New Professional Women’s Soccer League: Wednesday Recap

On Wednesday, U.S. Soccer hosted a conference call (quote sheet, audio) with representatives from Canada Soccer, the Mexican Football Federation, where they officially, but not formally, announced a new professional women’s soccer league with eight teams in Boston, New Jersey, Western New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle, and Portland (Oregon), which will launch in Spring 2013.The 2013 season will run from March/April to September/October. U.S. Soccer will fund, as in fully pay the salaries of up to 24 USWNT players, while Canada Soccer and the Mexican Football Federation will similarly fund up to 16 players each. U.S. Soccer will also absorb all front office related costs such as scheduling, promotion, and website.

In addition to the conference call, several teams in the new league expanded on the conference call through press releases, interviews, social media, etc. However, specific details, most notably regarding the league’s name and some of the team names, have apparently yet to be specified.  More information will come out in the next several weeks, as the purpose of the conference call was “to get this news out there,” according to Gulati.

The rest of this post, as noted earlier, will be in a question-and-answer format.

WHO WAS IN ON THE CONFERENCE CALL? — U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, Canadian Soccer Association President Victor Montagliani,  Mexican Football Federation National Teams Coordinator Dennis Te Kloese, and Boston Breakers Managing Partner Michael Stoller.

WHICH EIGHT TEAMS ARE INVOLVED? There are five existing teams, plus three new teams. The existing teams are the Boston Breakers, the New Jersey Sky Blue, the Western New York Flash, the Chicago Red Stars, and the D.C. United Women. However, the D.C. United Women, whose primary investor is Bill Lynch, will be changing their name due to contractual sponsorship issues, and will also be retaining a W-League team. (So, regarding the latter, one could argue that the D.C. professional team is a new team as well.) The three new teams are in Kansas City, Seattle, and Portland (Oregon).

Fig. 1: Map of the Known Teams (from an earlier post)

WHO ARE THE NEW OWNERSHIP GROUPS? The Kansas City team will apparently be named FC Kansas City, and its  ownership group is headed by Chris Likens, owner of Nations Holdings Company, which is in the residential mortgage information services industries. The yet-to-be-named Seattle franchise is headed by Bill Predmore of the POP digital marketing agency. The main investor in Portland’s franchise is Portland Timbers’ owner Merritt Paulson, although due to contractual sponsorship issues, will probably not be the named the Timbers.

WAIT, THERE ISN’T A TEAM IN LOS ANGELES? BUT IT’S L.A.?! — Although, a proposal for an Los Angeles team was officially considered, that proposed franchise was not given the greenlight at this time for several likely reasons. First, there was not a second regional team that the franchise could be paired with, as was the case with Seattle and Portland. With most of the current franchises in the East, having pairs of teams outside that grouping would allow for more efficient two match road trips. Second, U.S. Soccer wanted an even number of teams. Third, at this time, having 10 or 12 teams was seen as diluting the talent pool (and perhaps the marketing pull as well). But, Portland got a franchise and L.A. didn’t?! Portland’s proposal had a few things going for it: (1) a deep pocket owner, (2) an established soccer fan base, both with the Portland Timbers, but also and likely more importantly, the University of Portland, and (3) Nike. Having a Portland franchise gives Nike a team in their backyard, which improves the likelihood that Nike will be a major sponsor in the new league.

WHY ARE U.S. SOCCER, CANADA SOCCER, AND THE MEXICAN FOOTBALL FEDERATION ALL SUPPORTING THIS NEW LEAGUE? — To win World Cups and Gold Medals. One of the overriding themes of the conference call was player development in support of the federation’s national teams. With the three federations subsidizing the league by paying the salaries for most of their national team members, that gives incentives for those players to stay and play domestically, which helps out scheduling-wise for the three national teams when they want to play international friendlies or hold training camps. Without a league, and without the salary subsidization, especially for Canada’s and Mexico’s WNT whose players have historically been more dependent on club team salaries for their income than the USWNT, where the majority of players receive a full-time salary. Also, with the three federations as major stakeholders in the new league, this gives them leverage in setting and adjusting the league’s schedule, which will fluctuate year-to-year due to the international and CONCACAF calendars.

EXACTLY HOW MANY PLAYERS WILL HAVE THEIR SALARIES SUBSIDIZED? — It looks to be a minimum of about 45, up to 56. U.S. Soccer will fund up to 24 players. However, if some USWNT players are primarily based in Europe, e.g. Ali Krieger (FFC Frankfurt), Whitney Engen (Liverpool Ladies), and Christen Press (Goteborg FC, maybe), U.S. Soccer may save their money and not pay additional players in the USWNT’s extended player pool. Canada will fund a maximum of 16. Mexico will fund a minimum of 12 and up to 16. So, if the eight teams have an average roster of 20 players each, that will mean that a minimum of over 25% of the players in the team will be funded by the three federations. Although, given that the funded players would likely be the highest paid players, the percentage of player salaries would likely be closer to 50%.

