Lively Tales About Dead Teams

Why WPS Needs to Strike a Grand Bargain with Consumers

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Last night I signed an online petition to save the sitcom Community, which has been mothballed in a midseason lineup shuffle by NBC.  I can think of several reasons why I did this…

  1. People that I like seem to like watching Community.
  2. I am philosophically supportive of the professional rehabilitation of Chevy Chase.
  3. Odds seem good that NBC will replace Community with a show that is simultaneously less original and equally unpopular.
  4. All sitcoms are a buffer against the encroachment of scripted reality programming.
  5. I was already conceiving this column and it seemed like a convenient rhetorical opportunity.
  6. Doing so committed me to absolutely no current or future obligation of attention, money or effort whatsoever.

I believe I’ve watched Community twice.  It was okay.  For reasons #1 through #4 above, it would be nice to live in a world where Community is on the entertainment menu, particularly if this would benefit other people (e.g. Chevy Chase and/or my friend Karen) and it will cost me nothing. I can’t imagine watching Community next spring if it stays or missing it if it goes.  Adding my name to that petition was truly the least I could do. My pledge is practically meaningless and intellectually dishonest.

That’s why I am largely unmoved by the petition on change.org to pressure U.S. Soccer into sanctioning Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) as a Division I professional league again this year.  If U.S. Soccer fails to provide the sanction, the league will be unable to keep its best and most marketable players – the members of the U.S. National Team – and there is a strong possibility it will fold.  The league assures everyone it will be fine if it gets the sanction.  Other bloggers – notably Beau Dure on Sports Myriad and Peter Wilt on Pitch Invasion - have provided good summaries of the situation and I won’t regurgitate that here.

Suffice it to say, the negotiations between WPS and USSF appear to hinge on a particularly stupid sideshow debate about the number of teams in the league.  U.S. Soccer wants WPS to have six franchises committed for 2012.  WPS has only five.  Why is this a problem?  Because the sanctioning guidelines state that Division I leagues must have eight clubs.  (Wait…oh, never mind).  Honestly, who cares?  The NHL did quite nicely with its Original Six franchises for several decades with an equally restricted geographic footprint.   If U.S. Soccer would seriously consider shutting down a women’s professional league with five thriving franchises just because they didn’t meet a bureaucratic blueprint drawn up for men’s leagues God knows how long ago, then shame on them.  But that’s not exactly the situation here, is it?

Because what isn’t being discussed - seemingly – is that the Division I guidelines also call for various other standards of infrastructure to qualify for Division I status, and here is where I believe the jury is truly out on WPS.  There are standards related to the quality and quantity of full-time staffing at the league and front office level, for example.  WPS has done very little – virtually nothing – to mobilize its fans in support of the league this offseason, with the modest exception of Western New York Flash President Alexandra Sahlen starting the Change.org petition.  But the league does trumpet those results – about 48,000 petitioners – periodically through Twitter.  Which nicely mirrors the actions taken by the petitioners – for both the signers and the WPS league office alike, this petition is literally the least they can do.

Here’s how I believe the WPS – U.S. Soccer conversation could shift this week in a more challenging – but ultimately more productive – direction:

U.S. Soccer: 

Thank you for your presentation, WPS.  We are truly impressed (cough, cough) by the 47,000 petitioners you have that don’t want to see the dreams of young girls crushed under our bootheels.  We are going to issue a waiver on the number of teams issue and grant to you provisional Division I status for 2012…provided 1.) that each of the remaining franchises can present signed pledges for a minimum of 1,500 paid season tickets for the upcoming season.  And 2.) that the league can provide contracts showing that you have actual sponsors lined up to professionally outfit each of the clubs and financially sustain a suitable league office in 2012.  We would like you to provide this to us by February 1st.

WPS:

What?!  We’ve been arguing this whole time about six teams, and now you are pulling a bait and switch on us at the 11th hour!  This is both unfair and not in accordance with your own sanctioning rules.  There is nothing in there about season ticket pledges.

U.S. Soccer:

Nor is there anything there about sanctioning a six-team league.  Since when have we ever made you adhere to the written word of the sanctioning rules?  We’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants here.  You ask for the bull, you get the horns.  Anyway - this should be no sweat for you.  After all, you have those 47,000 petitioners and you keep talking about the unprecedented wave of interest from sponsors and fans in the wake of the World Cup.  Don’t tell us…show us.

