With the U.S. Women's National Team currently competing in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament in Canada, a thought came to my mind: with the struggles currently taking place for the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league, might a launch of a WMLS, connected to and perhaps even run similarly as MLS, be a possible long-term solution?
You see, one of the problems of the current iteration of WPS is that there is no team farther West than the Atlanta Beat. Yes, you read that right: Atlanta. That means there isn't even a team as far west as Chicago, let alone west of the Mississippi River, west of the Rockies, or on the West Coast. How can a league with five teams and none out of the Eastern Time Zone possibly survive?The obvious answer is that WPS is currently in survival mode, and there were previously teams in other parts of the country, including the Los Angeles Sol and FC Gold Pride. But a combination of lack of interest on the part of local fans and lack of investment doomed these clubs and others that have folded in WPS's short history. But if interest seems lacking and money is hard to come by, why fight it? Maybe a women's professional league is an unrealizable dream for more than a season or two at a time.
I would argue that a stable professional league is essential in maintaining the quality of the USWNT. Much like MLS has helped raise the quality of the USMNT by introducing a professional structure and giving top players a showcase before moving on to better leagues abroad, women in North America would be well-served by having a league that can gain traction in the sporting landscape. Given the interest in the Women's World Cup last year in the United States, especially with the support of ESPN showing every match of the tournament and the USWNT making their way to the final before losing to Japan, it's not as though women's soccer is a sport with no popular support. The audience would be small at first, but given time, it could grow, both among female and male soccer fans. After all, MLS has slowly built its audience, and it has made it to a new level of growth that certainly seems stable, the rabblerousing of certain soccer fans in the U.S. and Canada notwithstanding.
Is MLS establishing a women's league realistic at this point? Almost certainly not. The severely constrained salary cap for MLS teams points to a certain financial instability that is good policy for the stability of the league, and so splashing the cash (and being willing to lose money for several years on a women's league is not really feasible) is still probably a generation away, if it were to ever happen.
Still, the parallel here is obviously to the WNBA, which started in 1997, a year after MLS' inaugural season, and still exists and is unquestionably the most successful women's professional sports league in U.S. history. With the firm support of the NBA, teams often use the same arenas as local NBA teams. The teams were all once owned by the NBA, but independent ownership has come to several markets, and while the Seattle Supersonics moved to Oklahoma City and changed their name, the Seattle Storm still rocks the green and plays in the Pacific Northwest. Despite Connecticut not having an NBA team, they have a WBNA team, the Sun, because the market will support them there. The league has a television contract, so a fair number of games have been broadcast on ESPN over the years, which has undoubtedly helped the exposure and financial stability of the league as a whole.
The WBNA season is relatively short, and the low salaries players make are subsidized by many, if not most of them, playing abroad the rest of the year. I'm not sure if this could be feasible for a WMLS, although the loan system could help give good players a good salary. But I would project MLS salaries would have to increase substantially over time, so that perhaps women in a WMLS could have salaries comparable to salaries in today's MLS.
Having an established men's league to shepherd a women's league could work, and could help buffer the ups and downs that have wrecked past women's leagues and currently threaten the viability of WPS. Perhaps WPS will become viable and can recover, but it seems at the moment like it's headed down a sadly familiar path. With a women's MLS division, we could see a Chivas USA women's team, developing players, especially in a talent-rich area like Southern California, and perhaps seeing some of them eventually contribute to the USWNT (and maybe other national teams as well). Who wouldn't want to see MLS clubs with a much more robust profile, one that includes a women's team?
What do you think? Leave a comment below!