The Fall of the Women’s Professional Soccer League

By:  Danielle Blanchard, Ruling Sports Intern (Email:  blanc123@mail.chapman.edu)

After just three seasons, the Women’s Professional Soccer League has folded. In January, the league cancelled the 2012 they hoped to return by the next season. Although it isn’t exactly clear what led to the league’s fall out, sources say that the lawsuit between the WPS and ex-owner Dan Borislow were major factors in the fallout. In addition, it is reported that the league simply could not generate the revenue needed to keep itself alive.

The WPS was in the middle of a long legal battle with Borislow when they decided to cancel the 2012 season. In 2011, Borislow bought Women’s Professional Soccer League team the Washington Freedom and then moved it to South Florida and renamed it “magicJack,” after an invention of his. His franchise was regularly disciplined during the season for not meeting league standards, including not playing in a large enough stadium and not marketing the team under the WPS standards. Players on his team, as well as the WPS players union, filed a grievance with the league saying that Borislow violated the Standard Player Contract Provision, the FIFA Code of Ethics, WPS Media Policy and U.S. Soccer Federation Coaching Requirements. Players complained about the manner in which he spoke to them and he was accused of benching players that he thought were involved in filing the grievance.

In June the WPS moved to exercise their right to terminate his franchise at the end of the season for breach of contract, after an ongoing conflict with Borislow for most the season. Borislow filed suit against the WPS in August and requested an injunction to force the league into arbitration, rather than deciding the matter with the board of governors. The league cited reasons how he breached their contract, including his “unprofessional and disparaging treatment of players and failure to pay his bills.” This led the league to terminate Borislow’s franchise at the end of October 2011.

The lawsuit between the WPS and Borislow continued into 2012. It was thought in January that the two parties had reached a settlement, but after the settlement fell a part the league decided to cancel the season. The legal battle continued until late last month, when a spokesperson for the WPS said that they reached a confidential, out of court settlement with Borislow on May 18, 2012. Shortly after this settlement was reached the league folded.

Given the legal issues surrounding the league in its demise, how should it move forward?  The WPS will need to take a new, fresh approach in order to make a league work. It is not impossible, especially if the U.S. national team performs well in the Olympics this summer. The owners of the teams are largely at fault. It costs a lot of money to start a team, so the owners are usually people with too much money in hand that did not view their new soccer team as a business venture or investment, but rather as a hobby or a way to spend some time.  The owners did not really invest in the program. Additionally, many of the coaches tried to also be the business leaders of the organization instead of just doing their coaching job. It will be important to have a small group, kind of like a central office, that handles league affairs and then the coaches and owners. There needs to be more separation between employees and their duties so they can work together as a team instead of stepping on each other’s toes.

One thing that the old league was lacking was a proper business model that includes good marketing, fundraising, community awareness, and structure.  The result of this bad planning was a lack of exposure, exposure that was needed to make the program a success. A lot of young girls don’t even know that there was a women’s professional soccer league.

To make the next league successful, good marketing will be key, this includes free social networking (facebook, twitter), live streaming to watch games if they aren’t on TV, and the league could try and work/ reach out to people/ shows like Oprah, Ellen, and The View that promote women. It would be beneficial to get the players involved with the marketing also. Having fundraisers, both locally and on a larger scale would probably help too, there were none of these before. Fundraisers would help localize the league and be a benefit to both the league and the community. 

The league should also try a structure that is broken down by region, either by having a 3 or 4 regions set up (north, south, east, west or west, central, east). This would help save money by cutting travel costs and it would keep the majority of the games within one region, making it easier for a loyal fan base to follow their team around.

All of these changes would hopefully help to get TV deals with channels like ESPN, Fox Sports, etc. The awareness that these changes would bring would also help get sponsors. There could be league wide sponsorships that would be divided among the teams but the teams should also be able to go out and get their own sponsorship deals within their community.

These proposed changes may not have all of the answers, but they could be a helpful platform for the next women’s’ professional soccer league. Soccer continues to be a wildly popular sport for young girls across the U.S. and if a new league forms after these upcoming Olympic games and takes some of the approaches above, then a women’s professional league could stand a real chance. The WPS was formed in the aftermath of the last Women’s World Cup, so hopefully after a successful run in London by the U.S. national team anew league can form and do what no other women’s professional league has yet to do: succeed.

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