Women’s Professional Soccer has suspended the 2012 season

Two days ago, on January 30, Women’s Professional Soccer announced that they have “suspended” (according to Soccer Wire) the 2012 season. I’m left bereft: what about my team? What about my Boston Breakers? Also, I’m adamant I will start a blog post and actually finish it rather than leaving it in draft purgatory!

Most of the people I “follow” on Twitter are women’s soccer players, writers, fans, teams, or leagues. Whenever any of them writes a post (limited to 140 characters), it appears in my “feed,” also known as my Twitter home page. Two nights ago, I checked Twitter starting with that morning’s posts. The first murmur something was wrong with the WPS came mid-morning from reporter/blogger Jenna Pel of AllWhiteKit.com.

[Twitter posts appear in reverse chronological order; the most recent appear first.]

The official announcement came at 1 pm, at which point the floodgates opened with hundreds of tweets about the WPS suspending the 2012 season. If I’d started reading in the early afternoon, I would have spent the entire day glued to Twitter and news sites. As it was, I spent most of the night catching up. My Twitter feed was full of agony and empathy, anger and vitriol. There were links to so many blogs and other articles that I had to save them (via Instapaper) so I could continue my reading yesterday. What follows is my view of the situation, based on facts I’ve read and some of which I may be reporting inaccurately. If you want accuracy: follow the links.

My Boston Breakers “inaugural season” seat cushions.

Women’s Professional Soccer’s first season was in Spring 2009. We were Boston Breakers inaugural season ticket holders and have the lightweight foam seat cushions to prove it. We became diehard fans, attending every home game that we could, buying Breakers-wear, recruiting others to buy tickets, and getting to know the players. I became absorbed by getting the inside (or at least first public) scoop via Twitter, even during the off-season. During our three years together, some teams folded, a few new ones appeared. Having started with seven teams, the 2012 season was going to be down to five.

Five survivors. And then, the day after the US won the CONCACAF Olympics qualifying tournament, the boom came crashing down. WPS was suspending the 2012 season.

Out of the five WPS teams, the Boston Breakers and the Western New York Flash have said that they plan to play this spring. The Flash was an expansion team last year, based on the infrastructure of Buffalo’s W-League champion. They’ll probably rejoin the United Soccer Leagues’ W-League in some capacity. They have a terrific Rochester/Buffalo fan base and a dedicated owner (the Sahlens, who also own a local meat packing company). The Breakers consistently filled the most seats per season and are, by all accounts, a well-run organization. They established a relationship with the Women’s Premiere Soccer League’s Boston Aztecs, creating the Boston Aztec Breakers’ Reserves. Maybe the Breakers will play against WPSL teams? Don’t ask me to explain whether the W-League and WPSL are amateur or semi-professional, how many teams there are and where, etc. I guess I’m going to have to learn about that all too soon.

Amy and her biggest fan
Gster & Amy Rodriguez

Women’s Professional Soccer says that the league as a whole will resume with the 2013 season. That’s a tough sell since the last time a women’s FIFA USSF Tier 1 pro soccer league in the US folded (WUSA, Women’s United Soccer Association), it took 6 years for another (WPS) to re-appear. Women’s soccer leagues, in general, have at least three strikes against them: lack of support, internationally, for women’s sports; less interest in soccer in the US than in baseball, basketball, football and, apparently, even hockey; and the solvency difficulties every “minor” league faces.

Despite the attention the US Women’s National Team draws during World Cups and the Olympics, it’s difficult to attract enough US fans, consistently, to support an ongoing Tier 1 league. It’s also difficult to produce and then follow a business plan based on the realities that the fan base will necessarily start very small and the teams may never make a profit. Former Boston Breakers Manager Andy Crossley’s Fun While It Lasted has a growing number of “lively tales about dead teams,” currently covering 11 men’s sports. His site demonstrates the difficulties of keeping a “minor league” (business model, not athletic talent) team or league going. However, knowing WPS’s difficulties are shared doesn’t make me feel any better.

Part of the reason the WPS has suspended the season is its ongoing legal battle (and its associated financial pressures) with the bozo owner of the team formerly known as the Washington Freedom: Dan Borislow. There have been better rants about Borislow than I can write, but . . . I feel I must contribute.

Borislow owns a company-I-will-not-name that runs infomercials selling a telephone device and service and that has made him very rich. Last year two WPS teams had folded and only one (the Flash) had been created. Without a sixth team there was a lot of speculation that the league would shut down. Then MagicMan came along and “saved the league” (what he says, but so did the Flash) by buying the Washington Freedom. Judging by anything he’s said in public and what’s documented in private, he’s a bullying megalomaniacal ass. The other team owners must have known he was crazy when they made the decision to let him buy the team. What a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad decision that isn’t going to go away, unless, perhaps, the WPS moves to Australia.

