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Soccer Mon Dec 20 2010

Red Stars Become Latest WPS Team to Fall

red stars.jpgLast week, the Chicago Red Stars announced they will suspend operations for the 2011 Women's Professional Soccer season while they pursue additional funding with an eye toward returning in 2012. The loss of the Red Stars and FC Gold Pride, a Bay Area club that won the league championship this year, and the addition of the Western New York Flash leave the WPS with six teams as it approaches its third season.

After two seasons, league stability remains a major issue. With Dallas (one of the initial proposed cities) unable to field a team prior to the inaugural year, the L.A. Sol disbanding after the first year and now Chicago and San Francisco dropping out, the WPS seems to constantly be treading water, barely adding a new team as another is forced to fold. It will have teams next year in Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington.

The loss of FC Gold Pride is especially telling, as despite winning the league title, having the talents of the world's best female player (Brazilian international Marta) and playing in a modest (5,000-seat) stadium, the club couldn't sustain operations for more than two years. Player salaries are also quite small; save for a small number of top U.S. Women's National Team and international players, with the average WPS player earning $27,000 this year. So it begs the question: in a country that boasts over 3,000,000 youth soccer players per year (nearly half of them girls), how are there not enough fans of a successful team to regularly fill a 5,000-seat stadium?

Critics of the WNBA are often quick to point to the lack of acrobatic plays that are present in the NBA as one of the reasons for its low popularity among casual sports fans. But soccer is a rare sport in that all of the skills and talents that make a fantastic men's player are present in women as well, just at a slightly slower speed. A 25-yard blast to the upper left corner looks the same whether it's coming from Abby Wambach or Landon Donovan, and as long as the two aren't on the same field together, their abilities relative to the players around them make them both exciting and special athletes to watch.

Here in Chicago, some of the answers to the Red Stars' struggle might lie in demographics. The Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer gets plenty of support from the local Hispanic community, but you don't typically see those fans come out in force for women's soccer. (There's a similar dynamic at work at the international level, where countries such as Italy, France, Mexico and Spain have powerful men's national teams but lag far behind on the women's side.)

But demographics don't easily explain the fall of FC Gold Pride and the Saint Louis Athletica, or the continued struggles of the Washington Freedom. To be fair, choosing to disband for one season and search for more investors is a sound strategy for the Red Stars if they can in fact put themselves in a better position for 2012.

In the meantime, Chicago players will be drafted or signed by remaining clubs and hopefully get to play next summer. The 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup is next summer in Germany, and a successful U.S. run would do great things for the league's popularity. Chicago and the WPS must capitalize on the marketing opportunity that will bring, because without a competitive, professional league for this country's top women, U.S. success at future Women's World Cups won't be so easily assured.

 
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