Women's Soccer Takes Hit as Sol Flame Out
The league started with realistic expectations in realistic stadiums. It was anchored by a Los Angeles franchise featuring the world's best player, Marta, that set the on-field standard with a 12-3-5 regular season record. Attendance at Home Depot Center was better than average, too. But somehow it was not enough, and late Thursday the league announced that the Sol was folding. Where once there was a flagship club, now there is a vortex sucking much of the credibility and hope WPS established in its first year.
The league moved quickly to add its own spin, reminding us that expansion teams in Atlanta and Philadelphia are starting this year and that there's still a net gain of one club. But this was not the anonymous FC Gold Pride or St. Louis Athletica that closed up shop.
The Sol were as big as it gets in American women's soccer. They hosted the league's inaugural match last year before more than 14,000 fans and then the championship game in late August (a shocking loss to New Jersey's Sky Blue FC). L.A.'s average home attendance was 6,382 - nobody was going to mistake the Home Depot Center for Old Trafford on game days, but compared to the league-wide average of 4,717, it was pretty good. And everyone seemed okay with that. It was the first year of an organization trying to find its niche.
And most importantly, the Sol had Marta, the only real transcendent player in women's soccer. If you need a refresher, check this out. With the likes of Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy gone and someone like Birgit Prinz choosing to stay in Europe, Marta was the one player who deserved the attention of every soccer fan.
But Anschutz Entertainment Group, which runs HDC and the Los Angeles Galaxy and had launched the Sol, still wanted out. Late Thursday, WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci told Fox Soccer Channel that, "We found out after the conclusion of the season that AEG wanted to move on to other priorities. They helped us and we had some conversation with their partner [investor], Blue Star. Blue Star wanted to stay in but was not in a position to do so. We had a few ownership groups, potential groups that were interested in us." She said the league went "very far down the path with one group, and that didn't work out."
With the season set to start on April 10, the plug was pulled. "In the end, we ran out of time and came up short of where we needed to be funding-wise for the Sol in 2010," Antonucci said on the league's Web site.
The Sol players, including Marta and U.S. women's national team veteran Shannon Boxx, will be dispersed in a three-round draft scheduled for next Thursday. Reports have put Marta's salary at around $500,000, an astonishing number for a league with attendances of around 5,000 fans per game. Only eight MLS players made more than that in 2009. Marta has a contract with WPS and is obliged to play in the league this year. Is there an investor other than Anschutz willing or able to fork over that kind of cash for a women's soccer player?
The best bet might be Atlanta, which has demonstrated its ambition by building the first stadium designed specifically to host a women's soccer team. The 8,300-seat, $16.5 million facility at Kennesaw State University would seem to be the ideal place to showcase the Brazilian's skills. The stadium is set to open May 9. Atlanta, which adopted the same 'Beat' name as its Women's United Soccer Association predecessor, is operated by local businessman T. Fitz Johnson, who started a company called Eagle Group International that provides services to the Department of Defense.
If Atlanta passes, Philly has the next pick, followed by Gold Pride (which plays near San Francisco, a fact the WPS is intent on keeping a secret) and Chicago.
"All the team owners and members of the Board are confident that this setback will be quickly overcome by the exciting developments that the league has in store for the 2010 WPS Season," Johnson said. "This includes two new franchises, the debut of a brand new stadium built specifically for WPS, a longer regular season and an even better product on the field with incoming talent from the college ranks and the many top internationals that have been signed in the off-season. Without question, this season is poised to build on our successful launch year."
Perhaps, but convincing fans, sponsors, potential investors and TV partners that the closure of its most visible franchise is not a sign that WPS will be following the WUSA out the door will take some effort. If the L.A. Sol couldn't make it, who can?