U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati announced last Wednesday that a U.S.-based professional women’s league will kick off with eight teams in the spring of 2013. The U.S. Soccer Federation, Canadian Soccer Association and Mexican Federation will fund the participation of a number of national team players in the league.
Gulati spearheaded a conference call on Wednesday to shed some light on the new league.
U.S. Soccer President SUNIL GULATI
“This is really a follow-up from some previous discussions we’ve had with smaller groups, and what we’re doing today is announcing that we will start a women’s professional league in March/April of next year, that league will have eight teams: those teams would be in the Boston area, New Jersey, Western New York, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle and Portland. We had 11 groups that we had been looking at and vetting and finally made a decision to start with eight teams in the eight cities I just named.
Over the last several months, we’ve been doing a number of things, talking with some important constituents and stakeholders in the sport, not just in the United States but internationally. I’m really very pleased to talk a little bit about the model that we’ve put together. That model is that U.S. Soccer will essentially run the front office of this league, that U.S. Soccer will fund the participation of approximately 24 players in the league – so on average, three per team. In discussions over the last several months with our neighbors to the south and north, I’m very pleased to confirm that the Canadian Soccer Association is joining us in that effort and the Mexican Federation is doing the same. So between those three federations and three governing bodies for the sport with long-term player development goals on the women’s side, as well as on the men’s side, we’ll be funding a substantial number of national team players to participate in this league, along with the front office from U.S. Soccer.
The real story today from our perspective is we’re starting a league in eight important markets in the U.S. with the participation of the governing bodies and trying to create an economic model that is sustainable. From our perspective, the most important thing is that we’ve got a commitment from the eight groups we’ve talked about, a sustainable model – and clearly if one wants to do it is those three federations being the government, we are subsidizing the private sector here to try to make it sustainable, to try to make the investments necessary by the private sector smaller.
There are going to be a number of things today that we’re not prepared to finalize or confirm in terms of stadium names, or in terms of specifics of rosters. Those things will be outlined over the days and weeks to come, but we wanted to get this news out there. Yesterday, Dan Flynn, U.S. Soccer CEO, shared an important meeting with all eight groups, as well as representatives of the CSA, Dennis te Kloese wasn’t able to join because he was traveling. So we’re really very excited with this news.”
On the name of the league and the financial commitments from each of the federations:
“I’m not able to confirm the name of league today. We will do that in next several weeks. There is a financial commitment of the three federations. In the case of the U.S., it’s funding up to 24 players – I say up to. It is our intent to fund 24 players, but if a couple of players decide to for example play in Europe, it might be less than that. The Canadian Association is up to 16, kind of on the same basis, and the Mexican Federation will be a minimum of 12 funded players. You’re looking at situation where each team could have seven players from those three national teams that are funded by the three federations. In addition to that, U.S. Soccer will absorb all of the costs of running the front office so there is no capital contributions needed to the normal functions of a normal front office of scheduling, promotions, websites. All of those things will be handled by U.S. Soccer.”
On how the business model and operating budgets differ from Women’s Professional Soccer:
“They are substantially different. In addition to funding what presumably could be the seven top players of each of these teams – there may be others that join us, I can’t say that definitively – the model is quite different both in terms of the sorts of players that you might go out and get internationally, in terms of the marketing and promotional efforts, and maybe in terms of some of the stadiums.
What we need is a sustainable model: less hype, better performance. The hype will come if we have the performance. I think immediately you’re going to see one of the best leagues in world in the sense that you’ve got three teams that have qualified for World Cups, have qualified in the last World Cup, and in the case of the U.S. obviously a multi-time medalist. I don’t think anyone who watched the [Olympic] semifinal or the fact that Canada is hosting [the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup] would argue that Canada is now one of top five teams in the world. Mexico obviously beat us in the last qualifying for the World Cup.
You’re going to see a lot of top players. There’s no doubt there will be top players coming from elsewhere. Whether it’s the same level and same number of players previously, I don’t want to confirm that. It may well be that some players on these rosters aren’t doing this on a full-time basis, at least in the offseason so they might have a part-time job, or they might be at grad school or whatever else it might be. Those will be substantial differences and we’ll add to those things in terms of marketing effort, player compensation and so on as we develop this and frankly have the revenue to do so.”
