WPS in turmoil
While Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone and other stars prepared for an important late-season Women's Professional Soccer match, the dispute between their team owner and the league hit the legal system.
Dan Borislow, the owner of WPS team magicJack, filed a lawsuit Wednesday in a Florida circuit court seeking to force the league into arbitration to prevent, in the suit's words, "the League's threatened immediate termination of the Team as a League member."
The suit was made public by a league press release claiming Borislow was "asking a Florida court to bar the League from exercising its right to terminate his franchise at the end of the season for breach of his contractual obligations."
Borislow disputes the "end of the season" timing, and the lawsuit and the accompanying motion make repeated references to immediate termination of the team, as defined by the ownership group Borislow operates. The league's motive, the suit claims, is "capturing for itself and the other team owners the increased franchise value and goodwill that are the fruits of the Team's labor."
League CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas, through a spokeswoman, said WPS has informed Borislow that he will be able to operate the team through the end of the season. The WPS championship is Aug. 27, just 24 days away.
The WPS press release is unambiguous in saying Borislow's actions "more than justify any decision by the League to terminate his franchise."
Tonight's game, with magicJack hosting New Jersey-based Sky Blue, is still scheduled to proceed. The two teams are tied for third place in the WPS standings, with Boston only three points back. The top four teams in the league make the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17.
Borislow responded with identical emails to several reporters, questioning several aspects of league management and again claiming that the league was going to move immediately.
"The largest lie is they were not threatening to take the team away at the end of the season like their letter purports; they were going to take away the team this week," Borislow said.
The lawsuit acknowledges that Borislow and WPS have rarely agreed on how to operate, and that the league has charged the team with several violations, "all of which the Team has vigorously contested."
Hints of the rift came before the season, after Borislow bought the Washington Freedom from John and Maureen Hendricks, who had owned the team since it played in the WUSA of the early 2000s. He moved the team to South Florida and renamed it after his product, magicJack, the device that allows users to make phone calls over the Internet.
The move was barely publicized, with no formal announcement. But when the local media caught up with Borislow, they found he was already feuding with the league over game-day costs.
Other conflicts soon followed. Reporters complained of having difficulty speaking with players after games. The team did not put up a website. The home stadium at Florida Atlantic University did not have league-mandated signs for league sponsors, and Borislow claimed the league was trying to rip him off on the cost of the signs. The team wasn't uploading video so that other teams could scout it.
On May 14, after the league had already stripped magicJack of two 2012 draft picks and deducted a point from the team in the league standings -- a point that could prove costly as magicJack fights for a playoff spot -- the league said it would hire vendors for field boards and video, then bill Borislow for the cost.
"Instead of working with his partners to address those failures, Mr. Borislow has chosen to make public statements that reflect a blatant disregard for the truth and are damaging to the best interests of the league," Eileraas said at the time.
By then, original coach Mike Lyons had been reassigned to other duties. A variety of interim coaches took to the bench, and Borislow was usually present.
In July, during the Women's World Cup, players filed a grievance against Borislow. The league banned him from all coaching duties.
In the lawsuit, Borislow claims he had been given five days to respond to the grievance and was denied a request for a one-week extension.
"I refused to answer this grievance while the women were away at the World Cup, no matter what penalty they would give me," Borislow wrote in an email. "I refused because I did not want them distracted where the league and the Union couldn't care less."
What was not made public at the time, according to the lawsuit: On June 14, WPS counsel Pamela Fulmer sent magicJack a Notice of Hearing to begin a possible termination process.
The process for termination, as stated in the lawsuit citing league documents, has four steps: a notice of dispute, a hearing, mediation and arbitration. The last step can only take place 15 days after mediation.
"The League has commenced such dispute resolution process with respect to certain claimed 'termination issues' with the Team," the lawsuit says. "However, the League has refused to agree that such procedures shall be exhausted before any purported termination of the Team's membership interest takes effect."
The motion details a conflict that escalated even as communication lines frayed. And yet the motion casts the league's actions not as the end result of a fractured business relationship but as a cynical attempt to cash in. Citing Eileraas' bullish comments on possible league expansion, the motion states: "This unnecessary publicity leads to the inescapable conclusion that the League intends to profit from the Team's calculated business decision months before the World Cup to sign eight of the United States National Team players, and further intends to exploit the renewed interest and goodwill, strip the Team of its ownership rights, misappropriate the Team's assets and attract a new investor or owner."
The lawsuit and motion claim that Borislow has done much to build a brand in South Florida and keep the league afloat, saying he has turned the "once-failing" Washington Freedom franchise into a successful club.
Mark Washo, the former Freedom president/general manager and now managing partner of sports and entertainment agency Playbook Management International, says he hopes the dispute can be resolved.
"There [is] enough general interest in Women's Soccer for WPS to capitalize on, to slowly build and grow a sustainable professional league," Washo wrote in an email. "However, the 'battle' must be fought externally to win over fans, media, ticket buyers and sponsors. Therefore, the more time and energy WPS spends with internal issues, only detracts from the external efforts needed to continue to capitalize on the momentum of Women's World Cup. I hope all sides can come together to work through the challenges, so the owners can be united in building the league these gifted athletes deserve to play in."