Women’s Soccer: The Next Generation
A decade ago this past summer, the most iconic event in American women’s soccer history took place.
On July 10, 1999, Brandi Chastain won the final game of the Women’s World Cup for the United States by scoring on a penalty kick against China. When she fell to her knees and took off her jersey in celebration, incidentally exposing her sports bra to press cameras, the resulting image became an instant classic, soon gracing the covers of Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.
In the wake of the 1999 Women’s World Cup and its unexpected popularity across the country, the first women’s professional soccer league began to take form. The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) launched in the spring of 2001, but lasted for only a short time, folding in 2003 after losing about $100 million over three seasons.
The WUSA never met its attendance goals or its ratings expectations, and it managed to exceed its projected five-year budget in only its first season. Fiscal mismanagement and too-rapid growth are generally blamed for the demise of the league.
So, when plans to launch a new pro league, to be called Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), were announced, women’s soccer fans were cautiously optimistic. Was there a solid fiscal plan this time? Was there enough support for a pro league from potential fans to take the risk?
The WPS launched this past spring, just in time to have to weather a global recession, and long after the prime of some of the most famous names in U.S. women’s soccer. Chastain is still playing, for the San Francisco Bay Area club FC Gold Pride, but Mia Hamm (whose silhouette is on the WPS logo), Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy are all now retired. Other sports, such as men’s baseball, have seen attendance and revenues drop significantly this year. So, did the WPS do in its first season?
“It's tough for us to say if the recession has affected our attendance,” said league commissioner Tonya Antonucci before the season ended in August, “mostly because we have no measuring stick to compare since we are in our first season.” Some teams adjusted ticket prices downward, but the league seems to be weathering the storm.
What makes the WPS different than the WUSA, and more likely to succeed? Antonucci cites a new league business model that relies on franchises that allow individual team owners more autonomy in their operations. League officials consistently refer to their approach as “grassroots,” bottom-up instead of top-down. Antonucci is also quite aware of fiscal issues: “We have to contain costs at the league, team and facility level and not over-spend.”
The WPS also has more modest expectations for growth. “The key now is to find the corporate backing that will help the league thrive and grow,“ says Antonucci.
Finally, the new league is coordinating more closely with its big brother, Major League Soccer (MLS), which was launched in 1996 and now hosts 15 teams, with three more expansion clubs coming in by 2011. MLS has achieved financial stability and moderate success as a league, and provides a good model for the WPS to follow. The two leagues also pool their resources—many WPS teams now share a stadium with their MLS counterparts.
Currently, there are seven teams on the WPS roster, with two more joining the league in 2010 (see more info below). The teams play in smaller stadiums, often college venues, and the players earn an average salary that is charitably described as modest. The average is $30K a player, and most players supplement this by working a second job.
The WPS may have modest expectations for now, but they won’t keep their sights low. Antonucci has no bones about aiming for the media mainstream. “That could take many years to accomplish and we need to be patient and have the product an success on the field first,” she says, but the goal is still in her sights.
The league is also exploring the publicity potential of online social media. The WPS Facebook page has 13,000 fans—the goal was 10,000. Various teams, players, officials and executives all have a prominent presence on Twitter. Overall, the league seems to be on track. Antonucci says that the league is meeting their attendance goals for the season, with 4,000 to 6,000 fans attending each game.
What do the fans think? Alissa Friedman and her wife are both former soccer players who watched the 1999 World Cup and later became fans of the WUSA’s San Francisco Bay Area team the CyberRays. Now they cheer for FC Gold Pride, who play in Santa Clara, Calif. Both are die-hard fans.
“We are season ticket holders and have attended every game so far,” says Friedman. “It's more than an hour in the car each way, but we love being able to watch this caliber of women's soccer.
“I love the fans—very diverse, totally engaged. I just wish there were more of them,” she continues. Friedman’s wife is from Brazil, so she is particularly excited by the presence of “a good cohort of Brazilians” on her favorite team.
Friedman’s criticisms of the league are minor. “The play itself has been of good quality,” she says. “I think we suffered from the fact that a lot of our early games were televised, so there was less incentive to get to the stadium.” She’d like to see better-quality highlights posted consistently to the league website, and more detailed news posted as well, including “injury reports and such.”
The biggest stereotype that the WPS has to contend with is that the league’s fan base is made up of “soccer moms” and their daughters. (Or, as Antonucci puts it, “Our core fan is the younger female soccer player and their families.”) As a result, the league sometimes errs too far on the side of "family-friendly." At best, they lack a truly passionate fan base, and at worst, they can be seen as a big excuse for a babysitter for tweens in soccer shorts.
