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Gulati: ‘All comers’ invited to women’s pro soccer roundtable on future direction of the game

U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati spoke to a select group of media prior to Sunday’s U.S. women’s national team match against China at PPL Park in Chester, Penn. about the future of professional women’s soccer in the United States.

Since Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) suspended operations in January – and particularly since folding for good earlier this month – fans, players, media and owners have put the heat on U.S. Soccer to step in and handle the situation of the constantly failing proposition of maintaining a women’s pro soccer league.

On Sunday, Gulati addressed the issues and included some very interesting pieces of information. In the next 35-40 days there will be a women’s professional soccer task force which “all comers” will be invited to in order to get everyone under one roof and generating ideas.

Also interesting is his statement that U.S. Soccer offered to step in and help WPS on the administrative side last year but the offer was not accepted.

Here is the full transcription:

On whether the aforementioned task force to evaluate women’s pro soccer and if the Division 1 sanctioning fees are too high….

“We are planning to do just that in the next 35-40 days. On the second, let’s not kid ourselves: The level of investment that is needed to run a professional league, whether it is on the men’s side or the women’s side is enormous. And not an order of magnitude that sanctioning fees make any difference whatsoever, frankly. The budgets of the MLS teams or the WPS teams are far in excess of the sorts of numbers that we are talking about for sanctioning fees or anything like that. So, I think that is a red herring. We support the leagues in different ways, but to think that – if the number is right for WUSA, and I don’t know that it is is; we don’t have the detailed financials – that $100 million was the level of investment over the three years of the league, to think the Federation, a non-profit, governing body would have the kinds of resources to make those sort of investments is misplaced. The level of investment that MLS has made, which probably has a different number of digits in it at this point – and successfully – only can really be made by the private sector. That doesn’t mean that we don’t support the women’s game. We just announced today – but those are the decisions you have to make in a world of finite resources and running the professional game has really been left to private entrepreneurs. The role we had in the USL-NASL situation was rather different, where we had two leagues, neither ones could really meet the standards in terms of number of teams. And that was a unique setup where they had broken off from each other and there were legal issues and so on, where we ran the league for a year, essentially in two divisions. Are we in the position to do that sort of role? Sure, if that was necessary. And frankly, that was offered in the last 12 months to the WPS…..In order to help them save costs at the league level, that we would step in and do the essential functions of a league office: Scheduling, referee assignments, all those sorts of things. We talked about that 12 months ago….and absorb the costs of that.”

And WPS did not accept that?

“It’s safe to say that, that offer was not accepted.”

On what role U.S. Soccer has (and whether or not it is developing players)

“I think that is a big part of it and that has certainly been the role for a long time on the boys side, the girls side, the men’s and women’s side, is to develop a lot of the resources that go into a pro league. So it’s not just having players, it’s better referees, better coaches, and various times, potentially, to help financially but in very small ways. We had a sponsorship agreement with WPS – not a huge sponsorship agreement, but a direct sponsorship agreement, so all of those things, we do. But it can’t be at the magnitude of level that would be needed to sustain operating losses of the sort that have happened in the leagues.”

On Sunday’s sellout (18,500) USWNT v. China crowd at PPL Park providing encouragement…

“There is too many – I’ve been doing this too long to get too up or down by individual data points. So, Abby’s (Wambach’s) header didn’t turn the fortunes of the WPS around overnight. Today’s game is not going to do that, but these are all pieces. So, obviously these are good data points. And the men’s team (Saturday) night, with 44,000 people. I had a columnist in Jacksonville as me on (Saturday), ‘So, you are very enthusiastic and you are very optimistic. What evidence can you show me?’ I said well, you know 44,000 people outside and tomorrow we’ll have a women’s game that is sold out in Philadelphia. So, those are two pretty good data points, but does that one-off game or the success of the women’s team at the Olympics or the Women’s World Cup, either in television or fan appeal across the country or water cooler talk, mean that there is enough the next day to sustain a women’s league? The answer is pretty clearly, not necessarily. And that was true with the men’s World Cup. It took a long time for MLS to get on solid footing and to date we haven’t had the right model on the women’s side. We’ll keep at it, but we’re not there.”

On the public wondering why MLS is not involved…

My answer would be, that’s a question for Commissioner Garber. I could give you a lot of reasons. MLS has expanded pretty rapidly over the last few years. Whether it is because of focus or economics or whatever, I don’t know. Some teams in MLS have been involved (in women’s soccer). Obviously AEG was involved. D.C. United was involved. The Revolution were involved in a couple of doubleheaders in some years. So, whether it was WUSA or WPS, some MLS teams have been involved in different ways, but that is really a question for the Commissioner – and the development of a business model that makes sense. Seattle is obviously involved this year and Vancouver has been involved for a long time with women’s soccer. So you’ve seen a number of MLS teams have been involved. Whether that leads to anything involving a fully-fledged women’s league in the future, I don’t know.

You’re asking a hypothetical and I don’t know how long away they are away from having a U-12 Academy program that’s fully funded, either. These are choices. So, is it a women’s pro league that requires a large investment, or is it a U-12 boys’ development program, or is it more money for designated players? And so, central focus. The only parallel we have obviously is the NBA and the WNBA and the NBA was far more mature in their overall development when they started the WNBA and even there you’ve seen a number of teams – most teams – now have independent ownership. So, I don’t think that is necessarily the model. It may be, but it is not necessarily the model.

On the aforementioned women’s pro soccer task force…

All comers. We will reach out to a number of people that are involved in the game, whether it’s, as I mentioned, the USL, or MLS or individual teams from the WPS and have a broader group come in and talk about it and see what is the best model that we can get consensus around going forward. And that may not be a model that starts off like the WPS, or the WUSA, or the W-League – I don’t know what that model is, but we’ll certainly look at it. And then what we do with the national team program will partly fit in around that and partly lead that.


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