At some point over the next few days, NWSL will lower the boom on the Boston Breakers. When it happens, gone will be the oldest brand in North American women’s pro soccer, jobs for 20 players and several staff members, and a sizable chunk of goodwill from a small but dedicated community all too accustomed to absorbing these types of body blows.
The announcement will come armed with the standard assurances that NWSL as a whole is going to be fine, that while this a blow to the league’s dedicated fans in New England, things will be better off moving forward. All of this might be true. None of this will make anyone feel any better about what will be a low-point for a league about to enter its sixth season.
WPS parallels are eerie but are they similar?
We have seen this act before. The similarities to the demise of the Los Angeles Sol are so acute that if they were books or movies, surely the writers of the Breakers story would come under fire for plagiarism. The Sol were part of draft day for WPS in 2010 as final details of a sale were being ironed out. Thirteen days after the draft, the new owner had pulled out, the old owner was done, and the Sol were folded.
There were differences of course. The Sol had been the flagship franchise of WPS. They had Marta and Abily and Boxx and Wagner. They had won the league’s regular season and hosted the inaugural championship match. And the inner workings of the league, at the time unknown to just about everyone outside the walls of their Bay Area office, were tenuous at best. We can do the full history lesson some other time, but in short, WPS lost another team during the season, two more at the end of 2010, and was all but a walking corpse in 2011.
NWSL appears to be in a much better place in 2018 than WPS was in 2010. The flagship clubs—start in Portland and go from there—are going strong, and this will be the middle season of a three-year deal with A+E Networks that includes television coverage and web content, the likes of which women’s soccer has never seen.
But bad news has a tendency to spiral out of control if not managed properly. Consumer confidence takes a hit. Potential partners have cause for pause. News that the Breakers had missed vendor payments that complicated any potential sale conjures up memories of WPS forcing clubs to provide escrow payments ahead of each season to make sure they had enough capital to last all the way to the end.
Grant Wahl reported on Thursday, and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson appeared to vaguely back up the reporting via Twitter, that up to three MLS-affiliated clubs could join NWSL in 2019.
Source with knowledge of situation confirms NWSL's Boston Breakers are folding. Source says an NWSL team in LA with partners Barcelona and LAFC is likely for 2019. Adds that another MLS team nearly certain to start NWSL team in '19 and one other MLS team is 75% likely to do so.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) January 26, 2018
Competitive integrity issues aside, that would be a fabulous development for the league. But don’t think for one second that all three, and any other potential investors, are not taking a hard look at how we got to this point where a team drops out of the league less than 60 days from kickoff.
The Breakers are the second team to fold this offseason and the third in less than 13 months to leave their founding city. The loss of Western New York and Kansas City were both mitigated by ownership groups in other cities stepping in to not only take on teams, but ultimately improve the overall profile of the collective group. This time the safety net split open at the last minute, and the Breakers fell through the gap to their death.
Perhaps this was just a stumbling block on the road to ridding NWSL of independent ownership groups as part of a full transition to clubs affiliated with MLS or other sports franchises. But there are stumbles, and there are public tumbles. If the bride trips on her way down the aisle, it becomes the talk of the day. When a pro sports team folds, it makes major news and calls into question all of the issues mentioned above.
There is literally no major sports league operating today that has not seen teams fold. Searching for a congruent example though is challenging. The closest are MLS—the country’s most prominent soccer league—and the WNBA—the country’s most prominent women’s team sports league.
Major League Soccer was on the brink of folding in January 2002 when owners made the painful decision to cut two teams. But with that decision came the formation of Soccer United Marketing, now a conglomerate at the heart of a major issue with the election for U.S. Soccer president. That meant a major monetary investment from the remaining owners. It should also be noted, and this is more important than its position in this column would indicate, MLS at the time still had owners carrying multiple franchises, and it had Phil Anschutz and his billions willing and able to take on massive financial hits to keep things going. Yes, NWSL owners started up NWSL Media last year. But when the Breakers began to teeter there was no Anschutz-like figure there to slide a few million dollars into the hole in that safety net. That includes U.S. Soccer and its famous budget surplus.
The WNBA is a tougher comparison because so much of their stability is owed to a direct affiliation with the NBA. The WNBA, though, has charted a path that is the opposite of NWSL. Once a group of teams entirely owned by their NBA counterparts, the WNBA has morphed to include several independents both inside and out of NBA markets.
What does any of this mean for NWSL? We’ll find out in the next two to three years.
It’s the messaging…as usual
On Thursday, January 18, as the fourth round of the NWSL draft droned on, managing director of operations Amanda Duffy fielded questions from the media. She told us that NWSL was in contact with several potential expansion groups, sang the praises of Los Angeles (the only city mentioned specifically in Wahl’s reporting), and was adamant that the Breakers were operating in a manner she termed “business as usual.”
For a league that has yet to master the art of messaging, this was and is a major problem. For one the notion that the Breakers were operating normally was just not true. According to an email shared with The Equalizer, the sale crumbled the night day before and further sources indicate the team was allowed to draft players but forbidden from entering the trade market. Heads of sports leagues tell lies and half truths all the time, but that was quite a gambit from Duffy, who had to have known at that point that this was the overwhelmingly most likely scenario.
Meanwhile, the notion of conducting a draft in which one team is playing by different rules than the others is a massive breach of competitive integrity that should be reviewed and permanently eliminated from NWSL’s playbook. (Yes, they had something like 14 hours to figure this out, and we are still learning about the details of why the sale fell through, but it’s just one of those things that cannot happen.) Had the Breakers survived, the on-field product would have been severely hampered by their inability to build a proper roster. Sure another last-place team looks great compared to no team at all, but imagine the outcry if that’s how this had played out.
As for Duffy openly discussing expansion, there is no way to get around that being an embarrassment. It’s like soliciting bids to put an extension on your home while your rental property approaches foreclosure that will leave its residents without a place to live. A simple “We will address expansion at some point later this year,” would have sufficed.