Another women’s pro soccer league has found its way into the cemetery of failed sports leagues. While there is a ready-made villain to blame for this particular death, the passing of Women’s Professional Soccer is hardly the work of one egomaniacal and unprofessional owner.
The announcement that WPS was shutting down permanently wasn’t a shock. This day seemed inevitable from the moment the league cancelled the 2012 season. That didn’t make the final news any less sad or disconcerting for a sport that has seen two pro leagues fail in the past dozen years.
The news came on the same day the league announced it had ended a lawsuit with disgruntled former owner Dan Borislow. The timing helped seal Borislow’s role as the man who ultimately struck the death blow to the league, which began play just three years ago.
The easy story to sell is that Borislow doomed the league by trying to sue after he was kicked out for being a rule-breaking nightmare of an owner. That is certainly a convenient story, but not a completely accurate one.
Make no mistake. Borislow is every bit a villain, a despicable owner who will serve as the cautionary tale for all future fledgling sports leagues. The unprofessional way he turned a pro sports team into a sideshow billboard for his company, and breaking many rules in the process, gave WPS no choice but to try and get rid of him. And ever the villain, Borislow responded with a lawsuit that ultimately squeezed the life out of the league.
However, the real question is: how much longer would WPS have lasted if Borislow never came along and plunged the proverbial knife in the league’s heart?
Even before the Borislow circus came to a head, there were rumblings about the league being on unstable financial footing. Terrible television ratings and disappointing attendance at games had already begun to turn off potential investors and advertisers.
And even though WPS had started out on a smaller scale, hoping to avoid the fate of WUSA — the first women’s professional soccer league in the US, which tried to go big scale and also failed after just three seasons — WPS still couldn’t get a foothold on the pro sports landscape from a business standpoint.
That is the harsh reality of the death of the WPS, and of women’s professional soccer in the US. It doesn’t matter how important it is for soccer and women’s sports in this country to have a pro women’s soccer league. It doesn’t matter how good the players are that you bring in, or how vibrant the cities are where you place the teams. The only thing that matters when running a professional sports league is can it be a successful business.
Nobody can deny that women’s soccer has fans. We saw it last summer during the U.S. Women’s national team’s dramatic run to the World Cup Final. But until that can manifest into TV ratings, filled stadiums and merchandise sales — which it hasn’t for either of the two deceased women’s soccer leagues — advertisers and investors aren’t going to keep spending money.
We learned that a decade ago when WUSA’s losses topped out at $100 million, and we would have seen it again with WPS if Borislow had not come along to expedite the league’s demise.
So what is next? There is a growing sentiment that Major League Soccer can be the entity that steps in and helps a women’s league get off the ground. It is true that MLS is thriving right now, and having a stable league like MLS to lean on might help get a women’s league going, but it still has to make sense financially. The reality is the men’s league may be too busy working in its own issues to launch or help assist a women’s league — at least right now.
The next step for women’s soccer is already happening. WPSL and the W-League, two smaller semi-pro leagues, have begun making small strides in developing a following, and both have aspirations for a bigger league. Those leagues have, and can, help keep the interest in women’s soccer growing, albeit on a smaller scale.
MLS clubs have aligned themselves with teams in both leagues, and while MLS itself may not be ready to stand by a women’s league, or even create its own league similar to what the NBA did with the WNBA did, it could still wind up eventually being the benefactor that helps a women’s league finally survive and grow roots.
MLS has shown the business world that soccer is a venture worth investing in here in the United States. If women’s soccer is ever going to work as a business in America, lessons need to be learned from the failures of WUSA and WPS, it is a good bet that MLS will be involved.
We aren’t likely to see another pro women’s league for a while. Not until there has been enough time to really look where WPS went wrong. It will be easy for some to keep blaming Borislow, and pretending WPS was on the path to success.
Anyone paying close attention knows that isn’t the reality. The sooner we accept that the league’s failure wasn’t solely the fault of one bad owner, the sooner we can learn from the league’s mistakes and find a way to make pro women’s soccer finally succeed in America.