September 03, 2009
The Real Problem with Women's Pro Soccer

The first season of the Women's Professional Soccer league produced smaller crowds and bigger financial losses than anticipated. Of course, the nation's economic downturn has been blamed, and the analyses of the league's struggles have focused on off-the-field issues.

By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine's Youth Insider)

Yes, media coverage is difficult to get as newsroom staffs keep shrinking. Sponsorships are a hard sell in this economic climate. And WPS's attempts to tap into the lucrative youth soccer market is tricky business. By launching camps, it competes with and antagonizes the youth clubs and organizations whose players it's trying to get into the stadiums.

But what really matters is whether the soccer on the field is entertaining enough to draw crowds and keep them coming back.

The primary customers for WPS are girl soccer players - and the parents and coaches who deem it worthwhile to take their daughters out to watch potential role models.

The notion is that girls will be inspired by watching stars of their own gender. They'll be encouraged to watch more soccer - a key to player development - because they'll enjoy watching WPS games.

But what do young, aspiring soccer players see when they attend WPS games?

What they rarely see is goals. The league averaged 2.14 goals per game. That's even lower than Major League Soccer's current 2.54 production.

There are problems here. For one, if a coach or a parent is taking girls to WPS games to learn by observing, what are they learning? They're certainly not seeing enough scoring to figure out how that's done.

Come watch WPS to see good defending! How enticing is that, especially as there is no shortage of stifling anti-soccer on the market already?

Are the girls attending WPS games being entertained when a goal occurs only once every 42 minutes? That is simply an unacceptable rate. More than a third of WPS's 70 regular-season games featured just one goal or were scoreless ties.

Defense-minded, low-scoring soccer plagues men's soccer. Wins by 1-0 might be celebrated by fans with a deep allegiance to the winning club. But such allegiance doesn't exist in a new, American league. And the youngsters of today's America have so many entertainment options they're unlikely to find thrills from soccer games played out like chess matches.

That's not to mention the adults who take them to the games. Often they are already spending much of their time on soccer, bringing their children to games and practices a few days a week. If they spend even more time and money on soccer by attending a pro game, they'd better be rewarded with some major entertainment.

Yes, of course, low-scoring soccer games can be entertaining. But rarely. Who would opt for a 1-0 match over a 3-2 game? The coach might. But not the fan.

WPS teams had a chance to prove themselves above an attitude to the game based on preventing rather than producing goals. WPS could have distinguished itself making soccer's most thrilling moments - the goals! - more frequent and offering an alternative to the depressingly downward scoring trend we have seen in the men's game. Instead, WPS delivered even less than the men.

WPS collected the world's best female players ever to play in one league - and they produced one of the lowest scoring leagues the world has ever seen. Imagine how that reflects on the sport and women's soccer in general. Here's the world's best - and they rarely put the ball in the net.

WPS owners, I imagine, are spending the offseason reevaluating their marketing strategy. But they should also be questioning their coaches on how and why they took a low-scoring sport to new depths.

The coaches' responses are predictable. They will defend their defensive approach. They'll say their jobs are on the line if they don't get results. And that in soccer it's easier to get results by playing cautiously. That's when their bosses should make it clear that there will no jobs if there aren't more goals.

But because coaches aren't easily enticed to make the game more fun and exciting, WPS should go a step further and introduce a point system that rewards goalscoring.

The friendly autograph sessions and the lure of female role models isn't enough to make WPS a success.