***

Honestly, this would be hard for WPS.  Really hard.  But not impossible.  And at some point, the league needs to prove its own assertions that it is healthier than ever and that the turmoil and austerity of the last two years have helped the league turn a corner.  The simple demand that WPS and its members prove that they can sell 1,500 season tickets in each market and sign an apparel sponsor to replace PUMA, will force the league to show its hand in terms of infrastructure.  If they can do that, then the staffing is suitable in size and experience.  If they come close, I think you give them a pass and say nice effort.  And if they can’t even get close, then what does that tell you?

When the WNBA awarded six expansion teams for the 1999 and 2000 seasons, each club was required to sign up 5,500 season ticket pledges before final approval of the expansion application.    Each of the six clubs hit the goal and it’s worth noting that several of the clubs used celebrity in a creative fashion to fuel the pledge drives.  Teams such as the Miami Sol and Orlando Miracle strategically used sponsors and celebrities to make benchmark pledges during the campaign thus fueling more publicity for the sales effort.  Miami Heat star Tim Hardaway rode into an outdoor Miami Sol press conference by Jet Ski in September 1999 to plunk down a check for pledge number 4,500 in the Sol’s ticket sales drive.  This type of example is a much more creative, effective and realistic example of leveraging celebrity support than the desperate “GET ELLEN/OPRAH TO SAVE THE SOL/RED STARS/WPS” tweets that fly around the interwebs.  It’s human nature for fans to generate this kind of nonsense.  It’s damaging and deluded when league employees and players encourage and re-tweet these messages.

Forcing WPS to step up on the revenue side will have a trickle down effect on fans as well.  The first place WPS should look to for season ticket pledges is those 47,000 petitioners who say they would be devastated if U.S. Soccer shut down their league.  Really?  Well, now you have the opportunity to do something about it, if you live in a WPS market.  Will you?  Or are we going to hear the same old excuses about the time demands of your kids’ youth soccer schedule again?

Now, having proposed all of this, I am fully aware that the hurried ticket sales campaigns that would ensue would surely promote WPS as a cause.  Gross.  Look – paying mostly very well-educated women to play a game for a middle-class wage & benefits doesn’t stack up against cancer, poverty and hunger.  It just doesn’t.  During my four years in WPS, nobody argued more forcefully/sarcastically/rudely against cause marketing than me, particularly when I was misquoted (but only slightly) in a New York Times article that pissed a lot of people off for a day-and-a-half.

But I just don’t see a way around it this year.  One way or another, WPS is going to be up against a nasty season ticket sales deadline this year like never before…either my hypothetical U.S. Soccer “show me” scenario above, or (realistically) the cold hard truth of an opening day that is going to sneak up on a lot of teams that have spent the whole autumn hedging their bets with the sanctioning debate.  The sales pitch is going to be whatever has the most short-term effectiveness for this year, and a lot of that is going to be capitalizing on fear…fear that the league almost folded and needs to be saved.   Rather than providing a great value proposition that promises enticing outcomes for fans who purchase tickets.

Beyond this year, the cause call-to-action isn’t sustainable from a business standpoint and doesn’t contribute to a passionate & knowledgable fan culture in the stadiums, the pubs and online.  At some point, the league and its fan need to come to a consensus – a Grand Bargain – on the value proposition of supporting the club.  Today, the league and its potential fans do not agree on the value proposition of WPS and therein lies the rub.

It is not for a lack of trying.  WPS’ mission statement since inception has been:

Our mission is to be the premier women’s soccer league in the world, and the global standard by which women’s professional sports are measured

WPS has done as much as it can do to fulfill this mission on the pitch.  It has attracted – sometimes at unreasonable expense – a quorum of the best female footballers on Earth.  The on-field product is skillful and entertaining.  And there IS a market for the best women’s soccer on Earth.  The problem is that WPS’ target audience who fuel that demand see that product elsewhere.  They see it in the World Cup and international competition, not in a domestic league.  Adding more “stars” to WPS is not going to change that.  After three years of the WUSA and another three of WPS, it seems clear that this value proposition on its own – See Extraordinaryif you will –  has maxed itself out.  It’s not enough.

