Will WPS Have A Hollywood Ending?

We’ve seen this movie before. The housekeeper finds the jewels that the Fratellis missed in the marble bag and the Goonies don’t have to move. Eddie Valiant figures out where Marvin Acme’s will is, and Toontown won’t be turned into a freeway. It’s a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, Beauty and th— oh, wait, that one’s a different metaphor.

And this is where Women’s Professional Soccer sits now. Waiting for a marble bag full of One Eyed Willie’s treasure or that curmudgeonly Eddie Valiant to do a song and dance number and figure out that he had the will the whole time and – oh em gee! – it was just written in disappearing and reappearing ink! [1]

Players and fans have been coming out of the woodwork to beg and plead and hashtag and make petitions and write heartfelt things [2]. If Twitter existed in 1985, Mikey, Data, Chunk and the rest of the Goonies could have just done a quick #savetheGoonDocks hashtag and not had to worry about that whole pirate ship business. It’s pretty unlikely that anyone has an actual marble bag full of actual treasure, so we’ll call that the Dan Borislow and the League Kiss and Make Up Option. Otherwise, sometime in the very near future WPS’s fate will be decided.

First off, the league (or its coaches, at least) seem determined to trudge on, with or without the USSF’s blessing. The difference between sanctioning and not is more about what names are on the backs of the jerseys than if there will be jerseys for those names to be on the backs of. Without sanctioning from U.S. Soccer there’s a chance that the 2012 season will not feature players from either the USWNT or other National Teams, as playing in an unsanctioned league would put those players on rocky ground with their respective national federations. A 2012 season without those players is certainly feasible and really wouldn’t look that different from the large chunk of the 2011 season that was played while those players trained for and participated in the World Cup.

Of course, the league would have to do some serious work behind the scenes to bring in new investors and new teams for 2013 and beyond. But even one season of unsanctioned play doesn’t come without risk. While a rogue league might be admirable for its nobility, idealism isn’t the thing that’s going to make money, and at the end of the day WPS is still a business – not a charity. Committed followers of the league know that the level of play in WPS is extremely high, even without those big names. And once people come to a game and see that, they might come back, regardless of whether Abby Wambach and Hope Solo are on the field or not.

But 2011’s post-World Cup attendance numbers reveal an undeniable fact [3] – those players are the ones who get the first-timers and casual fans through the gates. Without them, the whole thing could come to a screeching halt. No stars, no new interest, no new money, no more league. I’m sorry if I made you sad with that last part, but that’s where we’re at. I’d love to think that Scrooge McDuck appreciated the play of McCall Zerboni and Jen Buczkowski [4], but he’s not even coming to check out a game in this “world’s best league” that can’t even guarantee the world’s best players.

So, how did we get here? Well…

U.S. Soccer has become the target of much of the anger of this whole situation, and certainly the federation’s decision seems on its face kind of like they’re just being jerks about the whole thing because they can. And there’s certainly some merit to that anger – hell, it was my initial reaction too, although I was far less eloquent about it [5]. But it isn’t that simple. According to US Soccer’s official policy (on pages 14-15 of the PDF titled “Policy Manual” that you can find here):

(d) The competitive divisions referred to in subsections (a) – (c) of this section shall consist of professional leagues. Each professional league shall be:

(1) certified by the Board of Directors (BOD) based on standards established under these policies;

(2) subject to the authority of the Federation;

(3) comprised of at least 8 professional teams certified by the Board of Directors; and

(4) subject to all rules and regulations of the Federation, autonomous in its operations.

Oops. In the history of WPS the league has had played just one-quarter of one season with the required eight teams, the first six games of the 2010 season – when St. Louis Athletica was still a thing. Technically, the league once made it to nine teams, but L.A. never made it much further than the 2010 draft. If only that rule said “comprised of 8 teams ever in your history.” Because that number is eleven and then it would all be okay. But the USSF doesn’t roll that way, and it’s apparently based on teams that actually exist now. U.S. Soccer has, in fact, been letting WPS slide on the whole eight teams thing for three years. Why the federation made this decision now, why five is too low and six is okay, who knows. If the USWNT had really crashed and burned at the World Cup, U.S. Soccer could have made the argument that the league was somehow a problem for the National Team. Except the U.S. made it to the final and despite the loss in PKs, it was probably the team’s best complete game of the tournament and overall, one of the greatest World Cup matches ever. So, there goes that.

