Coach Paul Riley, who coached his side to two consecutive league finals, is launching a Women’s Professional Supergroup training program in Philadelphia. Once a month from March through November, 28 WPS players—open to any on a first-come basis--will meet for training. Riley explained: “I always felt that the WPS season was too short and if we are to continue to develop the best players in the world we need a nine month training environment plus WPS games.” The team will pay for the players’ accommodation during the training weeks while the players will handle their travel to the camps and food expenses. Riley wants to find sponsors to cover those expenses for the players as well.
So what about the WPS players—the ones grievously affected by all of the legal shenanigans? Players are angry, worried and confused, and there have even been one threat of legal action—not what CEO Jennifer O’Sullivan wants to hear— which could be followed by other suits. Two Australian internationals--Tameka Butt and Kyah Simon--have threated to go to court for compensation after signing with Boston Breakers a few months ago. According to their agent Bill Drossos, the two had turned down opportunities to play in Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and the U.K. in order to join the Breakers. Drossos added that: “Accordingly, we will be looking at all legal avenues and recourse available to Kyah and Tameka on the termination of their contracts.”
So what do WPS players do now, besides accept that banking on the return of WPS is pure folly? Many will join WPSL or USL W-League sides (last week Seattle Sounders signed U.S. National Team goalkeeper Hope Solo and forward Sydney Leroux). Some players will gravitate to Europe, following Marta’s expected return back across the ocean. European leagues in England, France, Germany, Scandinavia, etc. seem to be a panacea of stability compared to North America right now and are frequently mentioned by players as a viable option.
Moves abroad by recent college stars Ingrid Wells of Georgetown and Sarah Hagen of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, spurning WPS for sides in Sweden and Germany respectively, now seem brilliant. Boston Breaker’s goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher played with top Frauen-Bundesliga side FFC Turbine Potsdam for a few months during the off-season and tweeted succinctly on January 30 about her regret to returning to WPS: “Ugh, should have stayed in Germany.”
However, the reality is that the salaries that most teams pay to imports are at subsistence levels and not vastly different from what most WPSL or W-League sides offer. Also, the quality of play outside the top three-to-four sides in most countries is inconsistent. Former Boston Breaker and FC Gold Pride forward Tiffany Weimer played in a “second tier league” in Finland in late 2008 to prepare for the launch of WPS. She explained that, “I went [overseas] to play 90 minutes every weekend. In the fall, there is nothing here except college soccer…. In Finland we [Aland United] were in the middle of the pack. We got to play the top three to four teams but the rest weren’t good. The level of practice in Finland wasn’t as high as I would have liked.”
Other North American based players have gone to play in the Ukraine or Turkey and found the coaching far below the standards they found at home. So WPS veterans and college graduates will have to compete abroad for roster spots with citizens of those countries and other imports for a few roster spots—with no guarantee that they will be consistently in the starting eleven.
Many thought that if WPS folded, then top level women’s soccer would disappear. Though certainly a setback, the past few weeks have shown that top level players have options and WPSL Elite will be closely scrutinized this spring, in terms of quality, roster composition, attendances, marketing agreements, etc., not just in relation to WPS but to national leagues abroad. Along with the U.S. and Canada, who have a number of WPS and former U.S. college players in their pool, competing at the Olympics, it will not be dull this summer, even if magicJack and Dan Borislow are not active…on the field or on the web.
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