Suspended season brings uncertainty
Women's Professional Soccer's decision to suspend league operations in 2012 means one thing: The league is nowhere near settling its tempestuous relationship with Dan Borislow and his magicJack team.
Everything else is uncertain.
The games might not stop. Several teams want to play in 2012, possibly in the W-League or WPSL, which have fielded pro teams in previous years. Borislow, who had agreed to operate magicJack as an exhibition team, is willing to play.
The legal action does not seem close to an end. WPS terminated Borislow's ownership rights on Oct. 25, 2011. Borislow says he's entitled to arbitration and has taken the league to Palm Beach County Circuit Court in Florida, where WPS has already lost a couple of arguments on jurisdiction: a motion to dismiss, and whether the league followed proper procedures in terminating the team.
"Over the last year the league has faced significant challenges, including a lengthy and expensive legal battle with a former owner," WPS said in a statement Monday. "The litigation has diverted resources from investment in the league and has forced the Board to take action, suspending the 2012 season in order to address the legal issues head-on before moving forward with competition."
WPS CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan said she has spent the bulk of her four months in charge working on issues surrounding the termination.
"The attention needs to be on growing the business," she said. "It hasn't been able to be there. It would've been unfair to try to put out a season with this still hanging over our heads."
Here's how things will proceed in 2012 on several fronts:
Western New York and Boston will explore playing in another league in 2012. New Jersey-based Sky Blue also left that possibility open.
"We will retain an office and staff," Sky Blue owner Thomas Hofstetter said. "Regarding playing, we didn't make a decision."
W-League officials declined comment. WPSL commissioner Jerry Zanelli says his league's door is open.
"As a women-only soccer league, it would be very appropriate for them to join us intact, as an elite arm of the WPSL, since we already have pro teams playing," Zanelli said.
The Boston Breakers would be willing to play against Borislow's team.
"If we are playing and Dan has a team and there is a way a game could be played, then we'd be happy to do so," Breakers co-owner Michael Stoller said. "There's a lot of work to do for each of us to accomplish that, so it is hard to plan anything right now. But again, yes, if possible we'd do that."
A Florida judge has found that WPS failed to follow its own procedures for terminating a team but held off ruling on the complete injunction pending a hearing on "irreparable harm."
The hearing was delayed because the league and Borislow reached a tentative agreement in which his team would play an exhibition season against other WPS teams.
The deal served to keep the league from suspending operations, and Borislow insisted it could work.
"I still expect the WPS to live up to their agreement they made with us and recorded with the judge a few weeks ago," Borislow said.
He also was surprised at the notion that legal fees incurred by the league were a major factor in the decision to suspend operations.
"I was also under the impression that Pam Fulmer, their lawyer, was donating her time or making a contribution to offset any legal expenses of the league," he said. "If the league follows through with our deal, I can't imagine why there would be legal expenses."
O'Sullivan declined comment on Fulmer's compensation.
The sides are due back in court Wednesday. Soon after the deal was reached, WPS filed a memo urging the court to weigh "irreparable harm" that would be caused to the league with a Borislow victory versus the harm that would be caused if Borislow lost his team.
"The League will present evidence that Mr. Borislow's acts and statements damaged the League, and that such damage likely will continue if the magicJack franchise is reinstated," the memo states. "League vendors and sponsors who have been insulted and not paid by Mr. Borislow are wary of any association with him. His continued presence would thus frustrate the League's ongoing business.
"There is no reason to believe that, upon reinstatement, Mr. Borislow will suddenly conform to the League's rules and work cooperatively with his fellow owners."
The memo then restates WPS's position that other owners would likely leave the league rather than co-exist with Borislow.
O'Sullivan said the league had been working toward a resolution.
"There are a lot of discussions on the legal front that I can't go into right now," O'Sullivan said. "The league is exploring all options moving forward."
That included the deal to have Borislow's team play exhibition games.
"What the ownership and league have been struggling to do is put the focus back on the players and this game," O'Sullivan said. "We were willing to consider that as an option in order to accomplish that goal."
But an outright reconciliation looks unlikely.
"If someone doesn't want to keep up with the rules and regulations of the league and promote the league in a positive way, they shouldn't be around," Atlanta Beat owner T. Fitz Johnson said.
"The owners have tried to come to a resolution several times and have been unable to," O'Sullivan said.
The legal action was one of two major distractions for WPS as it welcomed a new CEO and tried to replace sponsors. The league also had to haggle with U.S. Soccer to get a waiver to play the 2012 season with five teams, instead of the required eight, as a Division 1 league. U.S. Soccer granted that waiver on the condition that WPS follow a timetable for expansion in future seasons.
"Along with WPS and their owners, we are disappointed that there will not be a women's professional league in 2012," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said in a statement on Monday. "While suspending operations was a difficult decision for the league, it allows everyone to concentrate on determining the best approach moving forward to ensure there is long-term sustainability. In the future, we will have conversations with WPS about resuming play in 2013 and beyond."
The U.S. team qualified for the Olympics this past week. Players already had several camps and friendlies scheduled in the months leading up to the Games. Now they'll have more.
"As for how this affects the Women's National Team's preparation leading into the Olympics, we have had discussions with the coaching staff and will be increasing our programming over the next six months," Gulati's statement said.
WPS's suspension may challenge the team's chemistry. Abby Wambach backed Borislow in a weekend interview with ESPN's Julie Foudy. Other players blame him for the league's current problems.
"Abby has been a great ambassador of the league, but so have many other players," O'Sullivan said. "Those are the players that we focus on. I feel very disheartened that an opportunity is being taken away from those players. That's the mission and purpose of this league."
Non-national team players
This is the group that stands to lose the most without a 2012 season. The transfer deadline for many European leagues is rapidly approaching, and the majority of overseas teams can't match the salaries of their American counterparts. Players would be freed from their WPS obligations, O'Sullivan said.
Former national team player Cat Whitehill, who signed with the Boston Breakers, expressed her disappointment.
"This was a difficult task to start with, considering it involved building a women's sports league during such difficult economic times," Whitehill said. "I am sure there will be plenty of blame scattered around for why we were unsuccessful in the coming months.
"As a fan and player I was hopeful that the success of the Women's [World Cup] team from six months ago would be a much-needed boost to keep the league going and am disappointed that the momentum created by that team was not reinvested in the league. I suppose the saddest part is that the selfishness and ugliness of this lawsuit has been the final nail to end the dreams of many young women hoping for a chance to play the sport they love in the U.S."
WPS has operated with a tiny front-office staff in the past year. The staff is responsible for getting sponsors and expansion teams lined up for a 2013 relaunch. O'Sullivan said some sponsors were close to agreements, and expansion interest continues.
"We do have supportive groups, interested groups," O'Sullivan said. "Those potential expansion teams will see this is a positive sign that we're moving to stabilize the league."
Leagues usually don't fare well in coming back from a hiatus. But one precedent in the American sports landscape is the Arena Football League, which went into bankruptcy and was reborn after missing a season.
One executive from that period of Arena Football League history: O'Sullivan, who is now WPS's CEO.
"I think there's a lot of similarities," O'Sullivan said. "In the ownership group we had at the Arena Football League, there were certainly some dedicated people who believed very strongly in it. It was a lot of energy, work and commitment getting it back on the field. It's going to be a similar situation. We have that energy and belief that there is a market for this."