It is understandable that U.S. Soccer would want total control over its players heading into another major tournament – in this case the 2012 Summer Olympics – but would the federation really sink the entire WPS ship on a premise that’s already been proven to not really be a problem? Or is it that U.S. Soccer is asking the question that all of us are, maybe not out loud but in the backs of our minds – is anyone going to take a five-team league seriously? And is it worth risking injury and fatigue for USWNT players for that? Or maybe it’s that all the crazy infighting and wars of words do nothing to help the game and can you really blame U.S. Soccer, and the USWNT – who are still riding the good feelings of the World Cup – for wanting to distance themselves from a whole lot of nonsense and legal battles? Of course, the argument can certainly be made that U.S. Soccer doesn’t actually lose anything – and maybe even gains something (a better system for scouting players, a larger pool to cull players from, a way to avoid the costs of residency, etc.) by sanctioning a five-team WPS, even if it’s as a Division Two league. And it would be easy to blame U.S. Soccer, to say the federation is just flexing its governing muscles and reminding WPS who really is boss, but take a step back: U.S. Soccer didn’t really create this whole mess. Or really create this mess at all. In the end they’re the parent who’s got to come in and ground the kids because they just can’t. stop. fighting.

WPS, for its part, isn’t exactly innocent in this either. After losing L.A. in 2009 and St. Louis midway through 2010, the league was going to make sure that that didn’t happen again. And that meant making sure that whoever came in next had money. It apparently did not mean making sure that that person was going to be cooperative or not a crazy person. The league’s relationship with Dan Borislow was kind of like a drunken Vegas wedding – it all seemed pretty awesome at first, but once the haze and hangover went away…uh oh.

The early disagreements between the league and Borislow seemed to have WPS on the right side and the new owner playing the part of the rebellious child. Simple things like signboards and submitting the video that other teams use for scouting seemed like no-brainers and Borislow’s continued refusals to comply seemed petulant and stupid. And he did nothing to help his case by communicating only via rant-y comments on pieces that mentioned his name or team on various sites, and with interviews where he did things like call people working for WPS “infidels.” The league’s recent legal filings in response to Borislow’s lawsuit only reveal more about just what kind of guy Borislow is, and having read all 46 pages – it does not make him look good. At all.

But WPS also knew that Dan Borislow was a little “different” from the start, and got into bed with the guy anyway. Back in January at the 2011 WPS draft in Baltimore I asked then-CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas if she had any concerns about the fact that as of then magicJack still had nowhere to play. Her answer: “Sports team owners are a colorful bunch and they come in with their own view of how to run a team and there’s a learning curve and ultimately they shape the team in the way that they shape it and that’s really up to them to figure that out.” That was ten months ago. And in those ten months, no one’s seemed to really learn or figure out anything. Borislow certainly had his “own view of how to run a team” and while those of us sitting there then certainly didn’t know just how different that view was, one has to wonder now just how much of this had been going on since the very beginning.

Of course, Anne-Marie Eileraas is gone now, and so is Dan Borislow. The CEO stepped down relatively quietly as the 2011 season came to an end. The magicJack owner on the other hand… In an interview on this site on October 21st new WPS CEO Jennifer O’Sullivan and Philadelphia Independence owner David Halstead said that all six teams were moving forward for 2012. Five days later the league released a statement that read:

After careful consideration, the Board of Governors of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) voted on Tuesday to terminate the Boca Raton based magicJack franchise. WPS will continue to deliver to its players and fans the world’s top women’s soccer league, with plans to make 2012 the most competitive and successful season to date.