On the multi-year commitment and draft process:
“On the first question, the commitment is long-term, but that’s a personal commitment and not a financial commitment where we’re asking, for example, for three years of operating expenses to be put in escrow. That’s never been the case in any of the leagues that exist in the United States. The commitment to stay with leagues obviously comes about because there’s asset value, and the idea is to build asset value. That’s true for U.S. Soccer’s commitment, as well. An important part of the discussions we’ve had in this process has been with the national team players. They’re certainly going to participate and we’ve gotten very good signals from them, but they want to know what league looks like. The same is true for the Canadian and Mexican national team players, [they want to know] that the quality is going to be good enough and we’re convinced it will be. There will be some form of a draft for additional players, and there might well be a draft for some of the national team players, as well.”
On whether United Soccer Leagues is involved:
“We’ve had a number of discussions with [USL] and they’ve been very helpful in this process. There are some teams, as you’ll see, that have played in the USL and are playing in this league with the blessing of the USL and a couple of groups that were looking at the USL. We’ve had a very cooperative set of the discussions with the leadership of the USL, with Rob [Hoskins], with Alec [Papadakis] and Tim [Holt], so frankly I need to thank them for those discussions. They’ve helped to get us to the point where we’re at, and they remain an important part of the growth of the game both on the men’s side and women’s side.”
On how the eight markets were selected:
“A number of things. We had an outside, independent accounting firm that looked at the wherewithal of the individual investor operators from the cities. We looked at geography. We looked at the importance of the market. We looked at success of the markets for women’s national team games, for Major League Soccer, for youth soccer, all of those things. We ended up with a cluster of four teams in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, two in the Midwest and two in the Far West. Those were all considered and part of the decision-making process.”
On the absence of the Los Angeles market:
“It wasn’t one of the eight selected, and I don’t mean to be facetious. That’s something in the future that is possible. Los Angeles is obviously an important market. I’m feeling much more like Roger Goodell now having to answer why there’s no team in Los Angeles.”
On Portland and Seattle having a team:
“What made Portland interesting is the Timbers have an extraordinary fan base. The city has been a huge supporter of the game. The investor group led by the Paulson family is about as a good as you can get. The University of Portland’s program, a number of their star players have played in Portland. It’s a terrific market with a great track record for the sport. There will be a team from Seattle in this league next year.”
On TV rights holders and sponsors:
“What I can tell you is that before we even made this announcement, we have a handshake agreement on one national sponsor and we have had preliminary discussions with a TV partner. How many games and what games on what network I certainly don’t want to speculate on, but I would expect that we would have a few national sponsors. How many and the economics of that I certainly can’t tell you, but we have one that has already agreed to participate with the league.”
On the investor groups involved and quick start to the league:
“A number of the teams are led by people who have been operating in their markets at some level in the past year or who were involved with WPS. In another case, you have an MLS ownership group involved, so while there are some challenges. I think the people we have and experience we have in most of these markets will help to overcome those challenges. Do we prefer a year? Of course you always want more time, but I think we’ll overcome those challenges with an early to mid-April start and a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes in every area. We haven’t been able to announce it until we had all the pieces in place.”
On the Major League Soccer’s collaboration:
“There has been some collaboration from MLS in the past. Soccer United Marketing represented WPS. We have talked a number of times, as has Dan Flynn with [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber, and today we talked to a number of investors that are in certain cities across the country. I think you’ll see in the next several months that we’ll have discussions with Soccer United Marketing about representing the league. Don has been extraordinarily supportive of the efforts that we’ve been going through the last several months. He’s on U.S. Soccer’s Board [of Directors] and has been supportive in that role as well as commissioner of Major League Soccer. So I think you will see some collaboration and cooperation. On what form that takes really will have to be seen in what markets. Clearly in the case of one market where there is an MLS ownership group there will be rather close collaboration, and how much more we’ll have or how many more MLS teams might look at this in the future remains to be seen. What I can tell you is that we have had a few emails and phone calls since making this announcement yesterday about announcing a league about discussion or inquiries and at least one or two of those are from people involved in Major League Soccer, so frankly we have had a great relationship with MLS in the launch of this. The first meeting we had with an ownership group was at MLS headquarters. A number of people from Major league Soccer joined us in Chicago over the summer, so there is lots of collaboration. It may not be visible to the outside, but I think it’s quite positive.”
