The Fillies made their debut on December 15, 1978 losing to the Iowa Cornets 103-81 at the Met Center in Bloomington before an announced crowd of 4,102. That first season was marred by a revolving door of head coaches. Three different women and two men coached the Fillies through training camp and a 34-game regular season schedule. The coaches included team owner Gordon Nevers, a former mortician with no previous basketball experience. The Fillies finished the 1978-79 season with a 17-17 record and missed the playoffs.
The Fillies finest season was their second one. Nevers hired former University of Minnesota star Terry Kunze to coach the team and the Fillies responded with a 22-12 record. They defeated the New Orleans Pride in the playoff quarterfinals, setting up a best-of-three series with their arch rivals, the Iowa Cornets, in the semis in March 1980. The Fillies blew out the Cornets in Game One by a 108-87 margin, but Iowa won the next two games and ended the Fillies’ run.
The Fillies third and final season in the winter of 1980-81 was marred by the financial problems of owner Gordon Nevers and the league itself. The club left the Met Center in favor of the smaller, older Minneapolis Auditorium, which was better suited to the typical Fillies’ crowd of around 1,000 people a night. Missed payrolls culminated in a March 21, 1981 protest by Terry Kunze and eight Fillies players prior to a game in Chicago. The disgruntled team members walked off the court just before tipoff and refused to return. The game was cancelled and awarded to Chicago via forfeit, dropping the Fillies record to a league-worst 7-25. WBL Commissioner Sherwin Fischer suspended Kunze and the eight players indefinitely.
The Fillies finished out the season using replacement players. The Faux-Fillies lost their first game by 48 points and finished the season 7-28.
Whether or not Nevers and his partners could have or would have re-capitalized the team for another season became a moot point when the rest of the Women’s Professional Basketball League folded before a fourth season could be staged.
The 2001-2006 Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League represented the second revival of the classic “Barons” hockey brand in Cleveland. The original Barons played in the AHL from 1937 to 1973. When the NHL’s woeful California Golden Seals franchise moved to Ohio to play in the old Richfield Coliseum in 1976, they reclaimed the historic Barons name. But the club was a disaster and lasted just two seasons before financial insolvency forced the team to merge with the Minnesota North Stars in June 1978. To this day, the NHL Cleveland Barons remain the last franchise from North American Big Four professional sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL) to go out of business.
Pro hockey returned to Cleveland in 1992 with the arrival of the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the minor International Hockey League. The ‘Jacks enjoyed some good crowds in the mid-1990′s, but by the end of the decade the IHL was on the verge of collapse and Cleveland was one of the league’s trouble spots, drawing fewer than 3,000 fans per night at Gund Arena.
After the IHL and the Lumberjacks folded in the spring of 2001, the San Jose Sharks moved their Lexington, Kentucky AHL farm club to Gund Arena for the 2001-02 season. The Sharks brought back the old Barons identity, but the farm club used San Jose’s modern colors of teal and black.
Perhaps the Lumberjacks’ struggles soured the market on minor league hockey or maybe northeast Ohio fans just couldn’t get excited about the far away San Jose Sharks. The Barons also played very poorly, failing to make the Calder Cup playoffs in four of their five seasons. Whatever the problem, the modern day Barons failed to spark much interest in Cleveland. Through the club’s first four-and-a-half seasons at Gund Arena, attendance averaged only 3,716 per game according to The Silicon Valley Business Journal. The Sharks reportedly lost several million dollars on the Barons over the years. Midway through the 2005-06 season, San Jose management applied to the AHL to move the team to Worcester, Massachusetts for the 2006-07 season. The move was approved on January 9, 2006 and the Barons finished out the season as a lame duck team. The franchise lives on today as the Worcester Sharks.
