Two years ago the WPS draft room at the Pennsylvania Convention Center was beyond capacity, with a crowd of draftees, families and soccer fans overflowing into the hallway. There was a genuine buzz that day, when Tobin Heath was selected first by the Atlanta Beat.
On Friday, the 2012 WPS Draft took place in its more modern state – a modest, quiet affair.
Just three players were in the draft room, one which went undrafted (Oklahoma State forward Krista Lopez). Was it not for the webstream audio being piped through the room, the place would have been silent.
The draft will always admittedly unfairly be held to the high standards of 2010, when an incredible draft day spectacle turned into an evening Puma party pegged at about $50,000. WPS even paid to fly some of the top players into Philadelphia for the draft.
That won’t happen again anytime soon. Still, the draft now barely qualifies as a skeleton of 2009 and 2010.
Granted, a bigger production requires a bigger budget. The size of the room affects the price, but renting a large room at the NSCAA Convention costs tens of thousands of dollars. Following the lavish 2010 draft, expenses were cut and the extraordinary version of the draft was one of them.
But for a league in need of any positive press it can get, shaving expenses at the draft just doesn’t make sense. There are three key events that get media – not just the few regular bloggers, but mainstream media and even male soccer media – even half interested in WPS: The draft, the all-star game and the championship.
The all-star game was dropped in 2011. With it went one major opportunity to attract mainstream media. Just six months after Abby Wambach launched the U.S. national team into every American household with a last-second goal against Brazil, the Associated Press did not even bother to send a local stringer to the WPS draft. Media row featured the usual handful of digital writers.
WPS cannot afford to be merely a once per year blip in newspapers when a team wins a championship. Particularly after a long, tumultuous offseason that the league barely survived (which is not totally settled yet), the draft was a chance to interject positivity into fans and media. It’s a celebration of bright futures for some of the country’s best young players such as Sydney Leroux, this year’s top draft pick.
Unfortunately, it is not being treated that way.
The major advantage the NSCAA Convention gives a league like WPS is that it plops 10,000 soccer people inside one convention center each year to reconnect through soccer. WPS need not try to sell media or fans on why they should come out and give the league a chance (an increasingly hard sell).
Instead, WPS already has soccer-minded people walking by its advertisements, booths and doors at the Convention. The consumers (fans and media) are already in the store (the NSCAA Convention, in this case). At that point it is just about selling them on buying into WPS.
In order to do that, fans and media have to be presented with an inviting environment. When something looks like a big deal, people will think it is a big deal. That is exactly what happened in 2010, when fans packed the ballroom to get a glimpse at the next stars of women’s soccer.
Players who were being drafted were in attendance. Not just Heath, Lauren Cheney and other first round selections, but even those taken in the late rounds who were happy just to be selected.
Those players added legitimacy to the event. The fans – most of whom were college coaches stopping by – added legitimacy. And media took note, giving the draft pretty good coverage.
Jan. 15, 2010, however, merely served as a red herring. Just as the Los Angeles Sol used the day to draft what could have been the most successful combination of picks in the league’s short history, the team’s ownership was quickly falling apart.
Since that 2010 draft day, WPS has contracted an astounding five teams, including LA just two weeks later. Budget cuts began in rapid succession and by the time January 2011 rolled around, the draft had reduced itself to a low-key, closed door event.
In a place where thousands of college coaches could be exposed to a fledgling league’s supposedly marquee event, these interested bystanders were literally turned away despite already being in the same building.
That type of self-induced seclusion is the quintessential WPS problem. If the league cannot encourage interest from the few actually taking time to seek it out, how can it attract those yet to be exposed to the product?
There were in the past talks of holding a virtual draft to further save money, but those discussions thankfully never turned to action. A virtual draft would send one of the league’s signature media events into complete oblivion.
WPS has bigger worries right now, mainly in court. But if and when the draft comes around next year, making a spectacle of it needs to be a priority. WPS cannot be important in the mind of the consumer if it does not find itself important enough to demand attention.
It starts with opening the doors and inviting the thousands of coaches already at the convention to attend the draft. These players have connections to clubs, high schools, colleges and friends who will turn out to see the woman they know being drafted by a professional team. That would be a start.
A concerted effort to talk draw media must follow. Actually having some of the top college players there and available for interviews will help. So too will the addition of fans. Both of those things can happen for little additional money. It is as simple as reconfiguring the room.
Draftees are not completely free of blame, as it is ultimately their responsibility to get to the draft. The process, however, is cyclical. If it is not played up as an important event, players do not prioritize it.
MLS provides a great model for a nearly identical event. The SuperDraft took place on Thursday with the now typically strong supporters’ sections turnout and growing media coverage.
Until the league gets back to treating the draft like a key part of its business strategy, the crickets in the draft room will continue.
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