The Atlanta Beat were one of two expansion franchises (along with the Philadelphia Independence) to join the short-lived Women’s Professional Soccer for its second season of action in 2010. The club was a brand revival of Atlanta’s previous women’s pro team, the 2001-2003 Atlanta Beat of the Women’s United Soccer Association. But aside from purchasing the trademark to the defunct club, the “new” Beat possess
Team owner Fitz Johnson was a charismatic U.S. Army veteran, attorney and former defense contractor. Johnson’s family business was sold to Lockheed Martin in April 2008 for an undisclosed but sizable sum. Like the majority of WPS franchise owners, Johnson had soccer-playing daughters.
==KSU Soccer Stadium Artist Renderings==
The technical side of the Beat organization was another story though. The Beat possessed the #1 overall picks in both the 2010 WPS International Allocation
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.
That’s former Dartmouth All-American Kristin Luckenbill on the cover of the match day program for the Breakers. Luckenbill was a player whose career was severely derailed by the collapse of the previous women’s pro league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, in 2003. The WUSA’s Carolina Courage drafted Luckenbill in 2001 and she quickly earned the starting position, helping the Courage to a Founders Cup title and winning WUSA Goalkeeper-of-the-Year honors in 2002. When the WUSA closed its doors in September 2003, Luckenbill was 24 years old and on the verge of making the U.S. National Team for the first time (she would win Olympic Gold as a reserve for the U.S. at Athens in 2004).
The rest of the 2000’s was a lost decade for women’s players of Luckenbill’s generation. With no pro league in North America, Luckenbill played occasionally for semi-pro clubs in Vermont and Indiana. By the time Women’s Professional Soccer debuted in April 2009, Luckenbill was a month away from turning 30 years old. She won the Boston Breakers starting job in training camp, but struggled with inconsistency throughout the first half of the season while the Breakers as a team underperformed lofty pre-season expectations.
On this evening Luckenbill was outdueled by the current U.S. National Team star goalkeeper, Hope Solo of St. Louis Athletica. Boston outshot St. Louis 17-7 and controlled the run of play, but English international Eniola Aluko scored the game’s only goal, beating Luckenbill in the 43rd minute off an assist fromKendall Fletcher. Final: St. Louis 1 – Boston 0.
The following month Luckenbill lost her starting job to rookie Ali Lipsher of Duke and the veteran was not re-signed by Boston for the 2010 season. Luckenbill appeared in a handful of games for Sky Blue FC in WPS in 2010 before announcing her retirement later that year.
The Philadelphia Independence soccer team enjoyed a brief two-season run in Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011), a league that briefly could claim status as the top women’s soccer league in the world before financial problems sunk the league after three seasons of play.
The Independence and WPS’ other 2010 expansion club, the Atlanta Beat, faced a challenging competitive landscape where the entire U.S National Team and dozens of the top international players were already to committed to multi-year contracts with existing WPS clubs. An expansion draft permitted the Beat and the Independence to pick through other team’s leftovers, but there was only one impact player available: U.S. National Team midfielder Lori Lindsey, inexplicably left unprotected by the Washington Freedom. Philly was fortunate to snap Lindsey up with the #1 selection. (Click here to view the 2010 WPS Expansion Draft rules for league executives). Atlanta never overcame the expansion disadvantage and fielded a distant last place club. Philadelphia GM Terry Foley and Head Coach Paul Riley, in contrast, wheeled and dealed extensively, finding terrific value in overlooked and under-utilized players and shrewd international signings throughout the winter of 2009 into 2010.
From the Boston Breakers, Foley acquired two U.S. National Team stalwarts in Heather Mitts and Amy Rodriguez. Mitts was a former member of the WUSA’s Philadelphia Charge and a well-known figure in Philadelphia, owing to her skill, beauty and gossip page relationship with Pat Burrell of the Phillies and, later, her engagement to quarterback A.J. Feeley of the Eagles. For all her marketing potential, Mitts seemed a poor fit with Head Coach Paul Riley and saw her playing time diminish late in the 2010 season.
The opposite was true for Rodriguez, the league’s #1 overall pick in the 2009 WPS Draft out of the University of Southern California who floundered in Boston under former National Team Coach Tony DiCicco. A-Rod scored only one goal in Boston and started fewer than half the team’s matches. But her club career would flourish under Riley in Philadelphia. In 2010, the speedy forward finished third in WPS in goals with 12 and was named a finalist for the league’s Michelle Akers Player-of-the-Year Award.