On cities that were considered but will not be in the league in 2013:
“It’s not a question of making the cut necessarily. We wanted an even number of teams to start with. It isn’t always necessary. Obviously, MLS has been very successful with an odd number, but for a number of reasons – geography and so on – we thought eight was the best number. Ten or 12 teams at the stage in terms of talent and talent dilution and in terms of support that we can get from particular markets and so on was the rational for going with eight, so I can certainly see some of the groups and teams that looked at this on being part of this in the future sit down and have an individual application per se, it really is our decision and then a vetting on what the best eight cites would be to start off.”
On a schedule for the league:
“In terms of a schedule you’re looking at a March/April start to a September/October conclusion and I am using slightly broader parameters because next year we’ll have more time, but we have Women’s World Cup on our continent and we have international fixture dates that are greater on certain parts of the year on the women’s side than they are in other years given a world championship or the Olympics. In some years your looking to start as early as late March and other years it could be as late as mid-April and September/October finish with appropriate breaks. A big rationale for this is player development, and player participation is part of their development and that is certainly the case for the Canadian Soccer Association and the Mexican Federation.”
On budgets and caps for the teams in the league:
“I think we’ll certainly have some guidelines. I can’t tell you what those are yet. They aren’t firmly established yet. There are certainly some ranges that people are thinking about and obviously in the professional league in the U.S., whether it be the NBA or Major League Soccer there is a lot of variations on those sorts of things. DPS in the case of Major League Soccer and the ability to sign free agents in the case of the NBA and so on, but we don’t have all those details and numbers yet.”
On the league being a residency program for the National Teams:
“It was considered no doubt by the Canadian Soccer Association and the U.S. Federation who’ve done residency type models in the past. So in years when we had a league, the national team’s schedule has been adjusted. In years that we haven’t, we had more games generally and in most cases a residency program and by that for the most part in the west coast and many years ago to Florida and living together and being able to train together. You still see some of that, and what I mean there is we may play outside of just the FIFA dates and as long as our players are playing in this league and the truth is for the Mexican and Canadian players then we have the ability to do that.
“You might still see a mini residency in the offseason. The season is not as long as the traditional European men’s season for example and with the World Cup coming and the need to play at a very high level for a very targeted group of players – 18, 22, 24 – you’re still going to see a pretty expansive national team program but what we have here is the ability to coordinate that program with our sister federations and with the league itself. The schedule in prep time, in training, all of those things, the rest time for the team and very much have that based on a given year with what the FIFA calendar looks like.
“So did we consider residency? Yes. All of the people on our technical side including our new National Team coach and including the Canadian National Team coach and the national team coach of Mexico in this case. All of the people we interviewed at the national team position said the best way to take this program forward long-term is to have a league. You get more players an opportunity to be seen, you get players playing daily, and you get players playing in different environments, team players who have a different role on the national team and now they have to take a leadership role in a club team and develop those abilities. So across the board and certainly the case on the men’s side the best way long term to develop is in a league format where the challenges are every day.
“Our plan in the short term, and it’s also the case with the CSA as Victor has already mentioned and the Mexican Federation, is that the league will be supplemented by a national team program and a national team training program that might involve some residency. I don’t know the cut off for a long training camp versus long residency but it will certainly involve an expansive national team program to supplement and support what the league is doing to make sure that we’re prepared in the way we want to be when we hopefully qualify for Canada first and then go to Canada in 2015. And the same would be true for the CSA and the FMF.”
