How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? Can WPS Survive a Second Breach?

John HowellAnalyst IMay 28, 2010

San Francisco, CA (May 28, 2010)—Yesterday, at the close of business, WPS issued a press release announcing the shut-down of the St. Louis franchise. Fans have been waiting for more, for some assurance that the league is not imploding.

Yes, the press release included a nice quote from Commissioner Tonya Antonnucci saying (and I paraphrase), "Yes, this is inconvenient but don't worry, we'll re-work the schedule and we still have as many teams as we had last year."

Somehow that isn't enough. Yes, thanks to expansion there are the same number of clubs in the league as in its inaugural season, but...there are two conspicuous absences. The team with the most talent, including the best field player in the world (Marta), and the most wins in the first season, disappeared less than two months prior to the start of the second season.

Los Angeles Sol folded and its players were dispersed via draft to the remaining clubs in January, when their owners gave the franchise back to the league, and no new owners could be found in time.

Losing a marquis team was bad enough, losing it so close to the new season was even worse, but losing a second team mid-campaign is exponentially worse than that, and the fact that the St. Louis club seemed to be one of the pillars of the league is worse yet.

As the host of last season's (inaugural) All-Star Game, Athletica was the showpiece of the league. It's stadium complex was touted as a template for women's pro soccer in America, both in scale and in design. They were contenders for the regular season championship late into the season, made the playoffs, and promised to equal or surpass that success again this year. Their roster was among the more talented in the league, anchored by the world's greatest female goalkeeper, Hope Solo (pictured above).

According to news reports the team folded because key investors backed out. That is understandable, but considering the season is only seven weeks old, it is curious that the reliability of these investors wasn't known prior to this point, and that some preemptive action wasn't taken, either to reaffirm their commitment, develop a backup plan, or simply fold the club before the season opener.  

Bad as it would have been to lose two franchises before the season, a mid-season shut-down has so many more and larger ripple effects. The trauma to the rest of the league is palpable.

Schedules are disrupted. Rosters are disrupted. And most importantly fan loyalty is disrupted. Not just in the cities that have lost their clubs abruptly, but also in the rest of the league where fans have no reason not to wonder if their club will be next.

Disrupted schedules diminish the league's credibility. Hard copies of team schedules will be inaccurate, as will game tickets. Every time a schedule change occurs, the holders of those calendars and tickets will be reminded of the league's instability.

As much as the flood of additional free agents into the market could be seen as a boon to some clubs, any attempt to sign and integrate additional players will disrupt team chemistry.

As daunting as those issues may be to overcome, the impact on fan loyalty is the most critical.  

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about the relationship between media attention and fan support for women's sports, especially in the Chicago market. I compared a fan's commitment to a new sports team as being an emotional relationship not that different from a romantic relationship. It's hard to commit to a suitor or partner who may not be around for long, who may break promises. Especially those who have been hurt before are much more reticent to give their hearts a second or a third time.

It is possible that the remaining seven franchises in Women's Professional Soccer are solid and stable. It may be that the league and these franchises will be around to celebrate a 10th anniversary, a 25th, and beyond. But how do we know that? It's like the woman who finds out her best friend's husband has been cheating on her. The first woman's husband might be the paradigm of fidelity, but all of a sudden she's going to wonder.

As WPS is a third of the way into its second season it needs to do something bold and convincing to put its fans at ease, or it may not survive this blow. It needs to be transparent and proactively truthful.

If other franchises are in trouble, the league needs to tell us. For one thing, if fans knew their club is in trouble, they might be able to raise money to keep the team alive. (See Jo Ryan Salazar's column, "..Missouri Loves Company.." at Bleacher Report . He suggests fan ownership as a model for future league expansion).

Transparency, transparency transparency! The league and each local franchise should open their books to the public to verify their financial health. If the league can't or won't do something to reassure skittish fans, it is likely fans will begin to distance themselves from the league to avoid disappointment.

I'm not talking about myself. I'm a fool for love. My youth was a series of leaps from romantic fire to romantic frying pan and back to fire again. I'll block out my worries. I'll hope for the best. I'll be there as long as there's a there there.

But I'm worried about those who are less faithful, less loyal, less willing to commit, those more emotionally risk averse. I'm afraid that even if the league could be strong enough to survive, it may be weakened to the point of failure by fan defections due to the uncertainty caused by the current crisis.

It's not certain that much information will be provided. What the league is saying, through their spokesperson, Robert Penner, is that there is no reason for concern that any other franchises will fail this season. "Each team has submitted a budget and everyone's budget is on track," he said.

He also stated the league is considering raising the salary cap and increasing roster size in order to absorb as many of the St. Louis players as possible. The implicatioin is that if the rest of the league were teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, increasing the salary cap or roster size would be moot.

I certainly hope that's right, because the time is right for a league like WPS to succeed.  Women's Professional Soccer is the premiere women's league for the world's most beautiful game. It is the best sports bargain around, and in this economy, people who tire of paying hundreds of dollars for a family trip to any other major league park will eventually discover the same quality product can be enjoyed for pennies on the dollar—if....