Patience, sacrifice can help pro league succeed

Prim Siripipat, Jane McManus and Ramona Shelburne discuss the viability of the new women's pro soccer league.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- After watching Alex Morgan score three goals in the first half of the U.S. women's soccer team's 5-0 victory over Ireland on Wednesday night, Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said, "I believe this is Alex Morgan's first hat trick. She's clearly very comfortable playing in Portland.''

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Alex Morgan struck three times in the United States' 5-0 win over Ireland Wednesday night.

That was an obvious overture to the U.S. team star, who actually also had a hat trick in Portugal in a 4-0 victory over Sweden on March 7. In addition to owning one of the most successful teams in MLS, Paulson will run the Portland team in the recently announced women's professional league that will begin play this spring. And he would really like to see his team -- and women's professional soccer -- succeed.

Professional success would be a refreshing change. U.S. forward Abby Wambach already has played in two leagues that died. She doesn't want a hat trick.

"We still have the sour taste in our mouths from the WUSA and WPS,'' Wambach said. "There is a natural reluctance from some of us who want to either go overseas or stay here and create something stable and strong. But a lot of us really do believe in the concept of creating a women's professional league, and we want to do whatever we can to help.''

The new league, still unnamed, will have teams in eight cities. It also will feature a key difference from the two failed leagues. This time, the U.S., Canada and Mexico soccer federations will cover the costs of staff and players who are on their national teams. That will significantly ease the financial burden for the team owners and sponsors, something Paulson says is crucial.

It also will likely lower the wages for some players.

A lot of us really do believe in the concept of creating a women’s professional league, and we want to do whatever we can to help.
Abby Wambach

"It's going to be more on the semi-professional scale, meaning that not everyone will be able to make their full living off the team,'' U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. "People will be able to work and play in the cities where they're from. It will make it easier to do both and you won't have to give up everything just to play in the league.''

Wambach said while the financial model will help make the new league sustainable, there are aspects she doesn't like, such as player pay and health care that "are below the standards of what this national team has built itself to be. … For the most part the national team will be taking a big pay cut to play in this league in terms of what we deserve to be paid in a professional league.''

That's the way it works in sports, though. High salaries only come when you can generate the necessary ticket, broadcast and merchandise revenues to cover them.

"You do have to make certain sacrifices to get where you want to go,'' Wambach said. "And we're doing that, to do what is right by these fans, and we want to have a league be stable. You have to have something to grow toward rather than to continually have it taken away and taken away. We're starting at a more modest level, a more realistic level from an economic standpoint, and hopefully we can grow from that.''

The U.S. women have generated great national enthusiasm during the Women's World Cup and Olympics, but that hasn't translated into support for the professional leagues. Paulson said the new league has to create its own interest and support.

"There still have to be fundamentals in place where the league can succeed without the halo effect of an Olympic gold medal or a World Cup,'' Paulson said.

In other words, fans must have a rooting interest in their teams, not just in seeing the national players. That's the way it works in baseball, football, basketball and hockey. Fans are passionate about teams more than individuals. It's the way leagues survive as players come and go over the years.

Plus, more than 30 months remain until the 2015 World Cup, and not even Hope Solo can maintain headlines that long.

"There is a lot of time between now and the World Cup,'' Wambach said, "and we want to be able to bridge that gap.''

Wednesday night's match drew an announced crowd of 10,092, which included a girl named Teagan Danner, who turns 12 on 12/12/12. To celebrate the birthday, her mother offered her a trip to Disneyland. She turned it down for a trip to Portland to see the U.S. women. When I asked her during Tuesday's public practice session why a kid would choose Abby, Hope and Alex over Mickey, Donald and Goofy, she said the choice was easy. Disneyland will be there forever, she said, but the current players on the U.S. team "aren't going to play forever.''

No, they won't, but the key is providing young fans with teams and a league that will still be there long after those players are gone.

"In my mind the third time has got to work,'' Paulson said. "I'm not sure how many strikes there are, not to mix my sports metaphors here. But I'm not sure when the next initiative would be if this one doesn't work.''

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