New women's pro league allot players
The National Women’s Soccer League was only a month and a half old and the players had been assigned to their clubs just minutes earlier. But on social media, the Portland Thorns were already being crowned the 2013 champions.
They were perceived as having made out the best in the budding league’s initial allocation of 55 United States, Canadian and Mexican national team players to eight clubs across the country. When starting a professional league from scratch, especially one with a finite number of established stars, such early imbalance is to be expected.
Portland was handed USA starlet and serial goalscorer Alex Morgan – who placed third in Monday’s 2012 FIFA World Women’s Player of the Year award – exciting midfielder Tobin Heath, defensive anchor Rachel Buehler and Canadian standout striker Christine Sinclair, giving them a quartet of players that is expected to be dominant.
Others didn’t fare quite so well.
While the Seattle Reign FC landed Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Amy Rodriguez and the Western New York Flash will reunite the 2012 World Women’s Player of the Year Abby Wambach with her hometown of Rochester, Sky Blue FC will have to make do and build a fan base around the markedly lesser appeal of Christie Rampone and Kelly O’Hara in the crowded New York City sports market. The Washington Spirit similarly got only Ali Krieger and Lori Lindsey out of the deal.
This issue was the residue not of a priority offered to certain franchises but the inherent difficulty in placing players while being mindful of the needs and desires of all parties involved. The salaries of 23 American, 16 Canadian and 16 Mexican players are being funded by their respective federations in recognition of the importance of regular games at a high level for their players after the Women’s Professional Soccer league that collapsed prior to the 2012 season. Yet the equation was more complex than simply letting the teams take their picks at random from that initial talent pool of 55.
A “panel of experts familiar with the player pools,” as a United States Soccer Federation statement put it, had to lay out a mosaic of competing interests and preferences, satisfying as many as possible while maintaining balance. Teams and players were allowed to indicate their preferences for their destinations. But the players had to be matched with the right demographics where they could be best marketed, too, while technical abilities, positional and competitive balance also played a part.
“We’re trying to slice this a number of ways,” US Soccer president Sunil Gulati said on a conference call. “One is the preferences of the players, second is the preference of the teams, third are the marketing issues, fourth are the technical issues from the teams. There’s a lot of domino issues. If you put a certain player on a team, do you put another player there and now are there two [people with high marketing value] there? There are positional issues and so on and so forth. As you can imagine, it’s not an easy one. We tried to balance it as much as we could.”
In addition to the above considerations, the league's new director Cheryl Bailey said it was essential to give teams a nucleus to work with. “We had many, many people out there helping us to put this together,” said Bailey. “It is a very challenging endeavor to put together everybody’s requests. It is a give and take. You can always begin by putting the players on the board but then you have to step back and see where the balance is.”
If the balance looks slightly skewed towards the teams in the Pacific Northwest at the moment, this is just as much a consequence of it being the most popular destination for players, with many having played their college soccer or living there. Later this month, there will be a college draft that will help rebalance the competition where necessary. And further signings from abroad and domestically – only players firmly ensconced in the national team picture were allocated, others are free agents – could dramatically alter the landscape yet.
Because the present stage is an early one and many details are not yet ironed out. A schedule, rules and regulations are still being drafted. “We’re excited but there’s a lot of answers fans and players and teams would like,” said Gulati.
Like contracts for the players assigned to teams on Friday, for instance. “We’re still looking to finalize our negotiations with US Soccer on both the women’s national contract and the league’s,” said Morgan. “We’re hoping that that is going to be solved in a timely manner.”
If this league is to survive – unlike the two predecessors, the WUSA and WPS, which were both felled by their problematic economics and attendance in just the last decade – it will probably do so by the grace of its star power. Now that several players on the women’s national team have come into some mainstream fame, the league will have to find a way to maximize and monetize that appeal.
“You do want to make sure that the markets have players that they’re somewhat familiar with but that are also very exciting players when you’re blending that,” said Bailey. “Each of those considerations was certainly in there.”
Get that wrong again, and the third time will not be the charm for professional women’s soccer in America.