At the time there were rumors that seemed as good as confirmed that the league was ready to bring in a franchise in Connecticut to replace the outgoing magicJack as the sixth team. Except that never happened, with word eventually coming not to expect any expansion until 2013. Everyone assumed the Board of Governors had some kind of plan. Would they just show magicJack the door without a contingency plan? Did they really think a five-team league would get the okay from U.S. Soccer? Was the Board of Governors counting their Connecticut-based chickens before they hatched? Did the rumored new owners in the Nutmeg State back out at the last second? Whatever happened, the decision now seems nothing but hasty and, well, kind of stupid. And one of the biggest bombshells in the league’s legal documents comes from those other owners. On pages 1-2:

Should this Court order that Mr. Borislow be reinstated in the League, it will most likely cause the League to disband, because the majority of the other owners would rather leave the league then suffer through another tumultuous year with Mr. Borislow and his franchise.

 Without magicJack, the league now teeters very close to the edge of demotion at the very least, and extinction at the very worst. It was hard to defend Dan Borislow after some of what he said and did during the course of the 2011 season, and even harder to defend him after reading some of the excerpts from exchanges he had with league officials and other owners that are presented in the legal documents, but when it comes down to it the choice seems simple: put up with the guy for another season with the added bonus of actually getting to have another season or push him out and what? Hold on tight and hope for the best? If the other owners don’t want to – or can’t – play nice with Dan Borislow anymore, fine. But there should have been a better contingency plan in place – and that there isn’t should earn the league some blame for this whole debacle. WPS and its Board of Governors probably have their hearts in the right place, but is the league really the poor innocent victim or do we just want it to be that way because it’s…easier?

If you haven’t read the court documents – and maybe even if you have – you’d sort-of almost feel bad for Dan Borislow, like maybe he really was the one wronged in all of this. You see a guy who, despite a somewhat unique approach, really does want to see women’s soccer succeed in this country. Whatever his reasons are, and however strange, selfish, nationalistic or ill-conceived those reasons may seem, does the why really matter that much? Why did you start following this league, start caring about it? Why did I? The answer might be the same, but it might not be. Ultimately, we’re both here now. It was hard to feel bad for a guy who seemed to want to break the rules just for the sake of breaking the rules. But now he’s the guy that wants to save WPS [again] and those big Board of Governors meanies would rather take their toys and just go home before they would even think of letting him in the sandbox.

But Dan Borislow is hardly the victim here, either. Mostly because the guy cannot stop talking. Or more specifically, typing. There was this fantastic piece of satir— oh, that was a serious thing? – on Beau Dure’s Sports Myriad where Mr. Borislow proclaimed that the league was, among other things, “anti-USA.” When he talks about magicJack being the big draw, I have to agree, and I’m with him when he says that the players should be paid more. But I can’t figure out why he seems so dead set on this idea that maybe the other owners aren’t paying the players a lot of money just because they don’t feel like it. I want to say the Board of Governors was wrong and maybe petty to terminate magicJack, but than I read the part about how there wasn’t a team in the league that mJ didn’t beat “convincingly.” [6] I want to be on his side, to say he deserves a second chance, because WPS deserves a second (or fourth) chance, but I can’t shake that “infidels” thing. I imagine him in the courtroom, forcing his lawyer to file motion after motion to have WPS Counsel Pamela Fulmer referred to as “the lawyer for the infidels” rather than the lawyer for the defendants. [7] But just like the league, Borislow can’t play the victim card if he’s no more willing to compromise than they are – and for as long as he keeps typing.

I have no doubt Mr. Borislow believes he’s doing the right thing. But I wonder if he realizes the hypocrisy of filing a lawsuit that could potentially be very expensive, that could possibly bankrupt the very thing he wants to save. I have no doubt that the Board of Governors believed they were doing the right thing when they made the decision they did. But I wonder if they realize that that decision could essentially kill the very thing they were trying to save. I wonder if anyone remembers what they’re really fighting for anymore. The Goonies only found One Eyed Willie’s treasure because they stuck together, because they realized they were all fighting for the same thing. Because from here, it only looks like more egos. It looks like a bunch of people – from all three sides – risking an entire league’s future just to prove how tough they are and just how much power they really do wield.

WPS as whole, and like it or not that includes Dan Borislow, has only a little bit of time left to figure out that the Fratellis forgot to check the marble bag, that they’ve had the answer – even a though it’s maybe a little flawed and a little worse for the wear – all along. If not, Judge Doom douses Toontown in Dip. 

