The Los Angeles Sol's demise can't be seen as anything but bad news for America's second-year professional women's soccer league, but whether perception is reality -- and how well the league can determine what is perceived -- could establish whether Thursday's decision to suspend the franchise is an isolated incident or something far more telling.
Women's Professional Soccer commissioner Tonya Antonucci doesn't appear particularly bothered by perceptions that her league is following in the footsteps of the late Women's United Soccer Association, which lasted just three seasons before folding. The reality, she says, is far different.
"As we've said from day one of the creation of WPS, we are an entirely different league and different structure than WUSA," Antonucci said. "Our model is about local, independent franchise owners, cost containment and managing expectations with steady growth. ... Contraction happens in pro sports, especially in young leagues, but we have as our foundation a model that we think can sustain for the long haul.
"I think the focus ought to be on what are the main business metrics to measure to see if we are still on track."
The Sol, which for all intents folded Thursday after talks with a potential new owner broke down "in the 11th hour," had been WPS' marquee franchise. The team, which played at the Home Depot Center, posted in the inaugural campaign the best regular-season record (12-3-5) and attendance (6,382 average, including the championship game, in which it was upset by New Jersey's Sky Blue FC), both prodded by the presence of the sport's one true superstar: Brazilian forward Marta.
The league took custody of the Sol in November, after initial owners Anschutz Entertainment Group and Blue Star LLC pulled out. Blue Star and Sol officials say AEG committed to just one season with the Sol, that they knew it would pull out once the inaugural season was done. Antonucci says the league didn't know AEG's intentions until this past fall.
Regardless, the league spent two months or so hammering out a deal with a group headed, according to a Blue Star official, by "an individual who was in charge of a family trust in this area."
"We had an investor who was ready to sign, and he walked away in the 11th hour," Antonucci said. "We don't have insight into his reasons. It's not a comment on the viability of the L.A. market. ... L.A. had a lot of success, and it's unfortunate that such a great sort of foundation there was subject to an isolated incident."
The league officially has suspended the Sol, not folded the franchise, with hopes that it can return in 2011 with new ownership and possibly a new name. Still, changing the perception the league is struggling may take time. All seven first-year franchises, according to reports, lost money, and two Sol officials said the L.A. team lost in the neighborhood of $3 million.
A rocky history
Professional women's soccer has a brief and unsatisfying history in America. Discovery Communications founder John S. Hendricks formed the WUSA in the aftermath of the wildly successful 1999 Women's World Cup, luring fellow cable-television executives to invest in and operate eight clubs in a single-entity structure.
The WUSA acquired much of the best talent from around the globe, and the level of play improved with each season, but the league suspended operations after its third campaign -- less than a week before the 2003 Women's World Cup -- after losing more than $100 million. Two "festival" doubleheaders were held in 2004 in a bid to find financing to restart the league, and a group, eventually headed by Antonucci, was formed to devise a plan to create a sustainable professional enterprise.
That led to WPS, which kicked off this past March -- one year later than planned -- with 14,832 on hand at the Home Depot Center to watch the Sol beat the Washington Freedom, a former WUSA club that had survived through the interim.
WPS employs a franchise model, rather than single-entity, with each team operated independently of the others. The approach is far more low-key than the WUSA's, with far less money spent on front offices, publicity and player salaries.
It's difficult to compare the Sol's demise to the WUSA's failure, primarily because the business models are so different and WPS' means are much more modest than the WUSA's were.
Boston Breakers coach Tony DiCicco, who served as the WUSA's commissioner after five years as the U.S. women's national team coach, said the WPS ownership group "is much different than the ownership group in the WUSA. They understand sports, the ebb and flow in the game and in this case the contraction of a franchise. They're handling this as a business thing and moving forward."
Said Antonucci: "We weren't about coming fast out of the blocks in Year 1. So in that respect, 2010 is going to be an incredibly exciting year."
The league is adding its seventh and eighth franchises, in Atlanta and Philadelphia, and the 2010 schedule will grow to 24 regular-season games, up from 20 in Year 1. Thursday's Sol dispersal draft will create a deeper talent pool.
DiCicco, who guided the U.S. women's national team to an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and the Women's World Cup title in 1999, says there are positives to the decision to shut down the Sol.
"The league will be better than last year," he said. "It's going to be harder [for players] to make the league, and the game is going to be played at a higher level. The other positive is the ownership groups remaining are pretty committed. If they weren't, this would've been a good time to pull out."
