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The Marta Experiment: Can WPS be the world’s best league without the world’s best player?

With FC Gold Pride officially announcing Tuesday that it has ceased operations, many are pointing to Marta’s high salary as a cause.  FC Gold Pride did not fold solely because of Marta, but it would be naïve to overlook the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year’s salary when evaluating the situation.

FC Gold Pride took a risk on Marta, signing her in hopes that she would not only bring a championship to the Bay Area – which she did – but that her phenomenal foot skills would put butts in the seat at Cal State East Bay.  General Manager Ilisa Kessler knew it was a risk.  For whatever reason, the experiment just did not work.

“Well I think a little bit of what we did is we wanted to experiment with somebody like Marta, a player like Marta, to see what the Marta factor would be, if you will,” said a candid Kessler.  “We know what it is on the field but we wanted to see what it would be off the field.  Honestly, for me, it was a bit disappointing.  Attendance wise we never sold out a game and although we did have some great sponsors that committed to our team – such as Amway – because of Marta, it wasn’t as if people were banging on our door begging to sponsor us.  It wasn’t rating sponsors and we weren’t selling out stadiums and Marta jerseys weren’t being sold off the racks.  I don’t want it to sound like we thought it was something that would be instantaneous, but it was a bit of an experiment for us to see if there was any considerable incremental revenue that could be driven by a player like Marta.  And that just did not happen.  It’s not to blame Marta.  I think it is just where we are at in Women’s Professional Soccer.”

That is a lot to process, but it is telling of where WPS stands.  Marta is the best player in the world and packs a punch of entertainment that nobody else can.  For what she means to the future of women’s soccer, she deserves anything she wants.  But how much is too much?

MartaKessler could not confirm any figure regarding Marta’s salary, though many sources say it was approximately $500,000.  That is over 15-times higher than the average WPS salary, which sits around $27,000.

Similar to designated players in MLS, only a small portion of that number counted against the salary cap for FC Gold Pride.  But when you look at the team’s bottom line, Marta’s salary becomes a huge expense that no other team in the league dealt with (except the Los Angeles Sol in 2009, which also folded but for completely different reasons).

In fact, the reported figure for Marta’s salary represents about one-fifth of a typical WPS team budget.  The math just does not add up.

Now the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the world’s best player will stay in the self-proclaimed world’s best league.  The reaction is mixed.

Some team officials do not think Marta will stay.  If she does, it will require a significant pay cut.  If Marta wants to be challenged by some of the world’s best in WPS, she must be willing to sacrifice financially.  If Marta made even half what she did in 2010 she would still live a more than comfortable life.  Should she have to take a pay cut, though?

Nobody wants money to be the big issue. But wait, this is a business, right?  The subject of business v. charity has come up in several conversations over the past week.  While everyone in WPS wants to see teams and the league succeed, they can all play hardball as well.  Owners are not willing to be charities, as the NeSmith’s said (and showed) in the case of FC Gold Pride.

Nobody is stopping Marta from thinking the same way.  After all, she fought through a lot of sexism back in Brazil to get to where she is (see this article in Portuguese) – on top of the world.

Still, serious doubt remains as to whether Marta will stay in WPS.

“We obviously hope to see her stay in the league, but the league is bigger than one player,” WPS CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas said in a conference call Wednesday.  “And I think the diversity of our players really attest to that.  Obviously we would like to see her stay, but that remains to be seen.”

Eileraas added that Marta and her agent are involved in discussions with teams.  Whether or not she stays is up to each individual team trying to sign her, Sky Blue FC President Thomas Hofstetter said.

“Every team in the world would want to have Marta on their team,” Hofstetter said.  “She’s a difference maker – a huge difference maker.  And yes her salary is high, but this is something that next year, even more so than in the past, each team has to evaluate whether they can afford it or not.”

Hofstetter went on to say that some teams are interested in the Brazilian icon.  Sky Blue FC was seriously interested, Hofstetter said, but added that Marta “is above our pay rate.”

Despite common belief, Amway and Puma do not supplement Marta’s salary.  Those are personal endorsement deals she holds with those companies.  Amway was FC Gold Pride’s jersey sponsor in 2010, but they paid what former owner Nancy NeSmith called just a “fraction” of Marta’s salary to the team (for the jersey sponsorship, not directly for Marta’s salary).

And to be clear, FC Gold Pride’s fate is not on Marta’s shoulders.

“We’re not folding because of Marta,” Kessler said.  “That is really short-sighted.  I would put it to the people that didn’t come to our games.  I’m really adamant about that.”

Still, some team officials around the league said they would not be surprised to see Marta forego WPS to return to Europe somewhere.  Prior to the league, she played for Umeå IK in Sweden.

The true question is whether or not WPS needs her to stay.  Not having the world’s best player in the league makes it very hard to call WPS ‘the best league in the world.’  Collectively it still could be with the amount of domestic and international talent, but there would certainly be an asterisk added to the statement should Marta not be involved.

By no means is Marta obligated to stay in WPS.  She is a free agent now and has the freedom to do whatever she pleases.  If she wants, she can take six months off from club ball to train solely with Brazil (unlikely, but still an option).

Marta’s stance has always been that she wants to see women’s soccer grow.  The best chances for women’s soccer to truly thrive in the immediate future are in the U.S. and Germany, but Marta will bring attention to wherever she plays.  Growth will follow.

So whether WPS needs Marta more than Marta needs WPS really is not the question.  Finding a middle ground that satisfies each party is the key.  But one thing is for sure: None of the remaining teams will be shelling out what FC Gold Pride did for the Brazilian.  Marta’s salary was enough to pay a full starting roster of eleven players.  Clearly, as FC Gold Pride’s situation shows, that is not a recipe for success.  Whether or not WPS can be the world’s best league without the world’s best player is a question the league could soon face.