Canadian Soccer Association President VICTOR MONTAGLIANI
“Canadian Soccer is obviously very excited about this league and this initiative. When Sunil and I and the Mexican Federation – the germane of this idea was after Olympics – had some discussions with respect to what needed to be done, following the leadership of Sunil and the U.S. Federation, we quickly jumped on board with respect to this concept. We’re very happy about today’s announcement. The Canadian Soccer Association will commit funding up to 16 of our national team players with respect to our leadership under John Herdman, our coach, who will provide a list of the 16 players to the league spread out among the eight clubs that will be participating.
“With respect to why it’s exciting for us, we are hosting the next Women’s World Cup in 2015 in six of our cities coast to coast. For us, it’s obviously a very exciting time for women’s football and for football in general. It is a great opportunity to leverage that event into having our players play in a professional environment with this league, having our players on one calendar system on one continent, and also the ability for own technical staff to work around the league with respect to having our players play in full-time residency after the season and prepare for the next Women’s World Cup, which we’re hosting. For us on all fronts, from a player development standpoint, from a business development standpoint and from the development of women’s game, period, it is something that is a win-win situation for us. We’re very excited about today’s announcement.”
On if he considered having a team in Canada with only Canadian players:
“When they were looking at markets there was an opportunity for Canadian markets to look into. I think some of them have looked into it and weren’t quite ready. Sunil has said, I think, moving forward that this is not an exclusionary thing. Obviously, if there are opportunities for other markets as we move forward to seriously look into coming into the league it would be something that we would look at. I think having an entire Canadian team or an entire American team or an entire Mexican team would kind of skew the technical part of the league. I don’t think it would be in anybody’s best interest for that. So I think having players spread out throughout the league is the best thing for the league and ultimately the best thing for the players, as well. In terms of a Canadian team, I think the door is open to that as we move forward.”
Mexican Football Federation National Teams Coordinator DENNIS TE KLOESE
“On behalf of the Mexican Federation, I’d like to express first of all my gratitude to everybody who’s listening. We’re very excited about this new project. I think it is something unique and working together, our three federations on this, on getting women’s soccer on a higher level, I think we’re trying to make a good effort of improving our women’s soccer in Mexico. I think we’ve made strides the last few years and I’m 100 percent sure that this initiative will be a very good next step for us. I’m very excited to be a part of it.”
Representing Ownership: Boston Breakers Managing Partner MICHAEL STOLLER
“I would mirror a lot of the comments made today already. We, as the owners of the teams, are all very excited about this league and the return of professional women’s soccer to the sports landscape in North America. There has been a tremendous amount of work done over past several months. It may not look like there are a lot of details out there, or a lot of time to prepare, but I can tell you we are absolutely fully prepared as teams and as a league front office with U.S. Soccer’s support to launch this league in the spring of 2013. The team owners all want to be clear on expressing our appreciation for everything that U.S. Soccer has done to make this happen, both financially and behind the scenes with lots of work and lots of negotiations. We are also very appreciative to the Canadian and the Mexican Federations for supporting the league and joining in on this effort.”
On how the business model and operating budgets differ from Women’s Professional Soccer:
“The one thing that has absolutely not changed is the teams’ commitment to professional training and professional environment for the players. This is a true professional league and standard of play. As Sunil said, the level of play, the game level, will be amazing. The level of day-in and day-out training and practices and the level of games will be played by literally the top 10, 12 players on each and every team in world. I think from a cost standpoint, a few of the major things that are different is that we’re all playing in smaller stadiums that are a fraction of the cost of what we were playing in previously, for the most part. You’re not going to see places like Toyota Park in Chicago being a venue. We won’t be playing at Harvard this coming year. That is game day cost saving that is substantial for all of us. With the help of the federations, our player cost is a fraction of what it was when we were paying all of those players those salaries. We’ll also have inner staffs and use more web-kind services and more interns and those kinds of things to keep our back office costs down but still have all of the requirements of fielding a professional standard operating model. The numbers are substantially down and with the kind of sponsorship we think we’ll be able to get over next few years, this is truly a sustainable model that we’ll be able to increase those costs along with increasing revenue. We won’t start off with the sort of deficits that we started the last two leagues with.”