This is Part II and the conclusion of Maura Gladys’s take on the USWNT as the dust begins to settle in 2011.
For fans of the 2011 U.S. Women’s National team, talk of destiny and fate that clouded heads has faded, the pain of losing has healed, and some distance and perspective has been gained on this summer’s tournament. Not that distance or perspective makes what happened this summer any less amazing. But it’s important to use this summer’s Women’s World Cup in a healthy way, a way that grows the game and doesn’t leave a gigantic shadow a la the 1999 World Cup.
So what’s happened since Frankfurt? The WPS set a new attendance record, spiking crowd attendance at least for a brief period. The league saw it’s most exciting and dramatic final in league history, while still battling financial woes, changing personnel and a lawsuit. And the names of Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo, while no longer buzzwords, have become recognizable and popular names in the public lexicon. Each of these events is significant, both for the positives that have come out of the Women’s World Cup, and the enormous strides that are still needed in order to make women’s soccer a legitimate business venture in the United States.
Women’s soccer in the U.S. is in a unique position, in that its domestic league depends on success from the national team to spark popularity. The NBA’s survival didn’t depend on the success on the redeem team in 2008, but the WPS will only thrive (at least for the time being) if the U.S. Women’s National Team wins and entertains fans.
WPS knows this and the league did its best to capitalize on women’s soccer’s popularity this summer. Almost immediately following the World Cup Final, they held a match between the Western New York Flash and magicJack in Rochester, New York, Abby Wambach’s hometown. The match was a huge success and set a new attendance record for the league with 15,404 fans. That attendance boost continued for the rest of the regular season, with the league drawing an average of 4,521 fans in the last 17 regular season games, as opposed to an average of 2,725 in the season’s first 36 games. It didn’t hurt that the USWNT’s stars continued their stellar play, which also drew attention to several of the WPS’s non-national team stars.
The league capped off the season with a phenomenal championship match between the Western New York Flash and Philadelphia Independence that was a spectacular display of the women’s domestic game, and should have almost been enough in itself to legitimize the good of the game. Seriously, if you missed it, educate yourself. Instant classic.
But despite the organic success on the field, the off-field struggles of the league are less healthy. During the entire 2011 season, the WPS was embroiled in a bitter fight with magicJack team owner Dan Borislow. Short version: Borislow bought the team, moved it from Washington, where it was known as the Washington Freedom, to South Florida and renamed it magicJack. Violations of league policy were made, grievances were filed, the league moved to terminate Borislow’s right to own magicJack and he countered with an injunction that would send the matter to arbitration. In a move straight out of baseball in the 1910’s, Abby Wambach was named player-coach for the rest of the season.
To add to the uncertainty, at the season’s end, WPS Commissioner Anne-Marie Eileraas resigned, prompting the recent hire of Jennifer O’Sullivan, formerly the vice president of legal and labor affairs for the Arena Football League, making her the league’s third commissioner in three seasons.
This instability, while not debilitating, is not a good omen for the league. They say that they are not in danger of folding, and that exciting times are ahead, but you can’t expect them to say different.
While the league will struggle, the USWNT will continue to thrive, at least for the next year. Impeccable timing blends the honeymoon phase of this summer’s World Cup and the build up to the London 2012 Olympics so seamlessly that the team’s stars can keep a relatively consistent presence in the mainstream media, good for Hope Solo’s dancing feet, and the rest of the squad, who have the opportunity to promote themselves and women’s soccer.
This summer and this team struck a chord with the American public. And I’m not going to pull the “it’s just what we needed at the time” card. Sports fans just got caught up in a good story and a well-played sport, which just happened to be women’s soccer. But that was enough to throw a much-needed spotlight on the game.
In the end, the 2011 Women’s World Cup did something similar to the 1999 version. It empowered women’s soccer fans, and allowed them to share their passion and love with casual and even non-fans, and affirmed what they had known all along, that women’s soccer is legit.
Did the 2011 Women’s World Cup “save soccer”? (Sidebar: Think of how many mainstream outlets were running that story the week after the World Cup, and how many are still promoting that dialogue right now.) No, but it revived it, and it gave us hope for the future. And that’s enough for now.