The USWNT won gold in London with great fanfare, precipitating the inevitable debate about whether this will finally spur interest in a Women’s Professional Soccer League. The answer, as it proved to be after the 1999 and 2011 Women’s World Cup successes, is probably not. For a few reasons.
Spectacle vs. Sustained Interest: Abby Wambach points to filling Wembley Stadium as the sign of interest in the sport.
“I can’t sit and think about it because I do get a little angry,” she said. “We fill Wembley Stadium with 85,000 people and you tell us there isn’t enough interest? That seems a little dated. The major thing that makes me upset is we have all these great young players who come out of college with no place to go. They aren’t quite good enough yet to play on the national team, but they could be in a couple of years, and the opportunities aren’t there for them. How is that right?
We could point equally to empty stadiums in other Olympic matches, but even conceding her point: There’s a difference between a spectacle and a sport that sustains interest. Soccer (men’s or women’s) more resembles Olympic sports in the United States than a professional league. Massive World Cup ratings (men’s or women’s), as with Olympic ratings for swimming and gymnastics, don’t translate into increased interest on those sports outside that event. The World Cup bounce MLS touted never came. MLS and European soccer leagues may have a significant growing presence in the U.S., but that is under their own power.
Is There An Audience For Women’s Professional Sports? Team women’s sports have not attained mass popularity. Some might argue this is because sports fandom is dominated by hostile men. Others might argue that women’s sports need time to cultivate an audience. The truth is likely somewhere between those factors. There’s no proof that it can’t work, but there’s also no proof that it can work.
Financing: A stable women’s league is more than just finding the right owners and markets. Wambach hits at the ultimate point. Women’s soccer, at this point, can’t be a business venture.
“It’s a matter of finding the right people who understand they are doing this knowing they are going to lose money.”
The WNBA can exist, because the NBA has been and will continue to be there to offset the losses. For a women’s soccer league to work, it would probably have to resemble the European model, with male club teams funding a women’s league. It’s not clear that MLS has the willingness or the wherewithal to fund such an endeavor. Unless Bill Gates and Warren Buffet take a passionate, selfless interest in the project, any league is unlikely to be on stable ground.
Solution: The international game is popular. The club model may not work at present. The solution, at present, may be to work with FIFA to develop women’s soccer along its own lines, rather than aping the structure of the men’s sport. A club league may not work, but more persistent international competition, maybe some form of roving league with the top national teams, might.
[Photo via Getty]