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Equalizer Roundtable: first impressions of new league

Heather O'Reilly Boston Breakers

A new women’s soccer league is upon us. U.S. Soccer, along with friends from the Canadian Soccer Association and Federation of Mexican Football, announced this on Wednesday. Rather than bore you with droves of articles, some of us Equalizer staffers decided to do a live chat to discuss the new league. Below is the transcription of our takeaways from the announcement:

First Impressions

Jeff Kassouf: So now that we officially have a new women’s pro soccer league (and plenty of TBD details), how do we feel about Wednesday’s announcement?

Meg Linehan: I tweeted before the call that I was cautiously optimistic.  Not much has changed in my mood.  I really liked most of what I heard from a league formation standpoint, but there are still some missing details that I’ll need before I relax completely.  Overall: positive for league’s level of play, neutral on the league itself.

Dan Lauletta: There is always lots of optimism at the beginning.  To me two things stand out as being major positives that were not there for WUSA or WPS.  First is the funding by the federations.  That will keep most if not all of the best US players here and it offsets major costs for the clubs.  Second is that rather than someone trying to sprout up a business by creating a league, this seems like more of a collaboration of folks who have run soccer teams before and have made a commitment to playing at as high a level as possible.

Richard Farley: Clearly, it’s a great day for a lot of people: players, fans – hopefully future players, future fans. I’ve heard a lot of skepticism over the past nine hours, but we went from nothing to something. It’s a big bang, even if it’s technically another big bang. Worst case scenario, we end up back where we were on Tuesday.

One thing I think is significant, under-evaluated amid the clamor over a new league, is something Dan alluded to: The federations’ role in this. To me, that’s huge on so many levels. It’s the big difference in this attempt.

Dan: To Meg’s point though, this thing needs a name plus names for some teams, a more defined player pool and a mechanism for stocking rosters.  Some of the established teams can start selling tickets just based on reputation, but it takes time to fill seats and develop relationships between fans and players plus luring in local media outlets

Jeff: That’s true. The few of us who endured the WPS days constantly found ourselves wondering, ‘Where is the federation in all of this?’ To have three federations step up is pretty incredible, frankly. That is encouraging. I did come away feeling a bit teased, which Dan is hinting at. We don’t have team names. We don’t have a league name. We don’t have venues. It’s deceiving, because those are there behind the scenes, but it’s a hard sell when the naked eye doesn’t know that.

Meg: Right, the established teams are already in full swing.  Seattle, Portland, and DC have at least issued some press releases, and have very established markets where the media has started in on coverage already.  I do think Kansas City is getting a bit lost in the shuffle today.

Richard: I get the concern over league and team names, but it seems the federations were left with a choice: Do we persist with public, player, media concern this isn’t going to happen, or do we announce what we have? Based on the model they outlined, I think getting the news to us sooner rather than later was definitely the right call. They gave us enough info to trust the names will come.

Dan: Plus venue is a much bigger deal than it is in other sports.  The Chiefs can play anywhere and draw fans from all over Kansas City and the surrounding suburbs.  In this league if you put your games on the wrong end of town that can cut your fan base to some extent.  And I can already see that fans want to know:  where will my local team be playing?

Richard: I’ve already been asked that by a number of fans.

Dan: I agree with Richard.  What has cost them a bit of credibility was making the first announcement in August and then letting three months pass without another word.  Without that, today’s announcement would have been met with a bit more enthusiasm.

Jeff: And it’s good to note there that US Soccer was not as heavily involved for that August announcement. Somewhere along the way, USSF had an epiphany that they need this thing.

 

Markets

Jeff: Speaking of venues and names, let’s jump into the next topic: the markets.

Jeff: We have Boston, Rochester (NY), NJ, DC, Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle and Portland. We know LA and Connecticut were some of the later along the chain teams dropped, along with plenty of others along the way. Do you like the make-up of this league, geographically and in terms of owners? Did other would-be teams get the short end of the stick?

Richard: This is another place where I think the federations deserve a huge amount of credit. Once you accept a few premises – they wanted eight (and probably, only eight) teams, they wanted a national footprint – I’m not sure I could have picked eight better markets.

Yes, LA has a good case, but it would have been isolated. It’s not so much the market or group was bad, but what would you rather have? LA and a Pacific Northwest team? Or two Pacific Northwest teams? Because with only eight teams, the West Coast was not going to get three.

Meg: The big news is obviously LA, although I’m actually more surprised not to see Philadelphia represented.  I don’t think they were in the final 3 that didn’t make it into the new league, however.  It will be strange to have a league without that market.

