By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: August 8, 2011
BOCA RATON, Fla. — Three weeks after losing in the final of the Women’s World Cup, the players on the United States national team have returned to their professional soccer league. They have been welcomed home as if they were champions, handed roses and plaques calling them “extraordinary heroes,” an embrace that they both appreciate and find somewhat baffling.
“It definitely makes it hard coming back and being honored,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said. “We’re like: ‘Wait a minute, we’re confused. We didn’t win.’ But at the end of the day, it’s been really special coming home. We did so much for the game. It’s been amazing.”
Yet, despite the fame and glory the Americans achieved with their thrilling run at the World Cup, the far less glamorous and more uncertain existence of league soccer has abruptly returned.
Attendance and television ratings have swelled in the three-year-old Women’s Professional Soccer league, but there is no guarantee that it will survive into Year 4.
Salaries, which average $25,000 but run as low as $200 a game for a few, according to players, face further cuts. Front offices of the six teams are run by skeletal staffs. Health and dental insurance plans are being reconsidered as team owners search for financial viability.
Even Abby Wambach, who emerged as the biggest star of the United States team for her heading prowess, is caught up in the disarray of the fledgling pro league. The future remains tentative for her team, magicJack, which is named after a broadband telephoning device. The league is threatening to terminate the South Florida franchise after the season ends this month. It has accused the team owner, Dan Borislow, of violating various operating rules, failing to pay bills, bullying players and briefly coaching the squad without a proper license.
Borislow, who has opened his checkbook and stocked his team with seven American World Cup players, has sought a court injunction to prevent disbandment. He said league management was “a lot better at lying than running a professional sports league,” had inflated attendance figures and jeopardized the W.P.S.’s existence with paltry salaries, saying some players were essentially “indentured servants.” [You can read all about the Borislow/WPS controversy here.]
Amid the controversy, Wambach has become player-coach of the team. She has seemingly provided a calmer, more relaxed environment as the playoffs approach.
“This isn’t my first priority, but I think this gives the team the best chance to win a championship,” Wambach said. “I ask a lot of questions, get everybody’s opinion. You want to make sure we win games, but this has to be a really good experience for everybody.”
To be sure, the World Cup bolstered women’s soccer. Since the tournament, average attendance has increased to 5,164 from 2,741 at W.P.S. matches. Television ratings are up 18.5 percent. Social media traffic has soared. Inquiries are being fielded about expansion of the six-team league and additional corporate sponsorships. Goalkeeper Hope Solo has signed an endorsement deal with Gatorade that will pay her about $100,000 a year.
“I’ve never felt better about the potential of the league,” Anne-Marie Eilarass, the league’s chief executive, said.
W.P.S. is considered the world’s best women’s league. A quarter of the players in the recent 16-team World Cup have played in the league, Eilarass said. But history suggests that operating a fully professional women’s league in the United States will be difficult, and that a semiprofessional model found in Europe may be more sustainable.
Even bolstered by a victorious 1999 World Cup and pioneering stars like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Briana Scurry, the Women’s United Soccer Association folded in 2003 after three seasons and a capital investment of $100 million.
Since the American women faced Japan last month in the World Cup final before a sellout crowd of 48,817 in Frankfurt, they have returned to playing mostly in small college stadiums in the East and Southeast. A league-record crowd of 15,404 attended a match July 20 in Rochester, as Wambach returned to her hometown. Inevitably, some crowds have begun to contract.
After drawing 3,286 fans to a home game last month, Wambach’s South Florida team drew 1,727 here Wednesday. While the overall bump in W.P.S. attendance is encouraging, David Halstead, owner of the Philadelphia Independence, said: “We’ve got to transition beyond just suburban families. We need more mainstream soccer enthusiasts.”
Or, as midfielder Megan Rapinoe of magicJack put it, “We don’t want just little girls watching our games.”*
There is talk about West Coast expansion next season — earlier teams in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area folded — but the maelstrom in South Florida illustrates a broader uncertainty about W.P.S.’s future.
In Philadelphia, which is vying for the league’s best record, Halstead, the owner, said he believed he could profitably operate the Independence for $1 million to $1.2 million at some point, but not yet. He said he lost $2 million in 2010, would lose $1 million this season and probably finish $500,000 in the red next season, if there is one.
