Why a WPS - MLS partnership is unlikely to happen

Women’s Professional Soccer held its final Sunday. Now we all sit around and wonder if the league will play another game.

I’m on the record very clearly on WPS: I hope the league makes it … but I’ve said all along that it’s going to be a mighty struggle.

It certainly has been so far, with two clubs folding over the last few months, a dreadfully bad sign.

And it’s hard to find anything positive in the departure of WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci, who will not return next year.  I don’t follow the league closely enough to assess more precisely what this means, but I know of someone who does. Jenna Pel oversees the exceptional women’s soccer blog All White Kit. (When it comes to women’s soccer, if Jenna or someone else doesn’t post it at All White Kit, then it’s not worth reading about.) Here’s what she says about Antonucci’s departure and a league "in transition:"

The league sits at a crossroad, not at the edge of a cliff. Tonya Antonucci must be recognized for her efforts and her vision. Without her leadership, it’s difficult to imagine any league at all. She helped launch WPS in an unforgiving economy and seems okay with handing over the reins, particularly if it’s for the good of the league.

Pel also pointed out in other posts that regular season attendance declined 31 percent. (She later added some disclaimers and explainers in another post, but at some point you just have to say "this ain’t good" and leave it at that.)

As I said, I’ll leave the analysis of WPS up to people like Pel, and anyone else who can speak with more knowledge and authority on it all. But I will address one thing the outgoing Antonucci mentioned.

She said WPS might need more help from MLS.

While that sounds good and makes perfect sense from an altruistic standpoint, I just don’t see that happening. Not because MLS is run by a bunch of meanies who want to drive women’s professional soccer into a ditch. It’s nothing like that, in fact.  Read on for why it makes little sense … and why it probably won’t happen.

 

MLS is doing fine, but they aren’t exactly printing money at the New York headquarters or at any of the 16 club addresses. There’s still a long slog ahead before teams turn profitable. And I do mean long. If a turn to profit is a drive from New York to L.A., this wagon train is somewhere just east of Pittsburgh.  If you’re not sure what that means, Professor Google and his maps will help you understand.

So there’s little motivation for MLS owners to benevolently stoke the fires of WPS and the women’s professional soccer initiative when there’s so much wood to chop for MLS interests.

Major League Soccer has its hands full, still trying to shore up soft spots in the enterprise while bulking up in areas where progress has been gradually gained. TV, for instance, remains a critical work in progress. Some TV deals will soon be up for renewal and it makes no sense for MLS to bundle WPS games, effectively weakening its position.

There continue to be problems in certain markets, like Dallas and Colorado, where there are miles to go to untie the knots created over the last few years.  Now there are issues in former strongholds like Toronto. There are stadium issues to sort out, a serious one in the nation’s capital and a looming one in New England.

Neither is there motivation in individual markets to assist WPS. You might not get an MLS official to say so publicly, but there’s little appetite for initiatives that could cannibalize its audiences or undercut efforts to build its MLS crowds.

Face it, there’s only so much soccer dollar to go around – particularly in a soft economy. Let’s say a family goes to five pro soccer games a year in Los Angeles. If the Galaxy benefits by seeing that family in five matches this year, it doesn’t make sense for the club to link arms with a new women’s team there, effectively reducing its take in that family’s annual soccer budget.

Plus, there are dates to consider. Those preferred Saturday night slots are hard enough to secure in some markets given competition with concerts and other stadium commitments.   To link up with a WPS side would make it even more difficult to secure those Saturday night dates.

In a perfect world, there probably would be some marriage between the MLS and WPS efforts. But the world is far from perfect, as we all know. 

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