Anyone who follows the women's game knows that it has not had an easy time taking hold in North America. There have been repeated attempts to establish a professional league in the United States but each attempt has come to failure for a number of different reasons. The most recent league to meet its demise was WPS which folded back in January after a number of off field issues. That meant that for much of the last year many of North America's top female players were without a home to play their club soccer.
That changed today though as US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati confirmed that there would be a new 8 team professional league in 2013. The league will be led by US Soccer but they will have the support of both the Canadian Soccer Association and the Mexican Federation. Both the CSA and FMF are involved in the league since it will provide them with a place for more of their players to play club soccer.
The biggest part of today's conference call from the Canadian perspective, was that Victor Montagliani confirmed that the CSA has committed to fund up to 16 national team players. That means that with the guidance of John Herdman the CSA will create a list of players who they want to fund to have them playing in this league. They will be covering the salaries of the player in the league which is actually more affordable for the CSA than having to host frequent residency camps. It was suggested by US Soccer President, Sunil Gulati, that there would still be residencies for the national teams as they will work with the league schedule and the FIFA calender to ensure their players are getting the best development possible.
The USSF stated that they would fund up to 24 players while the FMF will be doing the same for 12 players. If all the federations are filling that commitment it would mean there are up to 52 players in the league who are key members of the three national teams which works out to just under 7 per club. That is intended to ensure that the league will always have a lower cost of operation and will remain viable.
Having a Canadian city host a team was one of the topics that was discussed but it seems that at the present time there was not an ownership group that was ready to join the league. Montagliani did not rule it out as an option for the future but was not looking for a single club to have all the Canadian players play at. He would rather see them spread around the league both for their own development and also to ensure it does not skew the competitive balance of the league.
In the end, the USSF has gone with an 8 team league that will consist of teams in Western New York, Boston, New Jersey, Washington DC, Kansas, Chicago, Seattle, and Portland. Gulati confirmed that they did have 11 groups that were seriously interested in being involved in the league but after much consideration they decided that it would be best to go with an 8 team league. Keeping the size of the league down to start will reduce travel, ensure the talent pool is not stretched too thin, and keep operating costs down. The plan is to have the league begin its first season in late March or early April and then wrap up in September or October.
That start date is now only a few months away which means there is a lot of work to do before the league can actually get up and running. The ownership groups and the USSF are not worried about being able to start on time though as they are confident that the months of hard work that they have already put in will pay off. It will help that in most cases the ownership groups are already running soccer teams or have done so in the past.
The biggest question that the skeptics will ask of any new women's league is what will make this one different from previous leagues that have failed. In this case the difference seems to be the financial involvement from three large federations which will help to keep costs down from the get go. There are also a number of other cost saving measures in place that will include using smaller, more appropriate venues, lower salaries, the USSF running the league front office, and clubs using more interns when possible.
Reading between the lines it sounded like the league would follow a professional model in terms of the way players trained and the quality of play during the season but that players who are not subsidized by a national federation might have a harder time getting by on their salaries. Gulati suggested that some of the players in the league would need to maintain jobs in the offseason to help subsidize their own earnings.
There was some talk of working with MLS in the formation of the new league and Gulati confirmed that Don Garber had been very helpful in the process and that the league is considering a partnership with SUM. There is already one MLS ownership group involved in the league with the Portland franchise and Gulati suggested that their may be more teams interested in doing the same down the road.
A lot remains to be seen about how this league will take shape. For now the league has yet to be given a name, some of the team's names and home stadiums remain to be seen and the allocation of players is still unclear. It was suggested that these things would all be made clear over the coming weeks though as the league prepares to be up and running for an April kickoff. Gulati also confirmed that they are working on getting national sponsors on board, one is already in place, and are in early talks about a possible TV deal. It was clear though that the league plans on starting small with a focus on less hype and better performance. Similar to how MLS found success they plan to grow slowly and that the growth will be dictated by revenue rather than taking big loses in the early years to try and get started with a bang.
In terms of player allocation, Gulati did suggest that the national team players would be given the chance to express where they are interested in playing and that clubs would be given a similar chance to express who they would like and this would be taken into consideration. He also suggested that part of the allocation process will likely be some sort of player draft.
There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered and there is clearly a lot of work to do before April but at least we now know that Women's Professional Soccer is back in North America and that is great news in the lead up to Canada hosting the 2015 Women's World Cup. It is also great to see that this time around the CSA is taking a serious interest in the league and is spending the money needed to ensure their top female players continue to develop in the best environment possible.
It seems that the plan for the league is well thought out and they have a viable structure in place for ensuring operating cost remain reasonable. Now all that is left to do is hope that when they do get up and running they avoid the pitfalls that have claimed previous women's leagues.