soccer

Women’s soccer trending upward or going in circles?

Interesting quote in this espnW report on the USA-Germany game:

The new coach, (Abby) Wambach told reporters this week, will have to be someone who “can put all the X’s and O’s together but who can also treat this more like a business. Gone are the days when the players aren’t recognized. We’re selling out stadiums.”

Rewind to two years ago, when I had one of many good conversations with the ever-thoughtful Wambach at the Maryland SoccerPlex:

“It feels like I’m doing something wrong,” says Washington Freedom forward Abby Wambach. “It feels like I’m failing at my job. I wanted to be part of the thing that kept it going. Now it feels like we have taken a step back at some level.”

So here’s the question*: What’s “normal” for women’s soccer? Selling out stadiums and being recognized? Toiling in obscurity at the SoccerPlex with a few empty seats in the bleachers? Or something in between?

Let’s rewind further to the WUSA (2001-2003). The typical post-mortem of that league is that expectations were wildly inflated after the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when the players were recognized and were selling out stadiums. The league leaned heavily on those stars.

Women’s soccer stars have shown staying power. Brandi Chastain still draws enthusiastic fans everywhere (Twitter exceptions duly noted). Julie Foudy is still an authority on leadership. Mia Hamm draws squeals from fans who were maybe 3 or 4 in 1999.

But how much can the “business” of women’s soccer depend on players being recognized? When Wambach, Solo, Rampone and company are gone in 1-5 years, will enough stars emerge alongside Alex Morgan?

Women’s soccer has gone from obscurity through a boom, bust and boom cycle. Will this boom last? Or are up-and-down cycles inevitable?

That’s what Sunil Gulati, U.S. Soccer business planners and a few team owners are surely trying to quantify right now.

* – You could also argue that the question is what the U.S. women’s coach has to do with running things “like a business.” Isn’t the new coach’s job to evaluate the whole talent pool and get the best players on the field in the best spots? Shouldn’t other people be worrying about the “business”? A conspiracy theorist would say a “business” would mean leaving the same core players on the field ad infinitum while they’re being “recognized,” but I don’t think that’s what Wambach meant. 

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6 replies »

  1. If you take it from the point of view of any newly formed women’s league, you would have to think that a new WNT coach would have to take into consideration the schedule of the league, as much as possible, when scheduling camps and call ups. Working closely with a new league to play off of each other to hype the sport would be important.

    From the viewpoint of the WNT, a new coach would have to be more visible and vocal promoting the team. A coach shouldn’t play favorites, but talking up star players to the media only helps grow interest.

    It’s only natural that with the cyclical schedule of major WNT events there will be an ebb and flow to the general interest, but a strong domestic professional women’s league, with WNT players prominently featured, can help keep interest at a more even keel.

    For women’s soccer to thrive in the US we have to treat it like a business..and sport..and entertainment. The trick will be to come up with a hybrid that maximizes all, while compromising the quality of none..

  2. If the WUSA had been run with the same amount of money but on the WPS’s budget, it could have held out for a decade. But as you say they had visions of filling RFK Stadium and its kin, which was never going to happen.

  3. Beau – I think Abby is completely wrong. The new coach has to continue the tradition of winning and be involved in the continued development of the youth into the full team. The marketing of the sport should be handled by the USSF – they need to hire someone who’s sole responsibility it is to do just that. And overall only a small handful of players are actually recognized, not the entire team.

  4. I’m interested in if the following quote from the espnW article was in the same line of questioning or if they are not.

    For me, this is what it’s about,” said fan favorite Abby Wambach. “Of course you want to come out and win and show the crowd what we can do. But more importantly, it’s about the experience. And the environment the crowd creates is far more important to me than the actual outcome of the game. It proves to me what we’ve done, what we’ve accomplished.”

  5. Wambach: “Gone are the days when the players aren’t recognized. We’re selling out stadiums.”

    That statement leaves me with a bad feeling. It’s like this is just a rerun of 1999 to 2003.

    The USWNT can’t stick with the same “cast” for years like a TV show or a touring rock group. The Rolling Stones have been touring and “selling out stadiums” for decades playing the same old music they played in the 1960’s. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are both on the verge of turning 70 (Amazing that they are both still alive). But people will still pay a lot of money see them sing their old songs and play their old music. Bad music, IMO, but definitely good business.

    The USWNT is a sports team, not a music group. Music groups can get away with bad music and tour forever if they have a huge cult groupie following. Sports teams (other than those involved in “scripted” tours, i.e., H***** G********** ) have to be on top of the game. They have to be legitimate. They have to win. Sports fans are fickle (thank god). When a team stops winning, the fans disappear. Business goes bad. I know there are lovable losers (1962 New York Mets) but those are the rare exception, not the rule.

  6. Ahh the player has morphed into a brand. Athletes are marketed just like musicians/groups/entertainers. Sounds like Abby is looking past her playing days already.

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