Boston Breakers head coach Lisa Cole is one of the major proponents of getting the best teams from the W-League and WPSL Elite League together in one league for 2013. Doing so would form a direction for women’s soccer in the U.S. and, ideally, keep talented players at home. In this exclusive interview with Meg Linehan, Cole talks about her vision of what the proposed new women’s soccer league for 2013 will look like in the short and long term.
Meg Linehan: So the news came out that there will be a league next year; there’s still not a lot of detail about what it’s going to look like beyond 12-16 teams, budgets start around $500K a year, but teams could theoretically go over, right?
Lisa Cole: Yeah, I think teams could go over, but we’re hoping that teams will be reasonable and not drive up ticket prices and not drive up player costs. The biggest problem with WPS and WUSA is we just overspent for players, and when you overspend for players it just gets really rough. It’s like: well, I want this player and then this team wants that player and we get in this bargaining war going back and forth and it just ends up making everybody’s costs a little bit more.
ML: There were two very different proposals that were floating around online. One was from last year, and was I think by the GM of the Red Stars, and suggested paying people four grand for every month that they’re playing. And one more recently by Matt Rolf that was built around a living wage. Do you think there should be a balance between that bare-bones player salary and the living wage?
LC: I think there’s an in-between zone there for players and for teams because there’s players who need to make a living wage and they’ve earned making a living wage. The Heather O’Reillys of the world shouldn’t be coaching soccer and out doing all these other things when she’s earned the right to be a professional soccer player. And then there’s other players who still need to work on their approach to the game, and they still need to improve and they’re young players. I think just having the opportunity to play and having a platform to play on is reward enough for them. Now, do we help them find camp opportunities, do we help them find work in the local community, do we put them up with host families or find them living situations so they’re not spending a lot of money? Certainly we do that. But some of these players coming straight out of college, and some of these players who aren’t on our national team certainly need to earn a way, and that’s how every other country’s doing it. You look at Sweden, you look at Germany, you look at Norway, and they’ve proven you don’t have to go all the way to the top and have every player paid somewhere around $40,000 to $50,000. You can do it paying the players that have earned that.
ML: So two to three players at that top level, and then scale.
LC: Scale downward. And you may end up with some players who are just amateurs, where they feel like they’re improving. There are players on our roster who I think have done a great job for us will then fight and earn those playing spots, or they won’t. They won’t end up staying in professional soccer for long-term if they can’t move themselves up. But we’ll provide them the opportunity to do that with a league.
ML: Do you think the lack of Division I status will have any sway in how the league will be looked at by external forces? It seems that they want to start smaller, and then build, which I think is finally the right model of building a league that is sustainable–since sustainability is obviously still the number one problem.
LC: The funny thing about the Division I status is, that’s MLS. That’s English Premier League. In Germany, there is no women’s team that’s at Division I. In fact, in Germany there are no players that are classified in that top level of professionalism. None of their players! So they’re in that second category. And it’s just so easy, because we’re Americans, we’re American women, and we’re feminists and we want to be rated the same as the men. This league will be the same as the men. We’ll be the highest level of soccer competing in the US, and we’ll have some of the best teams in the world. That’s fine with us, if we start it there. But we won’t look like MLS right away; MLS didn’t look like MLS right away. It took time, it took building, and I just think we need to start at a more basic place. Let franchises that have good ownership and good fans and good structure build. Give them time to do it in a league that’s sustainable long-term, rather than trying to demand that teams and franchises pay this enormous amount of money upfront before they’ve built their fanbase. We’re lucky in Boston, because we have a great fanbase. It’s still, at the end of the day, a lot of money to be putting out without players doing more than just showing up and playing. And that’s all we’re asking the players to do: show up and be in camps, show up and be in the market year-round, rather than being in market for six months. Be a part of the community that you’re in. I think that’s not unrealistic to ask your players to do.
ML: I think there was a huge shift in what social media could do for a team. Like with the US Women’s National Team, pre and then post-World Cup, and watching Alex Morgan go from somewhere around ten thousand Twitter followers to one-hundred thousand Twitter followers in an incredibly short time-span. What I always find fascinating is you put these players who are coming from a college situation, or have been groomed by US Soccer through the U-17s, U-20s, and they then are put into a situation where they have to become the face of women’s soccer in whatever their market is. And I don’t know if they necessarily get a lot of training in that area. Have you noticed that the Breakers tend to be more willing to take that extra step forward into the community?
