May 10, 2011
by Charles Cuttone
Tough times for the women’s game
Seeing Brandi Chastain doing a promo for the upcoming Women’s World Cup reminded me just how much has changed in women’s soccer since that glorious summer in 1999, when the U.S. team was the darling of the entire country and Chastain wound up on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated after ripping her jersey off to celebrate her championship-winning penalty kick.
The women’s game seemed on such a high. The World Cup, originally slated to be played in small (18,000-30,000 seat) stadiums, was instead selling out football stadiums, culminating with the finale at the packed 101,000-seat Rose Bowl.
The men’s national team had an ignominious showing at the 1998 World Cup in France, scoring only one goal while losing all three of their group round games. MLS, then only three years old, was struggling. The women’s team was U.S. Soccer’s big success story, and many of those involved, especially the players, felt the women’s game could and would be bigger in the U.S. than the men’s game.
Fast-forward 12 years. MLS is a strong healthy, thriving, growing league, filling its own stadiums, and the U.S. men have made impressive showings in two of the last three World Cups.
The women? That World Cup title they won in 1999 was their last trip to the title game. They struggled to qualify for this year’s Finals, needing a playoff series with Italy to squeak in as the last entrant.
The pro game is in just as bad, if not worse, shape. The first league, formed out of the euphoria of that 1999 summer, lasted only three years before folding on the eve of the 2003 World Cup.
Women’s Professional Soccer, now in its third year, also appears to be staggering. After losing Los Angeles, Bay Area, St. Louis and Chicago over a 12-month span, attendance around the league has plummeted. Crowds in the 1,000s are now the norm, and the leaguewide average is 2,572, down from last season’s average of 3,612.
After a tumultuous offseason, the league appeared to have found a measure of salvation in a well-funded expansion team in Western New York and a new owner for the struggling Washington Freedom after the Hendricks family – who had kept the franchise alive through not only three WUSA seasons but the years between pro leagues – decided to withdraw without significant new financial support. Western New York, with Marta, has put a good product on the field, but by electing to adopt a regional rather than local identity has failed to fan the passion of soccer fans in either the Rochester or Buffalo markets.
The Freedom’s new owner, meanwhile, snuck the team out of town to his home base of Boca Raton, Florida more quietly than the Baltimore Colts loaded up the Mayflower vans for Indianapolis back in 1984. In itself, perhaps the relocation was not a bad move, but the eccentricities of the team’s operation in its new home have even further eroded the league’s credibility, and perceptions of its overall viability as a professional enterprise.
Owner Dan Borislaw has taken center stage with the former flagship franchise of the women’s professional game, from naming it after his invention, the magicJack phone system, to sitting on the bench as assistant coach. After some 35 years in soccer as a team owner, front office executive and journalist, I’ve seen owners carry loaded firearms onto the field. I’ve seen owners who could not or would not pay their bills. But this guy takes the proverbial cake.
He refuses to adhere to most league policies, including placing sponsor field boards along the edge of the field and making game videos available to other teams. After getting into a tussle with a local reporter after the team’s May 1 home game against Philadelphia, he was quoted in the Marietta Journal as saying press coverage was a detriment to the league. Given his stated disdain for the media, it is probably not surprising that the team plays in a stadium with no press box, as well as by far the smallest capacity in the league at 1,500 – a capacity that has not yet been reached, despite the fact that the team boasts the USA’s marquee women’s player in Abby Wambach and is undefeated through its first three games.
Obviously, the magicJack situation is not the norm for team operations in WPS. There are owners in other markets committed to doing things right. But attendance is down for them as well. And between the low numbers and the situation in Florida, the league is not looking strong at this point. I fear by the time the U.S. team returns from what could be a shorter-than-usual trip to the World Cup, there won’t be a league for them to play in, or for the media to cover.
That would be a shame.