 

[1] If I just ruined either The Goonies and/or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for you, honestly, I’m not sorry. They’re both more than 20 years old and really, if you haven’t seen them by now I can’t help you.

 [2] I forgive you all for the incorrect article “the,” which, if you say it the long way (“Save the Women’s Professional Soccer”), makes little sense. Unless you’re an old person who puts “the” before everything. In that case, fine, I am sorry, and I have made a horrible and wrong assumption about the demographics of both WPS and Twitter.

[3] And Jenna can tell you just how much I absolutely HATE talking about attendance numbers. 

[4] To be 100% clear, I mean no disrespect to either of those players. In fact, I voted for both for 2011’s Best XI.

[5] As in I said “the USSF was kind of being dicks about the whole thing.” (Ahem. To whom it may concern: yes, my phone number is still the same.)

[6] Seriously, Mr. Borislow, I have a spreadsheet of the head-to-head results including goals for and against between every WPS team ever, including magicJack. I can totally hook you up. 

[7] I also imagine him firing his lawyer and deciding to defend himself because he says he’s a lawyer but then the judge finds out that he doesn’t have the proper credentials. But that’s a whole other thing.

28 thoughts on “Will WPS Have A Hollywood Ending?

  1. Mr. Downtown

    If it means saving the league bring Borislow and his team magicJack back into the league this coming season. At this point it’s damage control for WPS and bringing magicJack back as the league’s sixth team seems to be the best (and maybe only) option to keep the ship afloat!

    Reply
    1. StarCityFan

      According to reports and the available documentation, Borislow drove away one of WPS’s key sponsors (Puma). He is in no way an asset and should not be allowed back into the league.

      Reply
  2. john

    Like all relationships that sour there is plenty of blame and praise to be distributed in this situation. Unfortunately, as you point out (while fudging) Dan the Man keeps eliminating himself from a kiss and make up role. I believe that USSF has to be concerned about a WPS season that commences only to have even 1 team punt. The disruption to USWNT players would of course not be good and one has to wonder if other owners could absorb their salaries given the current hanging on by their fingernails operations of the league’s teams. Do any of us want to wake up to find x # of USWNT players w/o a club heading into London? USSF might be angling to return to residency and hoping to cloak it as a rescue mission f/ the top US players. I f/ one cringe at that b/c it usually means a locked roster once the financial committments are made. We already see a situation that appears to heavily favor the WWC roster f/ London. Of course, it also burdens the growth of the next tier of players, and puts the residents in an environment of artificial competition (demonstrated by the difficulty so many players had adjusting to club play when WPS kicked off). Obviously, I can’t speak to the individual circumstances of the USWNT players and what they’re willing to sacrifice, but maybe the answer leading up to London is Europe. Granted the pay is less and the overall play lower, but the second point would be addressed by the influx of not just American players, but those other WPS players who would surely follow them. Please understand I hate writing this idea f/ many reasons such as not getting to watch WPS matches, the sense that American soccer has once again proven to be unsustainable, etc.
    Let’s all hope f/ a quickly found pirate’s treasure.

    Reply
    1. Katreus

      The European leagues are more uneven top to bottom because of the pro / rel and because some countries FAs don’t support as much as others, but the top 2-3 teams are very good and could compete for and have a good possibility of winning the championship in WPS. They also tend to be stable with more mid-tier teams than the WPS (if only because of greater numbers) and they offer the CL as well. I like the WPS, I hope it survives, but I don’t rate its quality of play as the best league in the world.

      Reply
  3. curiousleo

    A bit of a disagreement from me. I’ve read the court filings from both sides and that pretty much killed any sympathy I might have had for Borislow. If he can’t be bothered to show up for the WPS Board of Governors’ meetings and if he feels the best method to get his way is bullying language & personal attacks, I want off the crazy train.

    Reply
  4. Dude

    As for the mj saga, that whole thing has just been so strange, I’ve never fully understood it, and try to steer clear of it. But based on his previous actions, I still feel the league is better off without him.

