Women’s professional soccer will return to the United States in 2013, as U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati announced last week the formation of a new league that will feature teams based in some of the nation’s biggest soccer hotbeds. The new league, the third attempt at forming a successful top-notch women’s soccer league in the U.S., will have eight teams based in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Western New York, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
As I wrote in August, when the U.S. Women’s National Team was on its way to its second consecutive Olympic gold medal, making a women’s league successful won’t be easy. But the focus for U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who made a women’s league a priority when WPS folded, is now on sustainability, and that is already evident in the early formation of the new league.
U.S. Soccer has promised to pay the salaries of 24 players — three per team — who are on its full-time roster. The Canadian and Mexican soccer federations announced this week that they too will fund salaries of players who join the league from their national teams. The backing of those three foundations will give the new league a financial crutch WPS and WUSA never had, a significant break for a league that will need help attaining financial viability.
Regardless of the challenges the league faces, this is a positive step for the women’s game. The absence of a professional league made it impossible for the game to take advantage of the enthusiasm brought on by the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics, particularly in the United States, where players like Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and Alex Morgan blossomed into full-fledged stars outside the small world of women’s soccer fans. It also left those players with no top-level professional league to return to, making it harder both for the U.S. to sustain its dominance of the women’s game and harder for the game to grow.
That growth is important. There are now more than 337,000 girls playing soccer on 10,500 teams at the high school level, and another 700 teams play collegiate soccer. The growth of the women’s game internationally has followed the growth of the women’s game in the United States, one of the few countries where women enjoy equal access and funding to the world’s most popular game. But without a pro league, continued growth and the continued expansion of women’s access is no guarantee.
There are plenty of challenges facing the league, but there was once a mountain of challenges facing the now-thriving men’s league, Major League Soccer, and unlike an American women’s league, it can’t claim that it has the world’s best players or top competition. That doesn’t mean that the women’s league will become a similar success story. That Gulati and the league’s investors are committed to making a women’s league viable and sustainable, though, is a good sign for the future of the women’s game and it’s biggest stars.