Fans such as Hannah Potter put the lie to that image. She was in preschool when Brandi Chastain took off her jersey in front of the world; now she’s a soccer player herself—and a rabid fan.
In 2008, Potter attended a summer soccer camp coached by Chioma Igwe and Tiffany Weimer. Weimer was drafted by FC Gold Pride, so Potter instantly became a fan. “But now the coach is never putting Weimer in and they're losing a lot. So I don't like their coach, not one bit.”
Where Friedman was concerned that too many games were being broadcast on TV and thus fans were staying home, Potter has a different perspective: “It's always hard to start a league if you're only shown on one channel [Fox Soccer Channel] that most people don't get.” She currently lives in Connecticut, too far from any local club to attend games in person. Her words to the new league? “Make another commercial, try to get another sponsor besides [sports apparel company] Puma, anything.”
The next Women’s World Cup will be held in 2011 in Germany. By that time, over 200 women from around the world will have gained invaluable experience as professional soccer players through the WPS. That’s not to mention the experience gained by coaches, administrators and support staff—nor the increasingly solid fan base. Despite significant challenges and a history of adversity, women’s professional soccer in the United States looks to be heading for a winning streak.
Five Women To Watch in the WPS
Marta: Everyone agrees that Brazilian forward Marta is by far the best women’s soccer player in the world. This season she led the WPS in both goals scored and shots on goal taken, and to see her on the field is to watch something transcendent. Fan Hannah Potter comments, “the fans all seem to be cheering for Marta,” no matter what team they’re officially supporting. Her level of play for her club, the Los Angeles Sol, is so consistently high that it’s not hard to see why.
Camille Abily: French midfielder Abily is the other star of the Los Angeles Sol. She’s won international Player of the Year awards twice and came close to tying with her teammate in terms of total goals scored this season. Anyone who comes close to averaging a goal a game is certainly a player to watch.
Hope Solo: Hope Solo, the U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper and also keeper for St. Louis Athletica, is not only an outstanding athlete, she’s also renowned for her outspokenness. In fact, her blunt talk has gotten her into trouble more than once. But when you watch her fly through the air to make an impossible save, all else is forgotten.
Eniola Aluko: Nigerian-born forward Aluko leads the offensive charge for St. Louis Athletica, participating in half their goals this season either through shots or assists. Before joining Athletica, she scored 35 goals in two seasons for the Chelsea Ladies in England.
Christine Sinclair: This Canadian native plays forward for FC Gold Pride. At the young age of 24, she’s already the leader in goals scored for her national team. Expect to see more of the same for her club team—she’s consistently near the top of the league in terms of shots taken and goals scored.
Boston Breakers: A charter member of the WUSA, the Boston Breakers joined the WPS under new ownership; US National Team player and team captain Kristine Lilly has played on both incarnations of the squad.
Chicago Red Stars: This team is helmed by the only female head coach in the league, England’s Emma Hayes.
FC Gold Pride: The Pride represent the greater San Francisco Bay Area and play their games just outside San Jose.
Los Angeles Sol: The Sol were recognized as far and away the strongest team in the inaugural WPS season, leading the league in goals, assists and clean sheets (the soccer equivalent of a shutout).
Saint Louis Athletica: Possibly the second-best team in the league behind the start-studded Sol.
Sky Blue FC: The home team for the New York/New Jersey region.
Washington Freedom: Another reincarnated WUSA team, the Freedom are led by U.S. National Team star Abby Wambach.
Coming soon: Philadelphia Independence and Atlanta Beat.
Women’s Soccer Around The World
The United States isn’t the only country with a top-division women’s professional soccer league. Twenty-six other countries also host some form of professional or semi-professional league, including:
Sweden: The Damallsvenskan, or "Ladies’ all-Swedish," is home to 12 teams including Umea IK, the club that faced off against the best of the WPS in the league’s first all-star game. Sweden’s league is considered a contender for the title of best women’s league in the world.
Mexico: The Super Liga Femenil de Futbol is one of the largest women’s leagues in the world, with almost 20 teams competing.
Germany: The 12-team Women's Football Bundesliga launched in 1990, making it the oldest women’s pro league in the world.
Two notable absences: Neither Brazil nor England currently have professional leagues.
Photo Credits: Scott Rovak (Hope Solo, Eniola Aluko); Howard C. Smith (Camille Abily); John Todd/ISIPhotos.com (Marta); Jae C. Jong/Associated Press (Christine Sinclair)