Dan: I know there has been a lot of chatter about Los Angeles, and I know they had an investmment group ready to go.  But let’s be real here, there is no NFL team there.  So the domestic women’s soccer league can surely do without it also.  I feel bad for anyone in that area who wants a team to support, but at the same time they had to make a decision so we’ll have to trust them about the eight they picked out.

Dan: I would expect a lot of Wednesday-Saturday road trips to the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

Jeff: Devil’s Advocate: Does Chicago need KC? That’s one bus trip, so it saves them a couple flights for the year. And my hunch is that the third ‘market’ cut may have just been the Sounders Women.

Dan: Kansas City has come a long way in its soccer culture in only the last three years or so.  How that translates to a women’s team I don’t know.

Jeff: Absolutely, Dan. My thought was, if possible. to alternate the scheduling with the men. So if the Sounders men are at home on a Sunday, make sure that Boston’s trip there is one where they play Portland on Sunday and Seattle on Wednesday. It won’t be perfect everytime, but it’s a lot to ask even those committed NW fans to go to an MLS game Saturday night and a WoSo game on Sunday afternoon.

Richard: With the scheduling the way it is (three games against each team, a fourth against what will amount to a regional rival) along with Gulati hinting he wanted an even number, I look at the eight-team league as a series of pairs. So Chicago needed somebody, it seems.

Meg: In many of my discussions concerning national team player allocation today, Kansas City does come up short for ties to players.  Hopefully it won’t affect their recruitment.

Dan: I worry about New Jersey (Sky Blue).  I covered most of their WPS games and they had a lot of trouble selling tickets.  The atmosphere was non-existent.

Meg: Is there a venue for Sky Blue yet?

Jeff: I was there with you a lot, Dan, and I agree. My total hunch is that they won’t play at Rutgers again, but we’ll see.

Jeff: I think that needs to be more to the north in the Newark area (NOT Red Bull Arena, for cost issues).

Dan: In terms of scheduling it is a fine balance to try and work in lockstep with MLS.  The fanbases don’t necessarily overlap but at the same time you need to allow for fans to try out both teams as well as for the local soccer writers to cover both teams.

Richard: That was another thing that was said today that stuck out: Mike Stoller saying there would be no more playing at places like Toyota Park. Venues will be cost-conscious selections, which makes sense. It’s tempting to see places like RBA and HDC as prestige builders, but was we saw, they’re not. A fourth year would be a bigger prestige-builder.

Dan: I would award the final to Portland immediately and see if they can drum up enough interest to full JELD-WEN just for the final.  Getting way ahead of myself I know.

Meg: I’d rather have the Breakers play at Dilboy in front of 3,000 people than at Harvard Stadium in front of 3,000 people.  It feels incredibly different.  Longevity is a bigger goal than venues, at this point.

Jeff: Too bad there isn’t Sporting KC involvement. Livestrong would have been marvelous. Interesting idea on JELD-WEN, Dan. Neutral site final in Pacific NW? Richard is smiling…

Dan: I completely agree with Meg.  We need to drop the stigma that goes with playing at a high school.  Dilboy had more atmosphere with 3,000 than Giants Stadium used to have with four times that many people at MetroStars/Red Bulls games.

Meg: On a related note for fan-bases, although not necessarily one that’s tied to locations. I’m a very, very firm believer that the new league needs to branch out in marketing past youth audiences. Untapped markets like the Latino/Hispanic populations (apparently a potential big draw in KC?) and LGBT markets, especially with Rapinoe’s recent coming out. There’s money in those markets, and people to put into seats.  More adult fans are needed for sustainability.

Dan: I completely agree with Meg again.  We could do an entire session on the topic of marketing, but I am a big believer that neither WUSA nor WPS took itself seriously enough as sports leagues.  Marketing to kids and families is fine, but kids grow up and move on or move away.  The goal should be to create a lasting impression for fans so they care about their team both in the moment and in the long term.

Meg: I read a lot of commentary during the Olympics that fans of the men’s game really paid attention to the women this summer, and found the game enjoyable and watchable.  Not just technically, but I read a lot of surprised comments about how it was “more pure” or how the players simply got up after hard fouls.  There’s a lot of potential to tap those markets if the games are made accessible, both in person and on screens (whether television or computer).

 

Next Steps

Jeff: So what’s next for this league? USWNT players being allocated would love some marketing issues, no?  And on that note, how could marketing be optimized? Wambach is an A-list celebrity in Rochester. Rapinoe to Portland seems a foregone conclusion.

Richard: If the league is smart, they’ll spread out the allocation announcements, allowing them to maintain a steady presence in the news cycle while taking their time to make cogent decisions on the more subtle but more important points – operations, competitive issues, budgeting, etc.