8 Comments… read them below
Denise said…
Just want to say, I think its utterly ridiculous that in sports like Baseball, etc., 1 million dollars is practically minimum wage. Its not fair. In fact, I don’t think any athletes should be making that much money! I understand the salaries are low because the WPS is still getting off the ground, but its sickening that high profile baseball and basketball athletes make millions when the hard-working, humble players of WPS make a pittance. Anyway, in regards to WPS salaries, Marta’s paycheck is huge. 500,000? Yikes, that’s a ton of money. If she really wants to genuinely see women’s soccer grow, maybe she should ask for a little less money. And by the way, I believe the WPS would still be the greatest women’s league in the World without Marta. Marta is not women’s soccer. There are plenty of talented, unique, amazing players in the WPS. Marta is just a bonus.
augusto said…
“she and the agent are talking to different parties involved” Well jeff, the way is perhaps just one: a recognition to her of the role so far in developing womens soccer b) let her choose with awareness it inevitable affects her image c) asking her to stay in WPSone or two yrs more in terms viable to the league d) marta is great by all measurements except is not greater than the dream. The dream of a worldwide womens pro soccer, applauded and alive. In turn, wps sponsors will obtain an insurance for marta ib a broken leg, or long inactivitiesrisks etc. of say, 5 million, a value compatible with the calculated pay of her remaining years of activity, say 8 years by 0.5 mi/yr. And all this, as being a salida con honor, honorable way out, as presented as marta´s own initiative and decision. needless to say, if the insurance is denied, the player is free to buy the air ticket for stockholm or frankfurt at once. This is the way I see it, jeff. If only her agent could be told that!!!
Jeff said…
I think it is important to keep in mind that MLS started off on shaky ground, too. And it was far from being the first shot at professional soccer in the United States. So it is not unprecedented to see such an up and down start to WPS. But attracting the male demographic – which I believe you are saying – is certainly key. Some argue if it is necessary, but it absolutely is for sustainability. The youth girls soccer teams are fair weather fans (for the most part) and don’t constitute a reliable, fully integrated fan base that will buy season tickets, merchandise, enhance environment, etc. They don’t even have their own spending power or independence. They shouldn’t be abandoned, but the male and even ADULT female audience is untapped. The key is getting them there and I have been asked how on many equations. Well I think we are seeing WPS teams try different approaches to the “how” through trial and error. I’m not a marketing guru, so I don’t know that I have the answer. And it is a complex answer that requires more understanding of budgets and individual markets.
Daniel Lopes said…
Jeff, I have to disagree with you. The problem not only of the WPS, but women’s football in general is far from being the salary issue. You said that the average wage of WPS is $ 27,000 per season. Then I’m sorry, Marta actually earn amonstrous salary , but 27,000 per season to quality professional athlete, athletes from the national teams, is shameful. Okay, it’s the reality of what can be paid, but my point is that salary is not the issue because there will come a point that if the athletes working for free will still loses money. I have a “theory” not only for the WPS, but for women’s soccer around the world, which actually doesn’t mesh because the “product” Soccer girls, their design has yet to be developed further in the marketing issue and image issue , that within this new conception, if it is not to attract the male audience will not happen the sport or the sport will always be extreme low profile, as what the business unviable. And I speak from the male audience because that audience is consuming sport really. Do you Want see a case? How does the MLS is 16 years and every year expanding more, with players wihic is not half of the prestige proportionately than of the players of the WPS, while it is already the second attempt to deploy a professional league for women, this can not be a sample? In the end everything converges on the question of balance. How much need the public, the media return to keep a team? What is needed to attract new segments? Because if you get this issue to downsize, there will come a point that there is nothing left to save and will give prejudice, then once more will say “oh womem’s Soccer has no future” and in fact everything that’s happening is the fact is swimming against the tide, as they say here in Brazil.
Gloria said…
Yes, the WPS can still be best league without Marta but it will get even less attention than it already does. And I think this will hinder its growth and long-term stability .
Jeff said…
Daniel, thanks for commenting and you have a great point. Indeed Marta is not the sole reason for financial troubles by any means, but I think we are seeing so much focus on her because she is such a special player. She is the craftiest, most entertaining women’s player on the planet. On a smaller level than the men’s game, she is iconic. So I think when anything happens like a team she is on folding, people want to know about her first. But I think we will see that player salaries in general are a huge expense. I’m writing something on that as well. The biggest team expense is paying players, but what will the compromise be for teams needing to save money and players wanting full professional treatment? It could be a bumpy road for finding a middle ground.
Daniel Lopes said…
Pardon my shaky English , but I have noticed two weeks ago via twitter, via websites, this case of this new crisis of bankruptcies in WPS and I realize that the focus of the issue is having a direction to the Marta’s Salary , when it could also address other issues. Yes she gets a very high salary for women’s soccer in the world? This makes it impossible for its presence in the teams in the league? In some ways yes, indeed, but also what the league has done to make it possible presence of this extraordinary athlete ? I know you are not saying that the ONLY problem is the Marta’s Salary , but more questions would be raised, for example type the target audience. I always watched the webcast of the Chicago Red Stars and always watching the audience that was in the stands. Forgive me truthfully, is not that the public of soccer mom , Justin Bieber Milley Cyrus fans, that will give sustainability to this business. Why what led the Freedom to almost break? And the Red stars that is open where his presence next year? So the debate has to be much broader. Because if Martha next year no longer have the WPS and the end of the season over a team break, then what will be the discussion?
livefierce said…
Kessler said, “In this league, you’re writing a check for a cause and not looking for a financial gain.” Perhaps no one, including Marta, should be looking for a big payday when dealing with the WPS. Another great article, Jeff. Well done. Laura

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