This time, a new women’s professional soccer league has the philosophy, business plan and history lessons to ensure its success.
“That’s yet to be decided,” said Abby Wambach, a familiar name - and the biggest - on the latest version of the Washington Freedom. “This league is still budding. Only time will tell.”
The new seven-team league - an eighth is set for next year - is known as Women’s Professional Soccer, and it will take another stab at the market when it starts play in a couple of weeks. The first was the Women’s United Soccer Association, which started in 2001, propelled by the U.S. victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Two years later, the WUSA folded. The Freedom are its only survivor.
Wambach is enthusiastic about the prospects of the WPS. Her caution stems from a realistic grasp of the past. So far, women’s pro soccer has yet to endure. Wambach was there when the Freedom won the 2003 WUSA title, only to learn a few weeks later that their league had died.
Her teammate, former Maryland star Emily Janss, played for the New York Power of the WUSA, and Lori Lindsey played for the old Freedom. Lindsey said the league had problems, but “it was a shock to everybody” when it disbanded.
The WUSA failed mainly because of fiscal irresponsibility and its unrealistic dreams.
“They didn’t want to work for it,” Wambach said. “They had all the money, and they spent it.”
Foolishly, it turned out. Reportedly, a $40 million budget earmarked to last five years vaporized in just one. This time will be different, everyone connected with WPS insists. The league doesn’t own the teams, as in the WUSA; they are individually owned. Expectations and expenses are more realistic. The WUSA provided a blueprint of what not to do.
“Hopefully, you learn from your mistakes,” Lindsey said.
“Teams kind of landed like an alien ship in their markets, and they didn’t have grass-roots support,” Freedom coach Jim Gabarra said. “From the players’ point of view, the WUSA was a nice gig. They worked six or seven months and got paid for 12. It didn’t make economic sense.”
Nor did playing in “massive NFL cathedrals,” as WPS chief operating officer Mary Harvey put it. “We’re setting expectations in line with what we feel we can deliver.”
Gabarra is the only coach the Freedom have had. He and assistant Clyde Watson have stayed on through its various incarnations since 2001. After the WUSA folded, the Freedom played as a club team and competed in the minor W-League. Several players also have hung around through the years, giving the Freedom continuity and chemistry unmatched by other teams in the WPS.
“I had seven teams to choose from, and this one has an incredible base,” defender Cat Whitehill said. “This team was together even when the WUSA wasn’t there. It’s the only surviving team, and that’s appealing.”
Gabarra, whose wife, Carin, coaches the women’s team at the U.S. Naval Academy, said, “We always believed women’s soccer is an important part of the sports landscape in this country. We worked to provide a base for the pro team when it came back.”
The first Freedom team played at RFK Stadium, which made a healthy crowd look skimpy. The new Freedom, who open their season March 29 at Los Angeles, will play in a remodeled, 5,200-seat stadium at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County. The first home game is April 11.
“It’s gonna be a very good atmosphere,” Gabarra said.
“Imagine now if you’re a fan and you want to go to a game,” Harvey said. “Instead of rattling around a 50,000-person stadium, you can go to the Soccerplex, have it packed to the gills, you’re right on the field and you’re gonna watch the best women’s soccer the world has to offer.”
In 2005, Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks donated $6 million to the SoccerPlex. Hendricks helped start the WUSA in addition to the Freedom. He and his wife, Maureen, own the club.
Salaries in WPS generally range from about $20,000 to the low 30s, although the stars earn more. Some players will coach or compete in Europe during the offseason. Others have full-time jobs. Lindsey is a personal trainer. Joanna Lohman works in commercial real estate. The league offers several benefits, including health care and housing, day care and transportation allowances.
Gabarra modeled the organization after the European club system, in which teams maintain developmental and other lower level teams. He calls it a “pyramid,” with the Freedom at the top, the W-League amateur team just below and youth league programs in Maryland and Virginia below that.
All of the teams operated by the Freedom employ the same philosophy and style of play: Gabarra’s.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We provide the avenue for the player who wants to play professionally, to kind of walk up the steps of the pyramid.”
Gabarra and the entire organization are making an effort to bring youth clubs throughout the area under the Freedom umbrella. The club offers what he calls a “variety of services,” including coaching, clinics and camps, in return for purchasing tickets.
“We feel like it’s an important way people can feel invested in the club,” Gabarra said.
Said Whitehill: “It’s starting to get imbedded in [girls’] heads that you can play soccer for a living. When I was coming up, all I thought was that I could play in college. Now parents know that you can play soccer at a higher level, and kids are gonna keep developing.”
Soccer in this country always has been a hard sell as a spectator sport, but Whitehill remains optimistic.
“It’s gonna take a little while,” she said. “In America, we’re still learning patience [about soccer]. I’m hoping that slowly but surely it will come around.”