I don’t have the answer to what this Grand Bargain is going to be.  Nor do I suggest it can be created in time for my hypothetical February 1st deadline for WPS and its ”unprecedented” wave of post-WWC supporters to demonstrate an audience for 2012.   It will take years, but it can be done.

Minor league baseball in the 1970′s was all but extinct, killed off by television, declining interest in baseball relative to other sports, and crummy facilities.  By definition, the sport could not promote stars (they got called up) or promise winning teams (good teams were quickly broken up by the advancement of their players up the developmental ladder).   When minor league baseball emerged from those dark ages and into its renaissance, it did so with a consensus between its operators and its fans.  The Grand Bargain of minor league baseball was this:  if you buy one of our (inexpensive) tickets, we will keep you well-fed and entertained for less money than you would spend on dinner and a movie.  Purists blanched but the sport thrived.

It’s really too late for WPS to go all-in after the affordable family entertainment dollar.  That market is saturated, and perhaps unsuitable to the non-stop play of soccer anyway.  But it is not too late for WPS to re-articulate its own unique value proposition.  Maybe this new Grand Bargain has to do with girls specifically or maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe it’s access to training or facilities – something that could solve one of WPS’ great sales challenges, which is that so many potential supporters view attending WPS matches as conflicting with their own soccer lifestyles and schedules.  Maybe it is a form of (limited) democracy that allows season ticket holders to have voting input into select areas of franchise management and direction.

At the Boston Breakers, we toyed with a unique value proposition from inception, but I didn’t have the courage of my convictions to push it all the way.  We branded season tickets as “Memberships”.  We rarely used the word season tickets, because I believed the time commitment implied by that term turned off many of the very busy families who would potentially buy from us.  I used the following analogy for our young sales staff:

I have a monthly gym membership which I renew every month for $117 dollars.  Some months I only go once or twice, but I still renew my “membership”.  However, if you sold me the same exact product and called it a “Daily Workout Pass”, I would have cancelled a long time ago.

We sold the most Memberships in the league, by a good margin.  But in hindsight now, I wish I had pushed the Membership concept much, much farther than I did.  Although we had some great “Members Only” special events, like a fantasy camp for adults with the entire team, we really didn’t push the boundaries far beyond what most teams offer to their season ticket holders.  We were conventional.  Frankly, we had so much of our budget tied up in player salaries and benefits, there wasn’t much money left for marketing – AKA raising the membership benefits and access to truly ground-breaking status.  If I had it to do all over again, I would be much more aggressive in that area.

If and when this negotiation with U.S. Soccer is resolved to WPS’ benefit, someone else will now get that opportunity to innovate.

 

 

Written by andycrossley

December 12th, 2011 at 9:30 pm

6 Responses to 'Why WPS Needs to Strike a Grand Bargain with Consumers'

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  1. Hello Andy,

    This is a great article. It really puts a spin on what comes next, after Sanctioning, if WPS receives it. I am a signer of the petition, and I point it out to others. I see it as a way to get the word out, but not a way to achieve sanction. Whenever I see a tweet about the petition, I have been replying that each of these people needs to buy a Season ticket. It is the only way for the league to grow and thrive.

    necron99

    12 Dec 11 at 10:16 pm

  2. Argh! I have a love/hate relationship with pieces you post. I love the insight I get into the inner workings of WPS teams and the league and I hate most of the opinions you have on what the league needs to do to survive. I don’t necessarily disagree with those opinions, I just don’t always want to face up to the fact that they’re the direction that’s needed.

    I have a question I haven’t seen you address yet. In your opinion, why do you think the Board of Governors has not fully staffed a front office heading into a 4th year (it can’t be all finances) AND do you expect that the new CEO will truly have any influence over the BoG, or will it be more business as usual, meaning CEO as mouthpiece and BoG do as they please?

    I am one of many fans and petition signers who would gladly buy a season ticket, even though there is no team in my state. If WPS continues, I don’t want a season ticket experience, I want an accountable league that fixes some of their glaring shortcomings. How do I convey that to the league?

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insight.

    Diane

    13 Dec 11 at 1:28 am

  3. Diane,

    Well, I don’t know the new CEO, Jennifer Pogorec-O’Sullivan, who came in after I resigned. It’s a little early to tell what her management style is going to be, but her background is behind-the-scenes legal work.