[Some dubbed the jerkmo “MagicDan,” but I stuck with “MagicMan,” given that he has displayed some of the worst characteristics stereotypically ascribed to “men.”]

Once the Washington Freedom was his, MagicMan did nothing but cause trouble for the WPS. He took a team that had existed in the DC area from the founding of the WUSA through the period without a Tier 1 league and into the WPS era, renamed it after his company, and moved it to Florida “where there are a lot of hispanics that love soccer” (roughly what he said). He refused to hire athletic trainers, leaving some injuries unattended and players having opponent’s trainers tape them before games. He basically fired the coach, leaving them with just himself on the sideline (until he got kicked off the field), and then Abby Wambach as player/coach. He is an expert about women’s soccer because he has coached his daughter’s team. He housed “his” players in expensive condos and paid them well, but also intimidated and harassed them, including warning them they had no place on the team if they supported the players union grievance. At one point he texted or emailed a player: “it will be you who will not be playing professional soccer ever again in your life.” He told his players to call him “Daddy.” Gross, gross, gross, yuck.

MagicMan broke a bunch of WPS rules, like having an undersized field, not having a media contact, and not putting up the sponsor’s advertising boards. They fined him (he didn’t pay; it was like asking me for a dime). They took away his 2011 draft picks, to no effect. They took away a point in the league standings, which probably would have gotten more of his attention had his team, comprised primarily of national team players, not been so successful or had the WPS taken more points away. He called the WPS owners “infidels,” and “blithering idiots” He sued them. They took away his franchise. He kept suing them. They had to keep paying money for lawyers and attention to him. WPS and MagicMan came up with a bizarre compromise wherein he could keep his team, have it play nine games for two seasons against WPS teams, but not be part of the WPS. A former WPS no-longer WPS team playing WPS teams? What? WPS suspended the 2012 season.

While the Borislow Debacle is the contributing factor that makes me the angriest, it isn’t the only reason for this WPS breakdown. Another has been communication. I don’t know whether you can blame the timing and content of the league’s communications, or whether that’s a sign of underlying business issues. There are plenty of people arguing about the degree of WPS mismanagement and I’ll leave them to it.

The league’s timing for releasing information has been often been, well, stupid. When MagicMan’s infractions became bad enough for the league to do something about it, everyone knew about it days or even a week before the official WPS press release. The publicity battle is usually won by the reasoned party that puts the news out front. The only reason MagicMan didn’t win was that he’s so obviously cuckoo. The better question is probably: why did the disagreements become public at all? The result of both sides’ communications was to further tarnish the WPS’s reputation. The only time the WPS has made the mainstream news has been when it’s bad news, like the firestorm of attention each time one of the teams folded.

Communication with players hasn’t been good either. I can’t remember which team it was, but when one team went under, the information was public before many of the players knew they were out of a job. Peronsally, I don’t want to ever find out via Twitter that my employer has gone out of business. Though well-intentioned, the timing of the latest news feels malicious. The WPS waited until the day after the US won the CONCACAF Olympics qualifying tournament to tell the players, fans, and news outlets that the season was being suspended. It was nice to let the US Women’s National Team take the spotlight. But USWNT players have jobs: on the USWNT. It’s all of the other players who are left scrambling to find new teams. Curiously, none of the USWNT players have commented on the WPS news, just as none of them mentioned the WPS when they were in the World Cup limelight. That’s very disappointing.

Many non-USWNT players will look to Europe for places to play, but their deadline for hiring international players was set for January 31, a day after the WPS press release. That’s not nearly enough time to find an interested team and negotiate a contract. Those WPS players who might play for other national teams can’t stay in the US and play in the Tier 2 leagues because doing so can make them lose their standing with FIFA. WPS: your timing stinks.

Where will all of the WPS players go? I worry for them. Every single woman who has ever played in the WPS is an elite athlete: the starters, the bench players, those on the rosters who rarely played, those who were cut, and the twenty-three college players just drafted, their dreams come true and dashed in the same month (January 2012). World-wide, there aren’t many opportunities for women to play professional soccer. Now there are even fewer.

I will keep worrying, but I know that many of the players will land on their feet. After all, they’ve been doing it for most of their lives, often with humor. This tweet from Boston Breaker Liz Bogus on January 31st made me start to feel better.

Over the coming weeks I’m sure my sadness will remain, but I’m cautiously optimistic that there really will be a 2013 WPS season. And, as long as the Boston Breakers exist, no matter the league, I will be a fan.

Let’s go Breakers!

Fan going home
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