    There are ways for investors with money to contribute to the league, without seemingly trying to wreck it in the process.
    Just like there are ways to “stir things up” and get attention for the league, that don’t seem to tarnish the league in the process.
    And, personally, I thought his actions always seemed to be a little bit more about Destructive control than Constructive contribution…with that legal fight being the latest example.

    Anyway, I think USSF is more the main point at the moment…

    And if the USSF gives a damn about Women’s Soccer, then it needs to offer all of the help that it reasonably can, and I don’t think asking for some leeway on classification here is really too much to ask.
    And it would make sense too, given the interest shown from other franchises, and more importantly, given the fact that this is an Olympic year.

    Reply
  5. grrljock

    Thank you Lauren, for the most entertaining commentary of a pretty darn depressing subject, complete with three unsympathetic players. USSF has shown their almost total disinterest in women’s soccer (maybe that’s why they let WPS slide for so long…). WPS has not shown any deftness in the management of their situation. And then there is Dan Borislow, the man with the Savior fantasy. We may yet see footnote #7 becoming reality.

    Reply
  6. Louis

    I wonder how much Borislow would be willing to pay his players? Because all the players from last season, bench players to the stars, hated playing for him!

    Reply
  7. cow pasture alum

    “Without sanctioning from U.S. Soccer there’s a chance that the 2012 season will not feature players from either the USWNT or other National Teams, as playing in an unsanctioned league would put those players on rocky ground with their respective national federations.”

    But wouldn’t that also apply to the next tier of players; i.e., those who aspire to get into their national team pools as the incumbents retire? An unsanctioned WPS would be left with only players who don’t care if they never get a chance to play for their national team. How many people are going to watch them?

    Reply
    1. mmbop

      In theory yes, but I don’t think that this is like a sports strike where “replacement” players are viewed as scabs and the USSF will hold a grudge. So unless thos players are currently vying for a spot in a NP or on the NT, the sanctioning has little import to them. No doubt that the removal of sanctioning would mean 2012 featured no real star appeal (American or International), and that will mean a marketing disaster at an awful time for the League. I guess without the sanctioning – the WPS could technically survive, but I would assume that franchises with haevier over-head like Boston, Philly and Atlanta would face almost impossible odds at survival without some recognizable names on the roster.

      Reply
  8. Bill

    Really, the USSF has all the power here – given that WPS has always operated under a waiver, I don’t see why it is a huge deal for them to do so now. The logical answer is they want something first, so… what is it?

    – More concessions with regard to the WNT? (scheduling, player availability, etc.) Seems reasonable.
    – Do they prefer to keep the WNT players in residency rather than in a league? This would be short-sighted, but I can see why they might want this from a risk perspective.
    – Do they just want to teach WPS a lesson from their public squabbles with Borislow? I suppose, but… why at this point?

    In any case, for WPS itself to grow, it’s like any new unprofitable league… it either needs propped up by extremely rich people willing to take a loss until it’s profitable (hello AEG and the Hunts), or a different entity that sees it as some sort of legacy project. (vis-a-vis Stern and the WNBA.) MLS was propped up by people who eventually went to make their money back in the stadium business; what business would be behind WPS?

    In the long term, sure, having a stable WPS for developing players helps the USSF and the national team. However, their budget projections for this year project a $2.36 million dollar loss on $1.4 million of revenues. Actual numbers may be somewhat better given the attendance at the pre/post-WC friendlies, but they’re still taking a bath on the WNT. Given that they project in the same budget an overall shortfall of $1.5 million for the federation, it’s possible that the board of USSF doesn’t feel that additional spending to support the women’s game is worth it. (This budgeting doesn’t account for SUM – I have no idea where that fits in.)

    That being said, I don’t see where sanctioning WPS *costs* them any money.

    Reply
    1. curiousleo

      USSF is going to have to do a coaching search after the Olys. Pia will leave for Sweden–she’s already said she wants that job and the current Swedish coach’s contract is up after the Olys.

      I agree that sanctioning the league does not appear to cost USSF money–they aren’t giving the league any. And having a league generally means savings on residency camps & USWNT player year long contracts since the current USWNT union CBA scales what is due players if there’s a domestic league.