LC: I think there’s been a couple of things that have happened. One, we’ve hired someone in Ryan [Wood, Communications Manager for the Breakers] to keep up with what the players are doing on Twitter, and two, we met with them pre-season and we said to them, “you are our marketing force.” It is important that they be out, and when they’re out, they can be themselves and they can do their other things but they have to remember they have a responsibility to the Boston Breakers and to take opportunities to build us up. Take opportunities when you meet a guy randomly on the street who happens to own this company and has a little daughter who plays soccer, to say, “Hey! come out and support the Breakers.” Be active in marketing the team, and not just say, “Yeah, I play.” Which is sometimes their response since they haven’t been trained to respond properly. So we’ve taken time to educate them on how to respond, and some are better than others, for sure, like Leslie Osborne. [laughing] She’s the perfect example, she’s out marketing herself and the team all the time. The good thing is we have a good example like that, so I can say to players, ‘Oh, you want to make a career of soccer, you want to make a living with soccer?’ Leslie doesn’t just do that with the Boston Breakers, she’s got T4 contracts and Abby Wambach doesn’t just do that through US Soccer, she’s also got Nike and all these other things. What women’s professional soccer in the future needs to be is a platform for them, and what they do with that platform will rely on them. But the status that comes from being a professional athlete is something they can take advantage of. And let’s face it, they’re getting to do a job that they love, and they should be paid fairly, but we’re focusing on health insurance, housing, making sure we’re keeping their costs of playing down. And we’ll pay them what we can pay them, what we can afford to pay them, and still be around in five years, ten years, twenty years.
ML: You’ve been a really big advocate for getting more women involved in game behind the scenes, in coaching, administration, managing, communication, all those sorts of things. Do you want to see kids who are in college right now, majoring in sports management or sports marketing, here’s a sport that needs my help as a woman. Who have the passion and the education, to come in and fill some roles?
LC: I think it’s important that we find good women. A good friend of mine, Amanda Vanderhort, she’s now with MLS doing some marketing stuff and she started with the WPS. I think she was a big part of WPS initially with getting the players all on Twitter and updating them, and getting me on Twitter, and getting soccer people into the social media world. We need people like that, pushing us a little bit in order to grow the game. Amanda played, and she coached, and she has a passion for the game. The more people we have like that in the game, the better we’ll be, because they’re doing it for the right reasons and they want to see us succeed. We need to see the people who are on the sidelines step up. I hear a lot of criticism, ‘Oh, why don’t you guys do this? Why don’t you do that?’ Well, why don’t you do that? Why don’t you help us put together the right plan? If you have the right answers, then help us and give us the right answers. We’re soccer people, and a lot of us–well, at least I’m a soccer person–we have business people who are involved as well, but people aren’t making money putting together this league. People are doing it because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s a passion, and we need other people who have a passion for it, who want it to succeed, to get on board. And instead of offering a lot of criticism, offer, ‘Hey, how can I help?’ That’s been my approach to this. I think there should be more women in coaching. I’ve had mentors who have then said, ‘Well, how are you going to make that happen? You think that should happen, how are you going to make it happen?’ So then I go out and find players who I think should be coaching and I put them in coaching situations, or I get them in courses, or I mentor them. With the NSCAA, I’m now the chair of the women’s committee and I also sit on the board to represent women’s professional soccer. I try to make sure we’re identifying good women. I think that Amy Carnell, who’s the GM at Seattle now is a great person to have in the game, Melanie Fitzgerald, who was key in the game. I think there’s good women out there, but there’s just not enough of us. And we get pulled in every direction. We have some good young people coming in. I think Kristine Lilly, coming out and starting to coach is fantastic. I think that will bring instant recognition to the game when we start to have people like that coaching. I hope Leslie [Osborne] will continue to coach the game. I hope that some of our young players won’t only just coach to earn a little bit of extra money but to become passionate about coaching in the future. Look at Germany and their full national team coaches, or their former national team players. I don’t think everybody has to be a national team player, that kind of caliber player to be a coach, but I do think when you tie in the experience of being a great player and having good coaching knowledge that it helps.
ML: Is there a lot of communication between the women’s soccer world and other sports that have a women’s league? Is there any contact between the women’s soccer world and people who are involved in the WNBA, for instance, to say, this worked for us, have you thought about this? There’s the Women’s Sports Foundation, but that doesn’t necessarily seem to act as a conduit for information about the practicalities of running a league.
LC: It would be interesting to reach out and see what they would say. I think the WNBA has a different support system.
ML: Right, David Stern is their biggest supporter.
LISA: We would love if we had the MLS supporting us at this time. I don’t think that works for every market. We would love to have a partnership with the New England Revolution, and the Revolution, when it’s appropriate, would like to have a relationship with us. But I don’t know if our brand needs to turn into the New England Revolution brand. I think the Boston Breakers brand has built itself. But I see what’s happening in Seattle. I’m originally from Seattle, that’s why I keep referencing them, because I follow them. That’s helped their women’s team for sure, taking on that brand. D.C. United as well, the women have taken on that brand.