A fellow named Kevin Alexander (@KAlexander03) published a provocative article in Boston Magazine this week. “The Krafts Are the Worst Owners in the League” is an unusual public takedown of the Kraft family in the mainstream New England press. The Krafts are widely lauded in the region for their sparkling stewardship of the NFL’s New England Patriots over the past two decades. But the widespread discontent among New England Revolution fans with the Kraft family’s dispassionate attitude towards Major League Soccer has rarely attracted notice beyond insular supporters’ group message boards.
The entire article is worth a read and I won’t attempt to summarize it other than to say Alexander uses the popular framing device of MLS versions 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 to illustrate the club’s stagnation. He’s certainly not the first to paint the Revs as a franchise still languishing in an MLS 1.0 mindset while the rest of the league keeps lapping them. I like Alexander’s simple framing of these stages, with a couple of additions from his article commenters added in as well:
MLS 1.0 (1996-early aughts)
American football stadiums awkwardly repurposed for soccer
Youth soccer target audience
2002 Contraction of Florida franchises
MLS 2.0 (early aughts – 2008ish)
Attractive soccer specific stadiums in inconvenient suburbs (Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey, etc.)
Rise of supporter’s culture
Resumption of expansion in 2005
MLS 3.0 (2009 – Now)
Soccer-specific stadiums in urban areas on public transit (Houston, Portland)
“Urban hipster” target audience that feeds supporter’s culture
MLS an increasing player on the international transfer market due to the Designated Player Rule
So after that long lead, let’s shift gears now to women’s professional soccer. Today marks five years to the day since Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) launched on March 29th, 2009 with a match between the Los Angeles Sol and the Washington Freedom before 14,832 fans at the Home Depot Center. It was the first women’s pro match in America since 2003.
A lot has changed in the five years since. WPS is dead and gone and so is Fox Soccer Channel for that matter. Marta, the world’s best player and WPS’ flawed tentpole attraction, is back in Sweden. Even the Home Depot Center, with its $11.00 bottles of Bud Light, is now the StubHub Center. But the women’s pro game in America – amazingly, improbably - is in better shape than ever under the auspices of the National Women’s Soccer League, which emerged from the smoking ruins of WPS in late 2012.
For the first time in history, we have an uninterrupted five-year sample size for the women’s soccer, so maybe it’s time to talk about classifying the 1.0 and 2.0 versions and theorize about what 3.0 might look like in the near future.
Here’s my take, with more of a business-side slant. I’d love to hear yours in the comments section:
Women’s Professional Soccer 1.0 (2007- June 2010)
Starts with: 2007 formation of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS)
MLS participation: Arms length (AEG’s one-year commitment in L.A., SUM struggles to sell league-wide sponsorships)
Target Audience: Girls youth soccer players and their families
Secondary Market: Brazilians who want to see Marta, LGBT, Hipsters but there’s no coordinated effort to reach any of them
Venues: A mix of terrible leases (LA, Chicago), awful turf (Boston, Philly) and great potential (Atlanta, St. Louis at the end)
Uh-Oh: WPS execs, many of whom are former players, capitulate to U.S. National Team representative John Langel and to player agents on a series of salary cap rules negotiations, imperiling cost controls that were key selling points to league investors.
WPS launches March 2009 with 14,382 on hand for the inaugural game in Los Angeles
All eligible USWNT players sign contracts in WPS except for Ali Krieger, who plays on loan
Attendance leader and top regular season performer L.A. Sol folds after one season.
Secondary Audiences: Urban hipsters and MLS brand loyalists.
Venues: No enforced standards. MLS palaces at the top and cheapo high school fields at the bottom.
Uh-Oh: The NWSL’s lack of transparency about its complicated, constantly shifting player personnel policies is exasperating not only to the league’s diehard fans, but to often-confused team executives as well.
The U.S., Canadian & Mexican soccer federations agree to subsidize NWSL franchise payrolls.
The 2012 Portland Thorns turn a sizable operating profit. The first American women’s pro soccer team to do so.
All eight clubs return for the NWSL’s second season in 2014, plus an MLS-owned expansion club, the Houston Dash.
Ends With: ???
