Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Good Intentions: notes on the WPS as cause & business

Stuff you won't see on TV (Brazil v Canada)
Photo by Sereias da Vila
It's been a harrowing month for fans of women's soccer. This year's WPS champions, FC Gold Pride, folded. The team is thought to be one of the best assembled, but the club's backers were not prepared to weather more years of financial loss. The Chicago Red Stars - which has a strong fan base - announced that they were suspending operations for the upcoming season. No one expected to break even in the league's first few years, but few expected to lose the money they are losing - the league has yet to recover from the impact of global economic disaster. I think lots of us can relate to that. Other teams will come into the league but the upcoming season only features six sides, all on the east coast. That said, there may be two teams from California entering the league in two years and there are rumors of Santos supporting a US-based sister team. And much of the news on the international level is good: better competition (e.g. Brazil and Canada's recent performances in São Paolo) will make for an exciting World Cup.

As all this unfolds, sports journalists quite rightly turn their attention to the Women's Professional Soccer league and offer up their diagnoses for its rocky start. There are a lot of good takes on the league's struggles, and the more we have, the better. (All White Kit is my go-to blog for all thing women's soccer.) Of course, I'd trade those grim end-of-the-season stories for regular, consistent coverage of women's soccer throughout the season.

In the reporting on the WPS that we do have, there is one kind of observation I could do without. Noah Davis, in his mostly on-point diagnosis of the state of women's soccer in the US, points to a tweet from a Washington Post journalist:
Steve Goff...noted, "WPS is becoming a cause instead of a business. Can't sustain a pro sports league on good intentions." His thoughts echo those of many who cover the sport.
I've lost track of how many times I've read or heard some version of this statement in discussions of women's soccer, and witnessed these nods of recognition and agreement.

From Puma/WPS 2010 ad campaign
I would like to ask where this sense of "cause" is coming from, and why it feels like such a burden to these folks. The WPS marketing budget is so miniscule that one can hardly assert that any fan of women's soccer has been overwhelmed by its message. That message has, in my experience, tried in fact to stay as far from "cause" as possible. (This ad is my favorite.) But of course, the "cause" is always there in women's sports. Whether it's spoken or not.

Being a fan of women's soccer - hell, nearly any women's sport - means that some part of what you do becomes feminist, whether you identify yourself with that word or not.  I don't have a problem with feeling like the WPS is a cause. Fans actually connect around "cause" more than "business" - the cause is what gets us to the game, the business is what makes us complain about the price of the ticket.

And there is something obnoxious about the statement "Can't sustain a pro sports league on good intentions." It is just a tweet, but it does seem to capture a broader "common sense." Let's look at the NFL as a model for what happens when you throw out "good intentions" and embrace the logic of "business." We could look at Liverpool, or any number of severely leveraged clubs. We could look at stadium development. Or FIFA. Actually - why stick to sports? We could talk global warming and the environment. Or mortgages and the housing market.

I would rather see the WPS fail than become like the NFL. I do not need women's soccer to be like the English Premier League, or like any business that makes a few people wealthy and the rest of the world poor. If we can find a way to build a league that allows women to play soccer, develop their game, and not have to work full-time in order to do that, a lot of us would be happy. Sustainable business is a cause, shaped by "good intentions" and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

If that's a killjoy for people who want to worship at the altar of the absolute corruption and greed of big time sports, well, they have plenty of other leagues that will be all too happy to make it their business to lift the burden of "cause" from their shoulders.

[See also Tanya Keith's "Can Women's Soccer Survive? Is the Wrong Question"  on her blog "Soccer...Family Style."]


  1. Was in Santa Clara last weekend and saw what remains of the Gold Pride having breakfast in a local diner. Long faces and no sense of hope was etched on these young women's faces. I was sitting with a fan and critic of the ownership and after a long passionate discussion we came to a compromise. As much as we would like to see an independent Women's league, some partnership with either the MLS, USL or NASL, where marketing/training resources and travel expenses would be shared, is a solution in a country the size of a continent. Have a Happy Holidays Jennifer

  2. Hi GatG. Maybe. I keep thinking really that strong regional pro leagues are totally respectable (but I guess that's a problem for USSF?). That, and universal, public health care - I understand that health insurance & worker's compensation are the biggest expenses for teams!

  3. It's always sport versus something: spending Sunday with your family, working, investing in retirement funds, etc. The irony lost on this rather unintelligent chump is men's sports (and all sports) are a cause.


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