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Strong ownership top priority for WPS expansion

As the inaugural Women’s Professional Soccer season enters the home stretch, the league is enjoying moderate success in its rookie season. Crowds are averaging close to 5,000 fans per game, which is approximately what was expected and what the league business model was based off of.  It is too early to judge the long-term impact the league will have, but officials are already making plans for the future.

Next year, WPS – the highest level of women’s club soccer in the world – will expand from seven to nine teams as it welcomes Philadelphia and Atlanta into the equation, two cities that fans are familiar with from their involvement in the now defunct Women’s United Soccer Association.  There is even a possibility of a tenth team for 2010, a number that the WUSA never reached.

The WUSA lasted just three seasons after accumulating more debt than it could handle.  The buzz of its launch in 2001 quickly faded, and the women’s soccer dream was gone by late 2003, right before the Women’s World Cup that same year.  This time around, things are different.  The budgets are smaller, the expectations are more realistic, and the entire business model has been remade, with the key change being an emphasis on committed, local ownership that has a proven track record in soccer.

That has not only allowed the league’s current teams to flourish, but means that expansion is already underway even though the first season is yet to conclude.  Several markets are being looked at for the coming years, but the league will only expand once it is fully convinced on the viability of a given market.  Several factors go into the expansion process, one of the most important of which has to do with the experience and commitment of the bidding ownership group, said Jack Cummins, head of the WPS Expansion Committee and part of the Chicago Red Stars ownership group.

“We look at two things in particular,” said Cummins, who deals with many day-to-day expansion operations.  “One is do they have the capital to make this commitment. And then, the other thing is, do they have a commitment to soccer that’s reflected in connections to that particular soccer community.”

That narrows the list down to a few cities that WPS has openly discussed as potential expansion markets.One of these markets is Denver, Colo., where Dr. Bob Contiguglia is looking to organize investors committed to bringing a team into the area.   A former President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Contiguglia wishes to act only as an advisor, not an investor.

However, he understands the type of folks who are willing to invest in women’s soccer.

“Anyone who is going to invest in this is passionate about the women’s game,” he said.  “They are passionate about what it will do not only for women’s soccer and for young girls having role models, but for what I call ‘the cause of women.’ I have seen the results of the ’99 Women’s World Cup and its impact on the world and it is really critical that we have a league that is sustainable, successful, and the best in the world.”

Heading west?  Not just for the sake of it

Aside from Denver, other cities being considered for expansion include Vancouver, Seattle, San Diego and Dallas.  Yes, all five of those potential WPS expansion cities lie west of the Mississippi River, where currently only three of the nine teams (including Atlanta and Philadelphia) play.  With the two California teams isolated on the West Coast, it would be easy to think that WPS is looking to fill some large geographic holes, including the Pacific Northwest and the middle part of the country.

However, geography is low on the list of factors that play into consideration for a WPS expansion city, with the aforementioned ownership criteria and appropriate facilities being the two most important considerations.  While Cummins said the league would love to add more teams on the West Coast, it cannot ignore what franchises like Toronto FC, owned by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, are doing in regards to fan involvement and community outreach.

The league is still exploring adding another team next year and Cummins said that there are “two or three candidates that are fully capable of coming in at 2010.”  Seattle and Vancouver already have the necessary ownership and potential facilities in place, but representatives from both clubs said that no plans for a WPS team are immediate.  Vancouver Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi said that the franchise’s focus is on its 2011 launch in Major League Soccer.

“Soccer is a tough enough business to manage one league and with the expectations of MLS and USL, we’ve got a lot going on right now,” Lenarduzzi said. “If we are in a place where we have had success with MLS in 2011, then there would be room to look at WPS.”

San Diego and Denver still need to secure investors and Dallas is a dark horse after failing to meet its commitments to play in the league’s inaugural season.  So, a tenth team beginning play next season seems highly unlikely given where each market stands, but that could be for the better.  With August fast-approaching, any team added at this point would have less than eight months to establish a foothold in its community.  That could be easier for markets like Seattle and Vancouver that already have established names with the Sounders and Whitecaps, respectively, but WPS cannot afford to rush expansion. When the time is right and the necessary ownership is in place – along with a multitude of other factors – is when the league should expand.

Looking toward the future – Conferences and level of play

While Cummins said the league would not exclude any cities from expansion discussions, there are obviously large geographical gaps that exist for a league that is looking to establish a national footprint.  Beyond creating this national credibility, there are also several logistical issues that can be solved by having more teams west of the Mississippi River.  Eventually, fans could see a league that boasts “up to 14 teams” by somewhere around the year 2014, Cummins said.

At that point, the league would have enough teams to explore the idea of conferences, something that could develop regional rivalries and cut back travel costs.  With two conferences of six or seven teams, Women’s Professional Soccer could adapt a system similar to the one used by Major League Soccer, where teams play their in-conference foes two to three times each season and only play out of conference once.  That way, not only are teams playing their geographical opponents more – allowing these healthy rivalries to blossom – but they are saving money on travel costs.

Los Angeles had to make two separate trips out to New Jersey and Boston this year.  Will LA complain about making a few less trips to the East Coast, or Boston about heading West less?  Doubtful.  So, a few of the Sol’s games with Sky Blue FC, Boston and Washington might get replaced with matches against San Diego (can you say California derby?), Seattle or Denver – the list goes on.  The very thought should bring smiles across the faces of everyone throughout the league, as rivalries would develop and travel costs would drop.

To be clear, there is no set number of teams that WPS is targeting to reach.  But, getting WPS to 14 teams in the next five to seven years means doubling the league’s size in a very short amount of time.  That could raise legitimate questions about maintaining a high level of play, but the league is confident that it would not be an issue given the rising number of quality women’s players.

“There are two things you can look at in this respect,” Cummins said. “One is that the U.S. player pool continues to be a deeper and broader player pool than it was ten years ago. Just as importantly, there is a deeper and broader player pool of internationals.”

The W-League also served as a good feeder system for WPS this season.  Out of the 28 players selected in October’s WPS General Draft, 24 were W-League players.  That number will surely drop in the future, though, as many included in that number were former professional players who found their way to the W-League with the absence of a women’s professional league in the United States.

One thing is crystal clear: As the league continues to expand, the top priority is finding committed owners who know soccer and know their local market.  If a potential city can offer up a sound investor group with an appropriate stadium – preferably one that seats between 6,000 and 20,000, according to Cummins – then it could find itself with a team sooner rather than later.   The league may not be directly looking to fill any geographic holes, but it can’t ignore how East Coast-heavy it is and how beneficial it would be to have more teams on the West Coast. With historically well-supported soccer markets and strong potential investors waiting on the Pacific Coast, the Western frontier is beckoning Women’s Professional Soccer.

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