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Long term benefits outweigh short-term concerns in Houston’s addition to NWSL

On Nov. 21, 2012, a new women’s professional soccer league was born. It was soon thereafter named the National Women’s Soccer League, and it had just over four months to take itself from nonexistent to an on-field product.

The turnaround seemed absurd. Most professional sports teams have at least a year of lead-in time, never mind launching an entire league.

But the NWSL did just that, however many bumps there were along the short road, and in April they were playing soccer in eight markets across the country. Professional women’s soccer was back for the first time since summer 2011.

Fast-forward a year to Thursday, with the announcement that the Houston Dynamo have invested in a women’s team and will join the NWSL beginning in the 2014 season. It’s Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. The season is likely to begin in early April again, and Houston has no players, no coach and only just just today launched as an official franchise.

On the surface, it all seems short-sighted and rushed.

But it isn’t.

Dynamo president Chris Canetti said from the start he began researching NWSL late in the summer. A report Thursday suggests it was as early as the end of July. Publicly, this didn’t all come to light until mid-November, when Canetti & Co. felt they were far enough along and committed enough to creating a women’s team that they could gauge interest.

The outcome of a season ticket deposit drive — $25 refundable deposits quoted at an average season ticket price of $178 — was encouraging and “food for thought,” Canetti told The Equalizer at the time. Canetti told the Houston Chronicle Wednesday that the figure was over 1,000.

There are questions of timing — Can Houston really make this all work with just five weeks until the college draft? — and outcries of whether or not this is fair to some other teams — teams like the Washington Spirit or Chicago Red Stars, who are owed allocations of top U.S. internationals and may now have to share those — or if it is fair to interested ownership groups who were turned away, since they were told there would be no expansion until 2015.

Should the Dynamo have been told to wait until 2015? Maybe, but they wanted in, and they proved they can make it work.

To look at this addition to the league as negative based off of perceived fairness is short-sighted. And guess what: The owners whose teams will be affected by this voted to approve the move and add Houston for 2014, because they knew what it meant.

A Major League Soccer ownership group beat down the door to join the NWSL for this season. That’s worth repeating: An established, respected men’s soccer franchise pushed the issue to join a fledgling women’s league because they see potential in it to grow the club’s brand, and in turn, women’s soccer.

The majority owner of the Dynamo is Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group. Yes, that same AEG that after one year owning the Los Angeles Sol in WPS (which the agreement was only for one year from the start), said they were not willing to continue operating the team in 2010 even though it meant what looked like a model women’s franchise would fold.

That’s how far all of this has come, that even this billionaire company that once said ‘no thanks’ to keeping a team alive now sees enough potential in a new league with a new financial model to invest in it. Some may take pause and think AEG could bail again, but much like the league’s downsized and more sustainable business model, there is room for optimism around the growth of women’s soccer in the United States.

Today, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, is a very positive step for women’s professional soccer in the United States.

With the late expansion announcement will come growing pains. There will be midweek games, there will be a team sitting idle every weekend, an extra trip to Houston will have to be factored into each team’s budget and there will be players lost in some form of an expansion draft. Hiccups, sure, but hiccups would happen anyway. This is a league and a sport still finding its feet. And now it just dug them into the ground a little bit more with the addition of Houston.

Portland is an anomaly that will not be replicated in women’s soccer; I don’t see any other team in the near future putting up the numbers and pure passion for women’s soccer displayed by the Rose City. But the Thorns, champions in 2013, serve as a model for how MLS clubs can join the women’s ranks and succeed, drawing over 13,000 fans per game, turning a profit, and making women’s soccer a real, relevant conversation that moves the needle. That exceeded even their expectations.

Houston hopes to follow that model – to scale, surely, with only 7,000 seats to be opened up for their home games at BBVA Compass Stadium — and it could well open the door for a couple more MLS franchises with the right fans in the right city to also dive into the NWSL. Perhaps those expectations will be surpassed as well.

Thursday’s announcement isn’t about which teams are going to have to sacrifice some players or miss out on a draft pick. It isn’t about the league bending backwards to adhere to an MLS team’s demands. Thursday is about adding another sustainable franchise, just like Portland and just like, to scale in their own ways, the Western New York Flash, Boston Breakers, Sky Blue FC and Chicago Red Stars, who have lasted since the WPS days, with plenty of growing pains, scares and carnage of former opponents having folded to prove it.

What women’s soccer continues to need as a business is strong business partners. What the National Women’s Soccer League got on Thursday is another veteran player at the table. Turning them away would have been one of those moves that would get looked back on — like so many in WUSA and WPS — as disastrous.

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