Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) founder and commissioner Jerry Zanelli recently spoke with me about the current turmoil in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) and surprised by announcing that the WPSL, like the W-League, has plans to launch a professional women’s soccer league.
“No, I haven’t talked to [W-League],” said Zanelli, a career lobbyist away from WPSL. “No one has approached me. We were going to do it separately and it’s still our plan. We plan to start that in 2013.”
Additionally, Zanelli said that ousted magicJack team owner Dan Borislow, who is suing WPS for his ejection from the League, is also considering starting a professional women’s league.
While obviously four pro women’s soccer teams in the United States are not feasible, this competition indicates that financial possibilities are attractive and the best model is yet to be realized. Ultimately, the most successful pro league and team owners will be the ones that can affiliate and work with a wide spectrum of leagues and teams – pro and amateur, men’s and women’s – in the steadily growing U.S soccer pyramid.
A different pro model
Zanelli’s version of a professional league would be very different than WPS.
“We’d do a combination of professional players and amateur players, as long as they don’t have any college eligibility left, and high school players can play on professional teams as long as they don’t sign a contract,” said Zanelli.
“The pay wouldn’t be anything near what WPS teams pay and we’d pay by game. In other words, you wouldn’t be signed to a $40,000 a year contract and miss two, three, four, five games because of national team duties.
I’ve had players like Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy and they want to play locally, but they can’t really make a commitment. Brandi went to World Cup with ESPN last year, so we only had her for the first part of the season and we never paid her anything. That seems to work.”
Only two of the approximately 80 WPSL teams proposed to operate in 2012 are professional. The WPSL Orange County Waves and the Bay Area Breeze offer some players a part-time wage, and Zanelli describes the two pro teams as going through “a rough patch” because, as affecting WPS, the nation’s recession has reduced available sponsorships.
Zanelli’s model would also reduce the upfront money required to enter his pro league, which would stifle a marketing budget.
“I’d not be so demanding about the amount of money it takes to operate,” said Zanelli. “Or even get in. They have that $100,000 model, but then you have to have $1 million-plus in reserve.”
But after WPS dissolved their expensive relationship with Soccer United Marketing, which produced the powerful “See Extraordinary” and “Defend your Turf” campaigns, the quality of their marketing and public relations plunged. WPS failed to even retain Getty Images for press photography, essential for encouraging media coverage, and sometimes players themselves held microphones to introduce games on TV, immediately downgrading their status as elite professionals.
It’s difficult to see how a national league could create and sustain a convincing national image without substantial additional, not reduced, investment into this cornerstone of a business. While Borislow incorporated Abby Wambach’s face into his low-budget ads for his magicJack telecommunications device, public perception of WPS through that ad is a much different animal than that derived from the “See Extraordinary” campaign.
Zanelli thinks Borislow might have a legitimate lawsuit against WPS despite his many public transgressions and Zanelli figures there could be a lot of quality players looking for teams in 2012. The USSF has declined to sanction WPS as Division 1 in 2012 unless they add a sixth team, but Borislow’s lawsuit certainly discourages that event. But if WPS isn’t sanctioned and Borislow prevails in his lawsuit, then many former WPS players might be scampering for new teams, but mostly with amateur options if the status quo prevails.
“The [WPS] Board of Governors met and voted [Borislow] out and he’s on the board of governors. I think to vote him out, you had to bring him in to vote him out,” said Zanelli.
“He’s got millions to play with and there’s talk about him forming his own league. I’ve had a couple conversations with him and it’s very interesting what he plans to do. How much money do [WPS] have to defend a lawsuit?”
NCAA recommendation could benefit WPSL
Zanelli’s WPSL could also benefit from a proposed NCAA recommendation to cut Division 1 spring soccer competition, which would send more college athletes looking for amateur summer competition as a replacement.
“It’s disappointing to the university coaches and they’ll probably encourage players to play on outside teams to gain experience,” said Zanelli. “Higher ed is required to come up with bone-crunching proposals to cut back, but the first thing they usually cut are women’s sports.
But what does a football coach get paid? Or a basketball coach? Or even the minor sports’ coaches? The problem is it’s a business. They’re required to bring in millions of dollars through their athletic programs.
Being one of the original people fighting for Title IX back in the 70’s, it was to bring some quality to college sports. It’s not the NCAA for men, it’s the NCAA for all student athletes. Total up all the [sports] scholarships for men throughout a particular university and then total up the women. Football teams have 60-80 scholarships – that explains why it’s so low for men’s soccer.”
Zanelli originally formed the WPSL after frustration with the male-focus at the W-League, where he led his W-League California Storm team to the championship in that league’s first year of existence.
“I was one of the founding members of W-League,” said Zanelli. “The meetings I’ve attended on a national basis, be it USSF or USASA (U.S. Adult Soccer Association) or other groups – it’s predominantly discussions about men about 99% of the time. So we felt that if we concentrated on women only we could use all our resources and talents to develop a nationwide women’s league to stand alone.”
In the past, WPSL teams have fielded players like Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Sissi and recently Alex Morgan, but since WPS emerged in 2009, most national team players have been rostered in that league.
WPSL was founded in 1998 and has steadily grown from the original six teams to an estimated 70-80 teams across the United States in 2012, including 12 new entries, and provides playing opportunities for former, current and prospective college athletes.
WPSL’s success, and some of its potential limitations, can be attributed to the flexibility with which team owners are allowed to operate their teams as long as they achieve minimum standards regarding venue requirements and game day operations. Teams are charged only $2,500 to join WPSL and only $3,500 in annual operations fees. Each WPSL team determines their own operating finances and at least 10 of the amateur teams even charge players to play. Coaches are drawn from local youth clubs and higher levels, but some are not paid. Ticket prices vary, but generally run $10 per adult and $5 per child. Players travel to games via planes, busses and or vans. [Click here for WPSL rules.]
Currently, one WPSL team, FC Dallas Women, has an MLS affiliation and two teams, Boston Aztecs and New York Fury, have farm team relationships with WPS Boston Breakers and Philadelphia Independence, respectively.
Ultimately, it is this cooperation will other leagues and club owners that will determine which women’s pro league will continue to thrive in the coming years as the U.S. soccer pyramid develops.
When asked if he’d join a conversation about entering some WPSL teams in a W-League pro league, Zanelli responded, “Sure, we could talk.”
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