The negatives? "We're losing the team that had the player of the year, that did well on the field and that was in a major market," he said. "I'm confident Marta is staying in the league, and the Sol's other key players will be picked up in the dispersal draft."
The Sol sets
There are 19 Sol players available in Thursday's draft, with expansion clubs Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence holding the first two picks. One signal of WPS' financial wherewithal could be how quickly Marta is snapped up.
Marta, who arrived with the biggest contract ($1.5 million for three seasons), has been the face of the new league from day one. Her sublime skill and jaw-dropping tricks delighted spectators, and she won the league MVP award after leading WPS in scoring with 10 goals. She's clearly the biggest prize in the draft, but her $500,000 salary requires deep pockets.
"My feeling with Marta is this is something that needs to be handled by all the owners of the league, not just the team that has Marta," said Ali Mansour, part of the Blue Star group, which also operates semipro men's and women's teams. "The team that has her has to pay a good portion, but everybody has to be involved. Everybody needs to pitch in."
She's not all that's available in Thursday's dispersal draft. The other Sol players up for grabs:
Shannon Boxx, whose play in the WUSA led to a fruitful international career, was the best holding midfielder in WPS last year.
Fellow U.S. national teamers Stephanie Cox, an attacking left back, and Tina DiMartino, a diminutive playmaker from UCLA.
Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who led WPS with a 0.53 goals-against average.
Japanese midfielder Aya Miyama, who shared the WPS lead in assists (with six), and three just-signed foreign standouts: Danish defender Julie Rydahl Bukh and midfielder Cathrine Paaske-Sorensen and Czech forward Pavlina Scasna.
Versatile defenders Brittany Bock, who also played up top and could play in midfield, and Manya Makoski, capable anywhere on the wing.
Eight players taken in the Jan. 15 college draft: winger Nikki Washington and forward Casey Nogueira from the University of North Carolina; fellow first-round pick Kiersten Dallstream, from Washington State; Portland star Michelle Enyeart, still rehabbing (like Washington) from a knee injury; Santa Clara forward Kiki Bosio, from Orange County; Kansas defender Estelle Johnson; Maryland goalkeeper Mary Casey; and Clemson forward Lindsay Browne.
But the question remains about how the Sol's demise, following the WUSA's, will influence top foreign players. WPS brought in outstanding players from Brazil, Japan and Europe, but it has had a more difficult time luring the world's best players than the WUSA did, for several reasons.
Women's soccer has become somewhat professional in Europe, and the best teams in the leagues in Germany and Sweden are arguably as strong as the WPS clubs, so top-tier players have more options than they did a few years ago.
German players, who had an enormous impact on the WUSA, have heeded their federation's request to play domestically through 2011 and help promote next year's Women's World Cup in Germany. And salaries in the WUSA were far greater than in WPS, where the average pay is about $32,000 a year.
Still, playing in to U.S. remains a draw, says U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, a Swedish legend who coached in the WUSA.
"If you get an offer [from the] professional league in the U.S., I know that's something all the players are interested in," she said. "And it's encouraging and inspiring and exciting."
What's next for L.A.?
Part of the process, Antonucci said, will be about finding owners who care about the sport and want to see it succeed. WPS' remaining owners have deep ties to the sport, most of them with daughters who play or played and ties to their area's youth clubs.
"It's possible that the theory that more entrepreneurial or independent ownership groups, focused and passionate around the sport, may be the model that, at least for WPS, is the most successful model for the future. ...
"AEG has tremendous sports experience – there's no question of that. And sports experience can also be hired. When looking at viable ownership groups that potentially could [bring] L.A. back online, or with other expansion efforts WPS may have, if we were to talk to corporate entities, we would certainly want to see how their goals align with the goals of the [league]."
Antonucci said "early-stage conversations" have started with other potential owners with the hopes that the L.A. team will return next year. She would not specify how many groups the league was talking with.
"Some people are just reaching out hoping the Sol will be saved," she said. "It takes time to find out who has the financial wherewithal and who supports and wants to see the team saved."
Said DiCicco: "The good news is the league is going forward. It will still be the elite league in the world, in my opinion. More so this year than last year. If we have a good season, with good attendance and sponsorship in the league, I think we can put this behind us quicker than you'd normally think."
Scott French is a veteran soccer reporter who covered WUSA and two Women's World Cups in addition to WPS' first season.