5 February ~ Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), the pinnacle of the women's football pyramid in America, announced it was suspending its 2012 season on Monday. The intention is to resume the league in 2013. The news has implications for both the American and Great Britain teams ahead of the 2012 Olympics, and, in the longer term, for the survival of professional women's football in the USA. The suspension comes as the costs of a lengthy legal battle with franchise owner Dan Borislow threaten to do "irreparable harm" to the league.
Late in 2010, Borislow, a businessman in telecommunications, bought a majority stake in the Washington Freedom franchise. The club was renamed "magicJack" to promote Borislow's business interests, and split its season between Washington and southern Florida.
The court papers filed by both parties involved in the dispute tell a tale of alleged rule breaches (including having a pitch that was too small) and unpaid debts, alongside "unprofessional and disparaging treatment of players" by Borislow. The league has argued that his behaviour contributed to Puma's decision to withdraw sponsorship for the 2012 season. The magicJack owner argues that he complies with rules, insisting that the league's statements are only "allegations and lies".
The colourful dispute wound its way through fines, suspensions and then plans to terminate the franchise's participation in the league. A compromise was struck to enabled them to complete their fixtures, but the league took a final decision to terminate magicJack's membership in October. Nevertheless, the dispute continues, with Borislow arguing that the league failed to follow its own procedures in the termination. The court case is set to run and run.
There is an entertaining side to the dispute. The dinner between Borislow and representatives of Puma that "spectacularly backfired" sounds a good story. But the decision to suspend the 2012 season could have significant implications.
The history of women's football in America shows that success for the national side has a huge impact on the public's interest. An earlier attempt to establish a professional league in 2000 followed victory in the 1999 World Cup. That league lasted until 2003.
The day before the WPS announced the suspension of the 2012 season, the national team had qualified for the London Olympics. The potential for exposure appeared huge. The positive spin is that the absence of league games will allow more time for preparation. But the extra training hardly takes the place of competitive action.
The bigger implication is that it may prove impossible to reinstate the league after a break. The Wall Street Journal acknowledged the part played in the suspension by the magicJack dispute, but, significantly, noted that "disappointing revenues" were part of the background.
Just as important is that the WPS's position at the top of the pyramid is dependent on its ability to grow its membership from the five teams that would have competed in 2012 to the eight necessary to maintain its status. If a relaunch is to be successful, the legal dispute needs to be resolved and a raft of new sponsors need to come on board on the back of any Olympic success. Looking at the history of women's professional football in America, the Washington Post's Steven Goff commented" "Two strikes and you're out? Possibly."
Closer to home, five members of the Great Britain squad now find themselves without a club only six months before the Olympics. Striker Kelly Smith said she is "devastated" by the news, but she has attracted interest from other clubs. Smith added that America had always seemed the most likely place for a fully professional women's league to succeed. In that light, the longer term future might be the semi-professional model adopted by leagues in Sweden, Germany and England. Brian Simpson