The Independence also scored internationally with Swedish playmaker Caroline Seger, Canadian National Team goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, English forward Lianne Sandersonand bruising Icelandic defender Holmfridur Magnusdottir. The Independence cultivated an intensely physical style of play under Paul Riley and the team was notably strong on defense.
The Independence debuted in Philadelphia on April 11, 2010 playing fellow expansionists the Atlanta Beat to a 0-0 draw at Farrell Stadium on the campus of West Chester University. The crowd of 6,028 was a highlight, but subsequent games drew small crowds even by WPS standards. The Independence finished with the worst attendance in the seven-team league with 2,938 per game in 2010.
On the field, though, the Independence excelled, finishing 3rd in the regular season table with a 10-10-4 record. The Independence saved their best play for the postseason. In the first round, Amy Rodriguez’s overtime goal in the 120th minute lifted Philly past the Washington Freedom before 2,378 in West Chester, PA. Then it was off to Boston for the WPS Super Semi-Final, where the Independence fought back from an early 1-0 deficit to triumph 2-1 in overtime. The game winner came on a header from Danesha Adams, a controversial goal that many Boston fans maintain to this day was a handball (see video below).
The semi-final victory over the Breakers vaulted the Independence into the WPS Cup final against FC Gold Pride, one of the most dominant women’s club sides ever assembled. The final, played on Gold Pride’s home ground in Hayward, California would be Philadelphia’s third win-or-go-home playoff match in eight days, whereas Gold Pride enjoyed a two-week layoff to prepare for the match. The Independence’s fatigue after two overtime matches in a week showed, and Gold Pride made quick work of the Philadelphians 4-0 in the Final.
For the Independence second season, the club moved to Leslie Quick Stadium at Widener University in Chester. The club re-tooled on the field as well. Gone were Heather Mitts and Karina LeBlanc. New arrivals included emerging U.S. National Team midfield star Megan Rapinoe, former USWNT super sub Natasha Kai and Spanish striker Veronica Boquete.
Early season attendance plummeted throughout the league in 2011, due in part to an austerity program championed by Independence owner David Halstead, among others, which eviscerated the league’s national office and saw local administration and marketing cut to a shoe string. Philadelphia’s own financial challenges were revealed when Halstead sold Megan Rapinoe to Dan Borislow’s controversial MagicJack club for a record-setting transfer fee of $100,000 in June 2011. By this point, Borislow and Western New York Flash owner Joe Sahlen were the only WPS owners spending more than the bare minimums required to finish out the season.
The owners got a reprieve of sorts when the U.S. National Team went on an inspiring run through to the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final, drawing huge TV ratings along the way. With most of the USWNT stars still playing in WPS, large crowds turned out in league cities to see Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach upon their return from the World Cup.
The Independence were even better in 2011. The club’s 11-4-3 record was second only to the expansion Western New York Flash (13-2-3), who were basically the previous year’s champions, FC Gold Pride, re-constituted on the East Coast. Paul Riley won WPS Coach-of-the-Year honors for the second year in a row and newcomer Veronica Boquete won WPS’ Michelle Akers Player-of-the-Year award, despite appearing in only 11 matches.
The Independence hosted MagicJack in the WPS Super Semi-Final on August 20, 2011. The game was played at the beautiful new 18,500-seat PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer. It was the first home match the Independence ever played on a proper soccer pitch. (Both Farrell Stadium and Quick Stadium were turf fields with stitched-in American football markings). Ironically this coming out party at Philadelphia’s best soccer facility would also be the final home game the club ever played. A modest crowd of 5,410 turned out for the match, despite the presence of Abby Wambach and other newly famous U.S. World Cup stars on the MagicJack team. The Independence disposed of MagicJack 2-0 on goals by Natasha Kai and Amy Rodriguez to advance to their second WPS Cup Final in as many seasons.
One of the largest crowds in WPS history – 10,361 fans – turned out at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, New York for the Final on August 27, 2011. Unlike the year before, the Independence were rested and ready to bring their best game against the Western New York Flash. The Flash had many of the top players from FC Gold Pride, the club that beat Philly to win the Cup a year earlier and then quickly went out of business. In the 64th minute, Christine Sinclair put the Flash up 1-0 on a cross from Candace Chapman. Both players were FC Gold Pride refugees. Three minutes away from a loss in the 87th minute, Amy Rodriguez blasted home the equalizer to send the game into overtime knotted at 1-1. Neither team scored during the 30-minute extra session. The championship would be decided on penalty kicks.