      Reply
    2. Stacey

      AEG owned LA Sol, then dropped them after the inaugural season of WPS, they couldn’t find a new owner, so they folded. AEG was not willing to “take a loss until it’s profitable.”

      Reply
  9. Elizabeth

    What a refreshing read! I couldn’t have said it any better myself; all 3 parties with power are at fault. I just want what is best for the players and what will help USWNT’s success in the future.

    Also something interesting to add to the convo, I heard rumors that Danny Boy is looking at starting his own pro league. I don’t think he cares one bit if he bankrupts WPS.

    Reply
    1. Dude

      I just did.

      And by the way, I just noticed that…of the 17 members on the USSF board, only 2 are women…

      I wonder how that plays into this WPS decision?

      Reply
  10. john

    Had not known that Pia was planning to return to Sweden. Logical and she deserves that post. Deepens my concern that Pia is wedded to proving her selection was proper. W/o the responsibility of taking the program forward she is w/o incentive to “blood” younger players at London. US had the 2nd oldest WWC roster which tells us a couple of things-there is a lack of forward thinking and just as troubling why can’t younger players make the choice clear by their play. Mitts, Boxx, Lindsay, Rampone (granted she’s freakishly fit) , Lloyd and even Wambach should have serious challengers. Many of us have thrown names out there, but the fact remains no player has forced themselves onto the roster. Who would be the next right back? The team needs a steady left back-who is she?, etc. While I’m running on I’ve also been bothered by US Soccer allowing Pia to operate w/o American assistants. Yes she had them previously (somebody had to get the names straight), but then they were gone f/ whatever reason(s). If US coaches were deemed inadequate then why doesn’t US Soccer get some of them into this environment either as permanent assts.or rotating through the camps to pick up Pia’s ideas, formations, tactics, etc.
    ONward to the London Gold!!!

    Reply
  11. Ian

    I have to agree with Bill’s belief that what’s going on here is part of a power play by the USSF. What they want is probably very simple: to ensure that at no time next year or in the future does club competition ever interfere with national team commitments. It’s become an ongoing point of contention across many of the bigger men’s clubs and national associations in Europe in recent years, and there was already some grumbling from WPS coaches about USWNT conflicts in the 2011 season (Paul Riley being the most obvious example).

    It wouldn’t be surprising that the USSF would want to nip that in the bud now if and when WPS, or professional women’s soccer in general, becomes more popular and more lucrative here. My guess is this is just a power play by the USSF to make sure WPS remembers who’s boss, and then in the future USSF can point to its magnanimity by reminding everyone how it very publicly chose to let the league survive when it could have crushed it instead, in the event of any later conflicts when the balance of power has changed.

    Reply
  12. Dude

    Forcing WPS to stay with mj is a bit like forcing someone to stay in a Bad Marriage.
    If WPS folds, then it folds, but it shouldn’t be because the USSF wouldn’t grant any leeway on the rules.
    Especially in an Olympic year.

    Reply
    1. Tasha Kai's Big Toe

      I was thinking of that analogy too, especially when reading the emails from the WPS court filings. I would lose a lot of respect for the WPS if they went back to Borislow. People talk about how this league and the players set good examples for girls, but that example should extend beyond sports. It should include life lessons – don’t tolerate jerks, especially for money, safety, etc.

      Reply
  13. Jenny

    About the WPS v. USSF – wtf? I don’t get this. Nations usually have leagues, and the leagues generate public interest and train the players. A national body like USSF can’t expect national team players to sit around all year and live for the rare international event, where they would do badly because they did not have any training – that’s absurd. However, I have never fully understood why WPS cannot play a season like Sweden and Germany do: starting in the spring, breaking in the summer (usually when there are international events) and then returning in the fall. This playing league games all through the world cup was ridiculous.

    Reply
    1. Jenna Pel

      WPS looked into an annual schedule that would end in the fall but considering half the teams (now 3/5’s) play on college campuses, it was unworkable.

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      1. kool-aide

        I’d also think players would be against this idea. Many (like Lauren Cheney) go back to school in the off-season or coach college teams (like Keely Dowling). Others have played in Euro (or Aussie WLeague) teams in the off-season for more game time and income.

        Reply

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