Football cannot succeed without teamwork and it therefore seems apt that teamwork is being cited as the main cause for optimism as a new professional women’s league starts up in the United States with the backing of the Mexican and Canadian football associations.
Due to kick-off this Saturday, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) will start life as an eight-team, single-division competition, with participating clubs spread across the width of the country from Seattle and Portland in the west to Washington, New Jersey and Boston in the east.
The launch of a new league marks familiar territory for American women’s football fans, of course. Twelve years ago, it was the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) which was grabbing headlines as the world’s first fully professional women’s football league. Despite being inspired by the fervour that accompanied the American national team’s victory as hosts of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup™, the WUSA collapsed after just three seasons having run up losses of around USD 100 million.
A second attempt was made four years ago, with the launch of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). More modest in its ambitions, the WPS involved lower player costs – enforced with team salary caps – and a focus on grassroots partnerships over glitzy national promotion campaigns. Once again, however, the league was unable to stay within a budget whose targets became even harder to attain as the global financial crisis kicked in. One by one, teams began to fold, before a legal battle with one terminated club finally forced the WPS to cease operations in May last year. Like the WUSA before it, the league had also managed just three full seasons.
Set against that recent history, fans may be forgiven a sense of scepticism as the NWSL attempts to succeed where its predecessors foundered. But there are major differences this time around, with perhaps the most notable being the support of not just one, but three national football associations.
North American enterprise
Organised and administered on a centralised basis by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the league is also being backed by the neighbouring Canadian and Mexican associations. Though the new league will still have private investors for each team, salaries will be more controlled than in the past, with U.S. Soccer subsidising the salaries of 23 national team players, while the Canadian Soccer Association and the Mexican Football Association will each do the same for 16 of their players.
“The key here is longevity,” insists U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “In studying leagues that have succeeded here, like the [men’s] MLS, we’ve seen that the early years are tough. You can only survive those early challenges if you have people who stay committed and if the losses are manageable.
“So what we have done is set up a model with our Canadian and Mexican association partners to help minimise private sector investments, by having a specified number of players who are fully funded by each of those associations. On top of that, U.S. Soccer is going to absorb the league’s front-office costs. Taken together, those two factors change the economic model quite substantially.”
As the former commissioner of the WPS, Tonya Antonucci is in a strong position to judge the prospects of the new league. She too believes that the active support of three associations could turn out to be a “game-changer” for the NWSL.
“There is no doubt that U.S. Soccer’s support will open doors,” Antonucci told FIFA World. “It certainly helped to bring the Mexican and Canadian associations on board, and it means that the new league goes beyond the USA right out the gate. And the subsidies will have a huge impact on each team’s profit and loss.”
As with any other ambitious start-up, however, the NWSL still has many challenges to face. Competing for a share of the entertainment dollar, generating on-going coverage from the media and building on a core audience to keep fans filling the stands are just a few of them.
“As we have seen with two women’s league failures already, it is hard to sustain enough interest on a week-in, week-out basis,” says two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup winner and double Olympic gold medallist Julie Foudy, who played in the first USA pro league, served on the board of directors of the second league, and now works as a television soccer analyst.
The fact that the US, Canadian and Mexican associations are behind the new league also bodes well for its long-term success.
“But the great news is that the US women’s national team is very popular right now. And the fact that the US, Canadian and Mexican associations are behind the new league also bodes well for its long-term success. You’ll have players taken off cap money restrictions as a result of being funded through an association. That is a huge difference, as is having these governing bodies playing a real hands-on administrative role in operating the league. That was not the case with the previous league start-ups.”
A further challenge for the new league will be in striking the balance between fiscal prudence and star power. The comparatively conservative approach being taken by the league’s backers suggests there will be few immediate bids to attract top players from overseas, but it is also clear that big-name players are vital to the marketing of any league that has world-class aspirations.
“Prominent players are critical to help sell any league, but you have to watch out that bidding for superstars doesn’t lead to financial problems,” warns Antonucci. “In WPS we had a salary cap, but owners got creative and competitive beyond that. That is just the nature of ownership. You want to put the best team out on the field, and there is always a lot of emotion and competition among club owners.”
While the sustainability of the league will take some years to be proven, the guaranteed winners in the short term will be the players themselves, who can now look forward to high-level competition on a regular basis.
“Simply playing on a weekly basis is a tremendous advantage,” says Foudy. “It’s very hard to replicate that with residential [training camp] programmes such as the one that the US national team had to operate in the build-up to last year’s Olympics. Yes, they get to play international matches, but it doesn’t have the same consistency that a weekly league offers.”
Having been part of the American team that struck gold at the London 2012 Games despite lacking the support of a regular domestic league, current USA star Alex Morgan is in full agreement with Foudy.
“I think the best thing is the benefit of being able to have consistent practices,” says Morgan who is set to be reunited with former Western New York Flash strike partner and Canada captain Christine Sinclair after the two forwards were assigned to Portland Thorns FC in the new league’s squad allocations.
“With the national team it is on/off a lot, but with this new league I feel like I can really hone my skills. Also, the level of play will be higher by being able to play regularly.”
As well as providing more playing time for existing national team players, it is hoped that the NWSL will help broaden the talent pool when it comes to the next generation of players who have not yet caught the eye of the American, Canadian or Mexican national team coaches.
“I think that is one of the great benefits of this new league,” says NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey. “The national team coaches are looking to complete their rosters and this league provides a showcase for talented young players who might not have been noticed otherwise."
That opportunity appears to have come at a timely moment for the Canadian team in particular, as the country prepares to host the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“The NWSL will allow Canada’s players to play and train with the best, while operating under one calendar on the same continent,” enthuses Canadian Soccer Association General Secretary Peter Montopoli. “This had already been identified as a priority for our women’s programme so we’re pleased, as an organisation, to provide this opportunity for our athletes as we move towards hosting the Women’s World Cup in 2015.”
Looking to take Mexico to a second successive FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time in the team’s history, long-time national head coach Leonardo Cuellar is also confident that the league will benefit his players.
“It gives our players the opportunity to be active all year round,” points out Cuellar, himself a former international who turned out for Mexico at the 1978 FIFA World Cup™ in Argentina. “They’re going to be training in a professional environment with great players, and benefiting from that as individuals – which in turn should have a positive effect for the competitive level of our women’s national team programme. That’s why our association strongly believes that [supporting the NWSL] is the right action to help the Mexican national team compete with the best programmes in the world.”
Should the league prosper as hoped, the plan is to also include teams based in Canada and Mexico, a move that would further help boost the grassroots level of women’s football in both countries.
For now, though, the league’s organisers say they are taking things one step at a time.
“Our focus is slow, steady growth for a sustainable model,” says Gulati. “Less splash, less hype, better performance. If we have the performance, then the hype will follow.”