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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
NWSL hopes third time a charm for women's soccer

By Melissa Isaacson

One scene is lodged in the mind of Arnim Whisler, one thought that pushes away the rest when any other smart businessman might question the feasibility of what he continues to dedicate himself to.

"At the end of every game, there are always a couple hundred young girls in a mosh pit surrounding the 40 or so players on both teams, just beaming ear-to-ear as they meet their heroes," Whisler says. "We don't have many other opportunities like that for young women, and you'll often find me watching from a distance because those are my favorite moments.

"That's when I know we're doing the right thing."

Whisler, owner of the Chicago Red Stars, one of eight teams in the National Women's Soccer League, said a scaled-down business model will be the basis upon whether the third go-around for women's pro soccer survives.

There are professional women's leagues [around the world], and the interesting but often unspoken competition is who can spend the least amount of money and still get the best players.

-- Peter Wilt, former president of Women's Professional Soccer's Chicago Red Stars

But at the heart of it, as all team owners know, are the fans. And for Whisler, a weekend soccer player who describes himself as spending "my whole career fixing sick businesses," it begins at home. The Red Stars played to a 1-1 tie against the Seattle Reign on Sunday before a crowd of 1,255.

"It's a very personal investment to make sure my daughters [ages 16 and 18] have real opportunities as far as [female] role models and seeing some of the most elite athletes in the world continue to play," Whisler said.

"Responsibility is a fair word for it. I personally don't want to be the one to bring the league down. I want to keep it going through hard times. There are plenty of people who are passionate about it, but plenty who focus much more on the [financial] returns. ... But if I can move the ball forward and do the right thing while providing an incredible product for families and soccer fans to enjoy and come close to breaking even, for me that's OK for now."

Peter Wilt, who was involved in the creation and launch of the Women's Professional Soccer league, which existed from 2007 to 2009, as well as the president of the WPS Red Stars, said the last attempts to make the product work was too expensive.

"There are professional women's leagues [around the world], and the interesting but often unspoken competition is who can spend the least amount of money and still get the best players," Wilt said. "It's kind of like a battle downward.

"What happened in the U.S. in its two prior attempts is that they were smothering all the other competition, but they were going way overboard in salaries. This time, they're smarter and just spending enough to outdo the other leagues while utilizing their other resources."

"Other resources" is a reference to the helpful boost from the soccer federations of Mexico, Canada and the U.S., which are subsidizing the salaries of national players competing in the NWSL.

Whisler said each team has scaled down costs from approximately $3 million overall to less than $1 million.

"It's a dramatically different starting point, not because we don't want to pay our players, because we do," Whisler said. "And we want to hire more and pay our front office staff more. But if we're serious about the league, we have to size the company to the likely revenues."

League executive director Cheryl Bailey said player salaries will average between $6,000 to $30,000 for the five-and-a-half-month season, but Whisler said that is a bit misleading.

"I don't think long term we can attract players we want at that salary range, so it does need to work its way up over time as revenues allow," he said. "But I would remind everyone that $30,000 is over five to six months, so it's not bad, especially since the breakthrough in this league is that we have more space for elite college players who were crowded out by international [players] last time.

"So if a college kid is looking for a shot at a national team, for a thousand dollars a month to play the sport you love for six months, there are a lot of worse things."

Bailey pointed to the involvement of social media -- all NWSL games will be live-streamed on the Internet -- and a grassroots effort to help propel the marketing of the new league.

"We have great soccer communities like Seattle and Portland and Kansas City, people who love and are committed to soccer, which I think will do a wonderful job of showcasing [the product]," Bailey said.

For U.S. national team member, Olympic gold medalist and Portland forward Alex Morgan, the future of the sport is in lockstep with the success of pro soccer.

"When I look at the [professional women's soccer leagues], I think of the dream little girls have, that I had growing up," she said. "It's so important to have a professional league for the growth and development of soccer domestically. I hope this league sustains itself long enough to be a model for other countries."

Whisler is counting on it.

"I'd hate to misrepresent the overall tone of our owners as charitable," Whisler said. "Rather, we're passionate, and yes, there is an element of responsibility to give our daughters the same opportunities to enjoy professional sports as our sons. But there are also very steely-eyed businesspeople who see the potential in this as well."