So what might women’s pro soccer 3.0 hold, assuming there is one and it marks continued forward momentum, unlike The Troubles of 2011-12? Here’s a few random thoughts…
I don’t think there will be much more Houston-style expansion. The secret sauce of the NWSL is the national federation subsidies of the U.S. and Canadian national team players. Weirdly/brilliantly, the best players are also the cheapest. Since the supply of subsidized stars is fixed and there’s no significant value in media rights, there would seem to be a disincentive for expansion among the existing clubs. In other words, this league doesn’t need to be in the New York, Chicago and L.A. markets for the sake of a T.V. deal as so many past leagues, including WPS, have claimed.
No American women’s pro club has ever been sold, let alone sold for a profit. (Dan Borislow paid $0 to the Hendricks family for the Freedom). Now that Portland has turned the first operating profit in the sport, a profitable franchise sale is the next major economic landmark to chase. Explicitly limiting expansion would help, by reducing the perceived supply of teams. I’d love to see Toronto or Vancouver get an NWSL team. But I’d rather see U.S. Soccer strengthen the league on two fronts by brokering a sale and relocation of Sky Blue, for instance, rather than award another expansion team.
As encouraging as the new NWSL business model is, here’s something that would concern me as an investor: all of the national federation partnerships are reviewed on an annual basis. Mexico already made noise about cancelling their subsidies after year one, which is… whatever. Feel free to take your ball and go home, Mexico. But if Canada or the U.S. ever pulled out, that would present a huge problem. The subsidy program is basically the NWSL’s de facto collective bargaining agreement. Would you buy into a league where the CBA was cancellable every August? Me neither. If the league has another strong year in 2013, it will be interesting to see if franchise owners push for Canada and U.S. Soccer to sign a 3 or 5-year deal. But it’s hard to know where the NWSL ends and U.S. Soccer begins, so maybe this will never happen.
What do you think the next five years will hold for women’s pro soccer in North America? Leave your comments below or on Twitter @AMCrossley.
The Worcester IceCats were a minor league hockey team that operated for 11 seasons in central Massachusetts. The founder of the IceCats was Roy Boe. Boe was an active sports investor during the 1970′s, at one point controlling both the New York/New Jersey Nets basketball team and the NHL’s New York Islanders. Never especially rich by the standards of Major League sports owners, Boe was forced to sell both teams in 1978 and sat on the sidelines during the 1980′s before re-emerging to form the IceCats in the spring of 1994.
Boe and his partners purchased the Springfield (MA) Indians of the American Hockey League and received approval from the AHL to move to Worcester in May 1994. Due to the late start organizing the team, the IceCats were unable to secure an NHL parent club for the 1994-95 season and were forced to play as an independent team, cobbling together a team of free agents and leftovers. No surprise they finished in last place. As of 2014, the 1994-95 IceCats remain the last AHL to play an independent season.
In 1995 the IceCats signed an affiliation agreement with the St. Louis Blues. For the next 10 seasons from 1995 through the club’s demise in 2005 Worcester would serve as St. Louis’ top farm club. During the 2000-01 season, Roy Boe sold the IceCats to the Blues, who operated the team directly for the next three seasons. In November 2004, the Blues sold the IceCats to the owners of one of their other farm teams, the Peoria (IL) Rivermen. The new owners announced that the IceCats would move to Peoria for the 2005-06 season in order to upgrade the Rivermen from their lower-level league to the AHL. The ‘Cats played out their final season in Worcester as lame ducks and played their final home game on April 17, 2005 before a farewell crowd of 10,211.
The IceCats made the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs eight times in ten seasons, but never advanced beyond the 2nd Round.
After one winter without hockey, the AHL returned to Worcester in 2006 with the formation of the Worcester Sharks, who are now in their eighth season. The franchise formerly known as the IceCats also remains active. After eight seasons in Peoria, the team relocated to Utica, New York in 2013 and is now known as the Utica Comets.