One interesting note on the PK’s. Riley left the notoriously inconsistent Rodriguez off his list of five shooters, despite the fact that she was the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Riley’s line-up was Lianne Sanderson, Danesha Adams, Leigh Ann Robinson, Boqueteand Spanish international Laura Del Rio. The first four shooters scored for Philly. The first five scored for Western New York. Del Rio had the chance to send the PK’s into a second round, but Flash goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris made tremendous save to end Philly’s season and deliver the WPS Cup to Western New York.
This proved to be the final game WPS ever played. After a tumultuous offseason of legal battles with MagicJack owner Dan Borislow and an embarrassing public audit by U.S. Soccer to determine whether WPS still met the minimum standards to be sanctioned as a 1st division league, WPS folded up shop on January 30, 2012. Several franchises dropped into a lower-level semi-pro league – the WPSL Elite – to continue playing, but Halstead opted to shut down his Philadelphia club.
==Philadelphia Independence Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
As I draft this column, I’m sitting in the athletic center at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts administering the final exam for my Sports Promotions & Marketing course (SM 203). I taught two sections of the course as a guest instructor this semester and it was a blast.
The course was focused on creating demand for minor league and developing pro sports, so we came back frequently to my four years as a start-up consultant and later General Manager for the Boston Breakers of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011).
The students’ first graded assignment this semester was a case study about the Breakers’ start-up phase in 2007-08. At that particular time, WPS was trying to analyze the “mistakes of the past” (i.e. the failed Women’s United Soccer Association of 2001-2003) in order to create a sustainable business plan. Today, a new women’s league – the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) – is doing the very same thing. Sadly, the subject of this latest autopsy is WPS itself.
Take a look at the case study and think about how you might answer the eight questions I posed to my students:
After holidays at home with their families, many of my students are off to internships with the American Hockey League, box lacrosse teams, ski resorts and arena management companies during Endicott’s extended six-week winter break.
Unfortunately, none of my students are headed to work for the NWSL, which is ramping up operations this month for a spring 2013 launch after months of behind-the-scenes organizing. It’s too bad, because during the past four months these 42 young men and 7 young women have likely devoted more time to analyzing the history, challenges and opportunities of women’s pro soccer than any other business students in the country.
As they sit here this morning scribbling away in their blue books about variable pricing strategy and permission-based marketing, I think to myself:
If one of these kids was headed off to sell women’s soccer, what else would I share with them?
The first thing I would suggest to a young person learning the ropes with an NWSL club is to read Joanna Lohman’s recent blog “How To Market Our New Women’s Professional League. Joanna was a player for the Washington Freedom and Philadelphia Independence in WPS. She is perhaps the most articulate and insightful player voice when it comes to the marketing of the sport. Updating an eternal debate in women’s soccer circles, Joanna talks about the dream of a thriving Supporters culture versus the disappointing reality of a group sales-driven target audience of distracted youth soccer families. Should teams:
Keep targeting a proven audience that is demonstrably incapable of sustaining a pro league? OR
Cultivate a totally-awesome-sounding-but-possibly-mythical tribe of urban, childless, pan-ethnic, hipster fanatics?
Joanna believes the NWSL has to make a bold all-in bet on fostering Supporters culture or else be doomed to failure. I’m like 90% on board with Joanna’s direction, but I don’t entirely agree with her conclusion. She’s created a false dilemma. Teams don’t have to choose between these two approaches. In fact, they need to have both. Neither audience is sufficient on its own. Your stadium environment has to be inviting and thrilling to everyone.
Where I agree with Joanna is that too many inexperienced team operators confuse the idea of creating an environment “for everyone” with creating a “family environment”. After all, families are adults + kids, right? That’s everyone! Not so fast. Because “Family Environment” is a too often a euphemism for a Children’s Environment. And an atmosphere that bears more resemblance to Chuck E. Cheese than Old Trafford is bound to alienate passionate adult soccer fans.
