Christine Sinclair led Canada to its finest hour on an Olympic soccer pitch last Thursday.
The bronze-medal victory over France – three days after a heartbreaking defeat to the United States in one of the most riveting matches a Canadian team has ever played – was a high point of the London Games. And with Canada hosting the next women’s World Cup in 2015, it seems the perfect time for Ms. Sinclair and her teammates to capitalize on their fame by earning a living playing the game they love.
Unfortunately for her legions of new fans, they may get few chances to see her take the pitch.
A new professional women’s league is in the works, with plans to begin play in as many as eight U.S. cities next spring. Ms. Sinclair, whose performance in London proved she is still a superstar of the women’s game, might be a part of it – if the league gets off the ground.
After all, women’s soccer on this continent has been down this road before. Twice, backers of the sport have tried to seize on the success of a major international tournament to establish a bona fide professional league. Twice, they have failed.
A United States victory at the 1999 World Cup prompted a $100-million (U.S.) investment in the Women’s United Soccer Association, but that folded after three seasons. Its successor, Women’s Professional Soccer, launched after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, fared no better, terminating play earlier this year after an acrimonious, and expensive, lawsuit with one franchise owner.
Neither league was able to capture the holy grail of professional sports: a TV contract with serious money.
Top international matches draw a wide audience. The U.S. team’s gold medal victory over Japan drew an average of 4.35 million viewers on NBC Sports Network, while 3.84 million Canadians watched that wild semifinal game between Canada and the U.S., more than any other event in London except the men’s 100-metre final.
But that has not translated into mass popularity for women’s club soccer, which tends to be televised on marginal networks, when it is televised at all. That’s one reason so many questions remain about the viability of the proposed new league.
“No, I don’t think it’s any different at all [after the Olympics]. It’s exactly the same,” said Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, whose soccer club also operates a women’s team in a separate league.
“You talk about the wave of 1999 [Women’s World Cup] when you had 100,000 people in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and that’s as good as it gets and you’re winning on home soil.… That’s not a knock on the women. It’s just what’s the market going to bear and on two occasions the market has said, ‘I don’t know how much interest there is in this on a regular basis.’
“That doesn’t make the sport any less desirable to watch – I loved watching the women’s World Cup, but the idea of transferring that national team interest to clubs across the country is obviously proving to be very difficult.”
Financial mismanagement was at the root of a whole host of problems with the WPS. Teams spent big to bring in some high-profile talent, including Ms. Sinclair, who led the Western New York Flash to the league title in 2011 and was named Most Valuable Player in the final. But it was Brazil’s Marta, considered by many to be the world’s best player, who may have scored an own goal on women’s soccer.
“Every team she played with folded for one reason or the other,” said Jerry Zanelli, the commissioner of the second-tier Women’s Premier Soccer League, a mostly amateur circuit founded in 1997.
“The FC Gold Pride, they win the championship, they fold. She was at L.A. Sol, they won the regular-season championship, they folded. So every team she’s been with has folded and a lot of it is to do with the $500,000 [they were paying her], which is a killer salary.”
The fact is not lost on Sunil Galati, the president of U.S. Soccer Federation. Only 18 players earn more than that amount in Major League Soccer, the top North American men’s league, which averaged nearly 18,000 people a game last season – higher average attendance than either the NHL or NBA. So Mr. Gulati, a former economist for the World Bank, hardly needs his economics training to know that high salaries are unsustainable in the women’s game. The WPS averaged about 3,500 a game in attendance in its final season.
“Look, it’s pretty simple,” he said. “An economic model of the sort we’ve had the last two rounds hasn’t worked.”
One of the inescapable problems facing a women’s pro league is geography. The new league, to contain six to eight teams, has already announced teams in Boston, Chicago, New York and Seattle, with at least one more on the West Coast. That adds significant travel cost; Mr. Lenarduzzi, for one, thinks it’s a mistake.
“I’m a big believer that regionalization is key to this,” he said. “But it’s just too vast a country to have six teams in a league that goes from east to west. You kill yourself on the distances.”
With files from The Associated Press