Friday, May 18, 2012

Women's Professional Soccer Folds

I've coached my daughter's soccer teams since she started in our local Association and through her move into our local Club ("travelling") team.  Over the years, I've taken her to see lots of high school, college, and U.S. Women's National team games.  I've learned a lot about how girls are different in their approach to the game, both as players and as spectators. The recent shut down of WPS saddens both of us, but it's not surprising, and there's little need for finger pointing or for conspiracy theories. 

Our professional sports model is built around a national league, with a broad enough interest to generate major television network coverage.  A women's professional soccer league doesn't fit this model, and it may not do so for many years.  Changing the scale of operations betwen WUSA and WPA clearly wasn't sufficient, because it didn't address the fundamental problems.  Football and baseball were built for this model. 

The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) began with eight teams in 2001, trying to build on the success of the 1999 American Women's National team.  It folded in 2003, despite trying to reduce its cost structure by giving the players a draconian 30% salary cut.  WPA began with six teams and more modest expectations, but it too has folded in 2012, despite the marketing momentum of the Women's World Cup in Germany last summer. 

I hate to say this, but the women's professional game is pretty boring.  Beyond the star power of some of the top players, the overall level of talent is not stellar, and the level of fitness wasn't very good either.  Games deteriorated over a forty five minutes into players bunching at both ends with an empty midfield.  Defenders hoofed balls at random, bypassing the midfield, to ever slower attackers going one on one with a full back.  Even after several decades of a men's professional game in America, the MLS has finally begun to produce a passable professional game, about on a par with the English Championship.  The women's professional game has a way to go.

The best games we saw were collegiate games. Even more than the ballyhooed North Carolina women's teams we enjoyed watching the 2006 Santa Clara Broncos who played a continental style game, passing the ball sideways and back maintaining possession while looking for better attacking angles.  They were well coached, fit and worked together well.  The professional teams seemed to be built on one or two stars per team.  This isn't a good formula for success, because soccer is not a game for stars, unlike basketball or ice hockey.  Good teams with great teamwork, powered by their leaders, like Japan's Nadeshiko, are what it takes to win at the highest levels.

Girls have lots of sports to choose from, both to play and to watch.  Lately, here in the Midwest plains, lacrosse is starting to attract girls away from soccer and other sports.  I've noticed that when my daughter goes to watch a soccer game with me, the outing is as much a social event as it is about focusing on a game.  Meeting up with friends, going to a common area to chat or to go get food are often more important that focusing on every second of a dull game, which is often why they don't concentrate on it. Girls are social multitaskers at live sporting events.

Our sports eye balls are too divided and jaded for women's soccer and men's soccer, for that matter, to every really flourish. I'd much rather watch Johns Hopkins against Syracuse in men's collegiate lacrosse than to watch American professional soccer of any kind.  Men's indoor lacrosse?  Boring.  Too many sports competing for viewers.

Maybe the answer is for the women's game to be built more on the model of smaller teams in the English Football League One or Two, with heavily local teams, partly owned by fans, and playing in small high school or college stadiums. The problem with this idea is that the game would be competing with a pretty good level of collegiate games. 

I know that my daughter and I will be out and about this spring and summer looking for all kinds of girl's and women's soccer games to watch. She will also be playing and doing her refereeing.  One day we'll again go to an American women's professional game.

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