Included in the belt-tightening this season in Philadelphia was a reduction of the average player salary to $28,000 from about $32,000, along with cutbacks in housing and cars provided to players, Halstead said. Even health and dental insurance plans will be reconsidered, he said, as W.P.S. seeks to balance high-level performance with fiscal responsibility.
“When W.U.S.A. was around, there was an expectation that it was going to be O.K. to lose money and owners would be willing to stick around because of the love for women’s soccer,” Halstead said. “W.P.S. is different in that we don’t believe that. I’m not in this to lose money. I’m in this to make money.”
The question becomes: at what financial level will the owners, players, sponsors and fans feel it is worthwhile to continue?
The league’s players have unionized but no collective bargaining agreement currently exists. The average league salary is $25,000, but income varies widely. Top American players can earn about $65,000 to $70,000, supplemented by another $50,000 to $60,000 in salary from the national team. Marta, the Brazilian star who plays for Western New York and has five times been named world player of the year, is an outlier who makes $500,000, a league official said.**
But some W.P.S. players make less than $10,000 a year and live three to an apartment, owners and agents said.
“The national team players, I think we’re going to be O.K., but you can’t have a league with people making nothing,” Rapinoe said.
Christie Rampone, the captain of the United States national team who also plays for magicJack, suggested W.P.S. consider a semipro model that exists in Germany and other European countries, where players get paid but also work other jobs. She favors lowering the top salaries and raising the lower salaries as the league seeks to gain its financial footing.
“Do I deserve the money I’m making?” Rampone said. “Yes, but other players are professionals, too, and need to make more. I don’t want to be on the field where someone’s making a couple hundred bucks for an appearance. I don’t think it’s fair.”
If salaries slide too far, though, national team players may choose not to participate in W.P.S., unwilling to risk injury and their Olympic and World Cup futures for little pay, said Borislow, the magicJack owner.***
“They need to embrace their best players,” Borislow said. “You can’t pay them $15,000 and have their endorsements ruined if they get hurt. If you don’t have those players, you don’t have a viable league.”
While W.P.S. tries to resolve its future, Wambach and her World Cup teammates are focused on the league playoffs, followed by Olympic qualifying in January. The 2012 London Olympics are being counted on to maintain interest in women’s soccer.
“A lot of us left our hearts back in Germany,” Wambach said of the World Cup. “I’m still very brokenhearted over it. But you’ve got to move on and start preparing for London.”
*I feel like this has always been a shortcoming of the marketing surrounding WPS and women's soccer in general--it's being portrayed as entertainment for young girls (or spank bank fodder for dudes)--not serious sports competition. But you can't sustain the league on that.
***This makes no sense to me. What are the players going to do? If they don't play club soccer at all they jeopardize their chances of making the NT at all, and even if the top few foreign leagues absorbed all of the players in the USWNT player pool, they're semipro and probably wouldn't pay any more than this hypothetical semipro WPS. Shut up, Borislow.
ETA: I forgot I had read this earlier. Added bc it's pretty relevant/interesting.
Lincoln's centre-back describes a typical week in preparation for the launch of the summer league
Lincoln's Sophie Bradley has recently broken into the England squad and has been awarded a central contract which earns her £16,000 a year. But despite this and some pay from her club, the 21-year-old defender – like the vast majority of the players in the new Women's Super League – needs to maintain a part-time job outside football.
Monday I'll start each week working at my part-time job in a care home. My duties are varied, helping the old people in their basic day-to-day requirements. On Monday evenings the team will be training and for me that means a 50-mile drive each way
Tuesday A rest day in terms of training as a group, but we all have our individual programmes - some of the girls from the national team as well as the club - so I'll be doing stuff at home or at my local gym. I may also fit in an extra shift at work
Wednesday We'll be playing a couple of matches a week and next Wednesday is our first, against Doncaster Belles at Sincil Bank. We'll meet up around 5.30pm for a pre-match meal and go through our gameplan one last time
Thursday A rest day but more individual training and another shift at work. I like to get my head away from football when I'm not training or playing and I find my work at the care home really fulfilling
Friday Debriefing from our Wednesday match and starting to prepare for our Sunday game. We'll do some stuff in the gym as well as working on match-play on the pitch. Nothing too high-intensity, but work on set plays, shooting and small-sided games
Saturday In my local park to keep up my fitness programme, then if we've got an away game on Sunday the team will meet up and travel for an overnight stay
Sunday If we're at home we'll meet up two hours or so before the game and the routine will be the same as on midweek match days
Not quite the life of a male footballer, eh?