ML: You can piggyback on that infrastructure so much more easily. That’s always been the main advantage of approaching MLS to partner.
LC: And I think at some point in time, the MLS teams will start to lean in that direction. They’ll feel that they’ve developed their youth academies, and the next thing to do is to go back and support the women’s game. I think those teams that are just now getting more into the youth game, that’s where their focus is at this point in time, and I don’t blame them. Youth development is an important piece of what professional teams should be responsible for. But I do think at some point in time they need to come back and make sure–they want young women as fans, they want women as fans.
ML: And their audience right now is around 40 percent women. And it’s growing.
LC: We always love when the number are like that. The NSCAA, the percentage of coaches that are in their organization, almost 80 percent coach girls. They might coach boys as well, but they coach girls and boys. So that always helps you, when you throw back those numbers. We spend a lot of time looking at the men’s game, the men’s game, the men’s game, but women love this game. And they might love it more than they love basketball, or baseball, or football.
ML: What do you think is key in the next six to eight months, now that the WPSL Elite and the W-League are starting to wrap up, we have the Olympics, and then we have the fall and winter and then whatever this new league ends up looking like in 2013, how do we keep things progressing in the right direction?
LC: The number one most important thing that needs to happen is the best franchises in WPSL Elite and the best franchises in the W-League, and maybe a franchise or two that’s out there that is yet to be seen need to get together and do what’s right for women’s soccer. And that’s form this league that is above the amateur [or] six month college season. The season we played in this year was too short, and even the WPS was too short. We really need to get together and say, ‘You know what, let’s put our best franchises in a league that is a team effort with U.S. Soccer’s backing and let’s go for this. Let’s create a league that has the potential of being a fully professional league in the future.’ If we get into a point where we’re going back and forth, ‘well you do this, I’m going to do this,’ that will just sway our market and people won’t know what direction to go in, players won’t know what direction to go in. It just won’t be what’s best for women’s professional soccer. People need to put their egos to the side a little bit, I think. I know people on both sides of that, and they’re great people and I believe that it can happen. Hopefully we’ll see in the next week or two that it will happen. The other thing that has to happen is the US players need to be committed to growing this league. You see players like Heather O’Reilly, she comes here, she works hard, she trains here. Yeah, it’s home for her right now, but it makes a difference, she’s enjoying it, it’s good for her. And U.S. Soccer needs to help us get those players on board as well because we’ll miss out on opportunities of growing our national team as we go into this next phase if our players aren’t being released for national team camps if they’re being held to the international calendar.
ML: Like the Christen Press situation where she’s in Sweden but there’s a camp here.
LC: Yes. So you end up in a situation now, for example, Keelin Winters, whom we would love to have back, and I think could be a permanent national team player, and she’s in the mix. She’s now going to be in Potsdam [Germany] for the next two years. And I don’t know how many times U.S. Soccer’s going to fly her back business class. They might fly Abby Wambach back business class but I don’t know about Keelin yet. She hasn’t earned that spot yet, and hopefully they do [fly her back] because otherwise they’re missing out on a great player. That same situation is going to arise for other players. U.S. Soccer’s going to need to have players here in order to have camps. But the great thing about that is the players in our league will get opportunities if people go to Germany or Sweden.
ML: Right, there’s a lot more exposure playing the games here. It could be another Amy LePeilbet situation where she had a great WPS season and then made the leap.
LC: Exactly. And some players do go through the U-17s, the U-20s, the U-23s and come up through the system. But there’s that middle year, where an Abby Wambach was–I don’t know what she was going to do next. And then the Washington Freedom comes along, she plays next to Mia Hamm, now she’s a world class player. But we don’t know that that happens without the league.
ML: There’s so much more possibility to have players slip through the cracks that we would never even know about.
LC: Yeah. Some players need to be able to develop at that next level. The college game is a good game, but in the college game you can play for twenty minutes, come off, rest for twenty minutes, and then play for twenty minutes. Even Courtney Jones here, we can’t play her yet for a full 90 minutes because she’s used to coming on and off. She’s fit. She can run through a wall for twenty minutes. And after that her body hasn’t figured out how to manage a full 90 minutes. We’ve got her to about 60 now. So college players need to make that adjustment, they need to make the adjustment to the pace of the game and the craftiness of forwards. Sometimes when you’re athletic as a defender you can just go in and take the ball from forwards. You can’t just go in and take the ball from Marta. You have to be patient, you have to force her to give her the ball, and you almost always need to get a double team on her. So there’s just tactics that they need to learn. That happens in this league. So those are the biggest things. We need to put aside alliances and we need to do what’s right for the game, and we need the U.S. national players to get on board and be a part of what’s happening here. Be like Mia, and be like Foudy and Lil and that generation of players who said, ‘You know what, we’re going to do this because it’s the right thing for the future.’