Meg: I definitely agree with Richard.  Plus it allows for a decent time period of fan speculation on player allocation.  And on another player-market guess, I’ve got an early bet on Sinclair ending up in Portland as well.

Richard: Rapinoe to Portland is a good example of a potential marketing plus. She clearly wants to be there, and as such is more likely to be a constant, positive representative of the team. Putting players where they want to be might lead to some competitive balance issues, but it may also lead to more vibrant representation for the franchises. It you limit it to two or three key faces per market, it’s hard to make any one team (or two, as people are concerned about both northwest teams) too stacked.

Dan: I think we have to be careful about putting too many eggs in the Abby to Rochester, Rapinoe to Portland baskets.  No doubt both those things would be huge for those markets, but at the same time the idea is to be doing this long after Wambach and Rapinoe are through playing.  The long term goal is to create loyalty to the logo.

Richard: Everybody seems to have a source that knows where Abby is going to go. It’s amazing that none of these sources seem to agree. I suspect that source is Wambach, in all cases. When she gets a call, she looks at her watch. If the time ends in an even number, she says Portland. Odd? Western New York. If the big hand’s in motion? DC. I would be stoked if this is what she was doing.

Dan: Taking the marketing conversation in an unusual direction, a great marketing tool would be higher quality refereeing.  It is imperative for creative players to be protected in order to showcase their abilities.  I thought too much of WPS was played between the 18s and passive officiating was a big part of that.

Jeff: Dan, good point about long-term. I think it only helps, though, to have those names there. I went to every Flash home game in 2011. Everyone in that organization does great things, but the difference between games with Abby and without her is shocking. The final (without her) sold over 10,000 tickets, but attendance there (and everywhere, to be fair) will need to be monitored.

Meg: Refereeing will be key, as will coaching choices, to borrow a point that Leslie Osborne made when I spoke with her.  That could sway a few decisions, I’d assume.  Especially if a big personality gets hired in one of the new markets.

Dan: As long as a market has a major connection to a player there seems no harm in putting here there so long as the club does not overextend their marketing toward that one player.  As for Abby in D.C., my guess (and it’s only a guess) is that the end of the Freedom name is the end of Abby in D.C.

Jeff: But the Freedom name will return, from what we hear.  Totally different ownership, of course.

 

Lasting Takeaways

Jeff: Well let’s wrap this up with something from everyone — What is your biggest takeaway from the announcement, positive or negative? And what is the No. 1 thing you think needs to be addressed in the long-term?

Dan: One big concern for me is how much say will the federations have over the players they are paying.  I remember in 2009 that Tony DiCicco kept Heather Mitts at left back because he didn’t want to play Alex Scott out of positions ahead of the Euros.  A few of the 99ers were dreadful in WUSA.  Will the coaches have free reign or will they be answering to the federations concerning formations and player selection?

Richard: For me, the federations deserve huge credit for the commitments they’re making. Subsidizing costs of the league’s best players (likely, its highest earners) is not only huge in terms of the finances but it’s also a pretty creative solution. Somebody deserves a gold star.

As far as negative, I don’t really have one. There was no league on Tuesday. There’s one today. Everything else feels like forest-for-trees type stuff.

But as far as addressed long term, the league needs to be on TV, and it needs a partner that’s going to see the league as more than programming to fill a weekend afternoon void. Television is the only way to scale a league from regional sustainability to legitimate sports entertainment success.

Meg: My biggest take-away: The backing of the Federations is key in this league’s survival, but team logistics shouldn’t overshadow key marketing points such as developing the brand, finding new audiences, and expanding fan involvement via social media.  As for the long-term, Richard just stole my point on TV.  But to piggyback: television is legitimacy.  But there are other short-term options that the other leagues like MLB use, which is streaming every game online/via iPad/iPhone app for a monthly fee.  And one that many WoSo fans would happily pay.  It’s not television, but it still puts games in front of people.

Dan: I am cautiously optimistic about this, which I believe Meg opened with.  Very much looking forward to the nuts and bolts information starting to trickle out.

Jeff: My final point was media-related, too. I think that a multi-platform presence is critical. I’ve been arguing this about the league’s digital footprint since June. There needs to be a way for fans to follow this. A TV deal would help (maybe) expose this to new people. Streaming games needs to happen. Updated scores, standings, statistics and TRANSPARENCY need to happen. (I know Dan is nodding his head.). I think a lot of the on-field will get sorted out and it will take years of tweaking. Heck, the NFL and MLB still make rule changes. Sport is always evolving. But there has to be a willingness to be covered and have this sport exposed to the masses, from players, to front offices and beyond. What stood out to me is the federations as well, but more along the lines of all three. Mexico has the most room for growth in this scenario, and that is good for CONCACAF. This should get fun. Now let’s hope it lasts.

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