    The owners do seem to have a type though. After Tonya Antonucci was forced out in September 2010, they hired the league’s in-house counsel, Ann-Marie Eileraas, without conducting a search. When Eileraas left after less than a year, they quickly settled on another lawyer, Pogorec-O’Sullivan, and again they didn’t seem to conduct much in the way of a search. In both years, they were dealing with a developing union which might have been a factor in wanting a lawyer. Although the existence of this union would be nearly impossible to detect if it weren’t for Dan Borislow. They do not seem at all interested in a business development-oriented CEO/Commissioner. Antonucci spent considerable time cultivating media contacts like Steven Goff of the Washington Post, who was repeatedly given scoops on major league news by Antonucci’s office, and ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel. Eileraas did nothing of the sort and seemed uncomfortable and out of place when asked to serve as a spokesperson for the league. In fairness, the job was thrust upon her and “front woman” duties were wholly inconsistent with her previous professional experience.

    If you’re waiting for WPS to find its Pete Rozelle (or Don Garber), I just don’t think that is what this group of owners is looking for.

    andycrossley

    13 Dec 11 at 2:57 am

  4. Thanks for your reply, Andy. I don’t know if I’m looking for a Rozelle or a Garber, but I was hoping that the new CEO would be more business focused. I guess I, like everyone else, will have to wait and see.

    Diane

    15 Dec 11 at 1:04 am

  5. Andy,

    The membership concept is perhaps the one big thing that American sports hasn’t tried. Since you’ve been involved in soccer, you probably are aware that outside USA/Canada, sports leagues are usually not organized on the franchise model. The franchised league arose from early baseball owners specifically admiring the robber baron monopolists of the time. Whereas elsewhere the dominant model seems to be a loose federation of athletic clubs in a locality, performing much like a US college conference. Thus Europeans don’t have much respect for private ownership of teams. FC Barcelona is on a membership model. British fans are launching uprisings to buy their teams from (often US) tycoons who loaded up the clubs with debt in past buyouts. Germany is slowly converting the entire Bundesliga to fan ownership.

    Yet there are still fragments of that athletic club model in our history; the Arizona Cardinals claim descent from a 19th century Chicago AC, and the Toronto Argonauts are obviously descended form a rowing club.

    I think that the functions and services of athletic clubs might be the inducement that you need to get season ticket holders to think of themselves as members. I assume that in that model, the clubs originally built training and playing facilities for their members, and then over time invested revenue into adding pro players to their existing amateur sides, already possessing the needed infrastructure for league play.

    In America, a new fan-owned league would have to do both simultaneously. However, an interesting aspect of the European model is that an athletic club doesn’t have to be involved in just one sport, even professionally. Thus European ACs were able to naturally branch out from soccer into basketball and hockey. It’s more likely that the next big push in women’s sports will be basketball (after the WNBA is allowed to perish) and it will face the same problems as women’s soccer. Maybe a chain of women’s athletic clubs sponsoring teams in several sports will reach the critical mass of memberships to survive.

    super390

    17 Dec 11 at 4:50 pm

  6. Fabulous points, Andy. Seems to me you could do a lot of good as this league’s commissioner. :)

    The minor-league baseball analogy gets used a lot, and it’s got merit, but most of the time it omits this obvious truth: it’s baseball. Baseball, even minor-league baseball, has so much more intrinsic popularity to most Americans than outdoor league soccer, they almost don’t belong in the same conversation.

    Ever try to give away a couple of extra minor-league baseball tickets in your office? How quickly do they go? How long does it take you to give away a couple of extra soccer tickets?

    I love soccer, but I’ve gone to hundreds of minor league baseball games in my life and only once can I remember having a bad time (and that was because of a crap concessionaire). It’s ALWAYS entertaining. Whereas if you add too much entertainment to soccer, the purists say, “You can’t have any of that hullaballoo, just give me the 90 minutes and nothing else,” while everybody else says, “I’m sorry, you gotta give me something here.”

    As for WPS, agreed, it’s put-up-or-shut-up time. If you really have unprecedented interest (from a fan and potential investor standpoint), then one year from today we should be sitting here with you having announced three expansion teams coming off a season where you averaged 5,000 fans per game thanks to another surge in interest after the USA’s gold medal in London.

    If it’s just vaporware, well, then there’ll be another new CEO and another “Oh, please, THIS time I promise we’ll have teams and fans” plea.

    KT

    19 Dec 11 at 6:14 pm

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