THE THREE FEDERATIONS ARE PAYING THEIR WNT PLAYERS’ ENTIRE SALARY? — Yes. This is a change in what was announced earlier, back in October, when the funding was only thought to be partial. However, teams and ownership groups will likely provide additional compensation, perhaps through sponsors.

IS THERE A LEAGUE NAME? No, not yet. This could be due to delays in marketing research and/or the trademark registration process. Another theory being floated about is that the league is looking for a sponsor who will buy naming rights, e.g., something along the lines of the “Nike Women’s Soccer League,” or the “Coca-Cola Women’s Soccer League.”

WHAT ABOUT A WEBSITE AND SOCIAL MEDIA? — Nope, no website at the moment, not even under a generic domain name. However, a majority of the teams are actively tweeting, including two of the new franchises, Portland (@PTWomensFC) and Kansas City (@FCKansasCity). This site’s account has a Twitter list of relevant official team accounts, here.

HOW MANY USWNT PLAYERS WILL PLAY IN THIS LEAGUE? — The general word is “a majority,” although that depends in part on which players will remain and be kept by Tom Sermanni and U.S. Soccer. Commentary: Hopefully, U.S. Soccer will be supportive of a few USWNT players plying their trade overseas in places such as Germany, Sweden, France, and Japan, which would be beneficial for certain players and can also be beneficial for the USWNT. As to who among the current USWNT players will stay and play domestically, that will likely not be answered until rosters are populated, either via a signing window and/or a draft.

SO HOW WILL PLAYERS BE ALLOCATED TO THE TEAMS? –That’s not all that clear. There will at least be some sort of draft for additional, i.e., non-funded players, but how the funded WNT players are selected remains unsettled. Also, not discussed on Wednesday was the initial allocation of players graduating from college this fall. One thing that we could see is a quota limit on the number of funded players per team, which will help with keeping the team’s player expenses in check. E.g., a maximum of no more than two funded players beyond the average per team. So, if there are 8 teams and a full complement of 56 players, the average would be 7, so a maximum would be 9. Although, at least for the initial allocation, an even distribution of funded players will likely be enforced.

DETAILS ON THE SEASON TIMING AND LENGTH? — The 2013 season will start in either March or April and run through September or October. Although not specified in the conference call, the end of the season will likely include some sort of post-season championship tournament, as was the case with the WPS and WUSA. With the Algarve Cup running from March 6th to the 13th next year, the earliest a league regular season could reasonably launch would be the weekend of March 22nd. In the 2013 season, each team will apparently play 22 matches, which means a triple round-robin league, plus a bonus match versus the team’s supposed regional rival, e.g., Seattle versus Portland, Kansas City versus Chicago, etc. Twenty-two matches is the same number of matches played by teams in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga and Sweden’s Damallsvenskan, which both have twelve teams in their leagues (double round-robin). However, clubs in those leagues also play domestic cups, and for the top two teams in each league, also play in the Women’s Champions League. So, the top European teams will likely (continue to) play more matches compared to teams in the new league, albeit over a more spread-out season (e.g., the Frauen-Bundesliga runs from September to May, with December and January off, plus breaks for the Algarve Cup, etc.).

IS THERE AN APPAREL (E.G. KIT) SPONSOR YET? — Sorta. Gulati mentioned a “handshake agreement” with one national sponsor. Speculation on that points to Nike. One wrinkle with Nike as an apparel sponsor (or any other sponsor not named Adidas) is that Adidas has an exclusive contract to make uniforms for Major League Soccer clubs, including the Portland Timbers and D.C. United brands. Unless Nike bends and allows for a non-exclusive apparel sponsorship, then the team owned by the Portland Timbers ownership group will have to have a different team moniker.

WHAT ABOUT A TV DEAL? — The league is in preliminary talks with at least one unspecified network. FOX Soccer seems the most likely candidate, as they were the TV broadcaster for the WPS and would have stayed on as such this year if the league had not folded. Also, between FOX  being the broadcaster for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and losing the rights to England’s Premier League, FOX Soccer has the incentive and the timeslots, to show matches. The next most likely option would be NBC Sports Network. Perhaps more important than a television deal is the issue of live-streaming matches and online highlights, but details on that were not discussed.

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That’s all for now. See the earlier “live updates” post for more information and additional source links.