Kids loved the Boston Breakers, but we probably did less for them than any other team in WPS, except MagicJack. I believe that kids need to have the following experiences:
A team to cheer for and believe in
An opportunity to meet one of their heroes, even if they’re too shy to say a word
A shirtful of autographs at the end of the night
A fun, safe place to play before the game, with rides, contests and activities
They need these things because they may go home disappointed if they’re missing. On the other hand, here’s what I believe they don’t need:
One Direction, Biebs, and Carly Rae Jepsen on the stadium sound system
P.A. announcers commanding them to MAKE SOME NOISE! every ten minutes. Or ever, actually.
An intern who can’t dance in a smelly mascot suit listlessly waving at them.
Halftime youth soccer games that thrill 40 parents in the crowd and bore the piss out of everyone else
Do kids like all the things on this second list? Of course they do. But will they miss them if they’re not there? No. And these elements tend to annoy more sophisticated soccer fans. You know – the ones who buy season tickets, and blog, and watch your blurry webcasts, and shell out for $8.00 beers and $80.00 authentic jerseys? The ones you always say you wish you had more of? Yeah, them.
At the Breakers from 2009 to 2011, every element of game production was designed for the enjoyment of adult soccer lovers. This included everything from the Afro-Brazil samba band, to the professional entertainers at halftime, to the creation of a permanent Pillars of Excellence installation to honor retired Breakers stars such as Maren Meinert, Angela Hucles, and Kristine Lilly. We even excluded youth groups from sitting in our most desirable midfield seating sections.
That was just our philosophy. I’m sure it had its flaws as well. You have to develop your own. Whatever that is, I suggest you memorialize it in careful detail, like we did for our sales & marketing staff:
So now our hypothetical NWSL staffer has considered the case study, read Joanna Lohman’s manifesto, downloaded a proper ticket sales manual, and perhaps even started to think about his or her own personal values about marketing. (Whether your boss agrees is a different matter, but part of being an intern is deciding how you will do things differently when your day comes).
What else would I put in my imaginary care package for this young man or woman? Here’s two things:
A copy of Jon Spoelstra’s Ice To The Eskimos: How To Sell A Product Nobody Really Wants. This is an industry bible, along with Spoelstra’s earlier Marketing Outrageously. Spoelstra was the President of the New Jersey Nets during the Dark Ages of the Derrick Coleman era. He has plenty of great advice for low-budget/no-budget minor league operators as well. All of our Breakers account execs read this book. Get it on Kindle for $9.99.
The phone numbers of Los Angeles Galaxy Senior Manager of Ticket Sales and Service Heather Pease and Columbus Crew Director of Ticket Sales Brett Zalaski. Consummate sales people who sold a very challenging product in WPS and used their success to make the leap to great jobs in Major League Soccer. If you’re an NWSL executive and you haven’t been on the phone to pick the brains of WoSo sales leaders like Heather and Brett yet, you are missing a huge opportunity.
NWSL Odds & Ends
Here’s ten impressions and crystal ball predictions for the NWSL after this week’s league announcements:
Thorns F.C. draws the best numbers since WUSA. That means better than the 6,298 per game claimed by Los Angeles Sol in 2009.
The Breakers will sell out the entire season at Somerville’s Dilboy Stadium for a second consecutive year.
The appointment of Cheryl Bailey gives the NWSL a top-flight administrator to make the trains run on time.
I don’t buy FC Kansas City President Brian Budzinski’s claim that his club is drawing “huge interest” from senior National Team players, unless he means Mexicans and Canadians. Only two USWNT players were willing to go to St. Louis in WPS allocation in 2008, just one of whom is still active. FCKC’s unknown head coach won’t help compensate for a general lack of enthusiasm about playing in Missouri.
More than 50% of USWNT players will select Portland or Seattle as their preferred destination in allocation.
Sydney Leroux headlines a list of surprising allocations, sent to Kansas City, Boston or Western New York when her lack of seniority keeps her out of a coveted Pacific Northwest allocation spot.
The Boston Breakers will have the largest contingent of non-North American imports, due to the club’s long-standing ties to Australian players.
Here’s hoping that 2014 sees a place for Charlie Naimo and Paul Riley in America’s top league.
After Year One is in the books, the national federations will demand more control in return for their subsidies. In particular, the federations won’t tolerate sending players to franchises with under-qualified, unorthodox or revolving door coaches.
I no longer buy into the cliche “if it fails this time, it’s never coming back”. There are now and will continue to be plenty of people willing to invest in the women’s game, particularly as the price has come down. The problem is that up until now, it’s been more attractive for new money to let everything die off and start all over again than it has been to buy existing clubs and take on their problems.