Ambition, independence, or both? NWSL owners talk future fears and hopes

As the league gets more ambitious and big-money MLS owners buy in, the founding “independent” owners are getting pushed out. How do they feel about that? We spoke with them about the power shift in the board room.

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The 2018 National Women’s Soccer League season arrived amid a number of warning signs for the league’s independent clubs – the four remaining organizations with no ties to Major League Soccer or United Soccer League organizations.

The Chicago Red Stars, Seattle Reign, Sky Blue FC and the Washington Spirit are those four, a total that looked healthier 15 months ago when teams in Boston, Kansas City, and Western New York were also independent.

Since, Western New York’s team followed a title-winning campaign by being sold to the owner of North Carolina FC, a second-division men’s team in the USL. FC Kansas City was bought out this offseason, with its players assigned to a new MLS-backed franchise in Utah, while the oldest professional women’s soccer team in North America, the Boston Breakers, folded after months of trying to find new owners.

In a league where Portland’s MLS-affiliated club continues to garner international attention, with other men’s-linked teams persisting in Houston, Orlando, North Carolina and Utah, the futures of non-affiliated clubs have become a point of speculation, if not outright concern. With three franchises gone in the last two seasons, can the league’s rising standards be met by any organization that doesn’t have another means of support? Will the vision of independent women’s soccer teams have to be sacrificed in the name of the NWSL’s survival? More directly, what is life like for the NWSL’s independent clubs six seasons into the league’s existence?

To explore those and other questions, FourFourTwo reached out to the league’s four remaining ownership groups to get their perspectives on their teams’ challenges. Three owners shared their views of the present and future for independent ownership, while a fourth, Sky Blue, said the views of Chicago, Seattle, and Washington likely reflected their own.

Asking the same questions of each owner, here is what FourFourTwo learned from Washington’s Bill Lynch, Seattle’s Bill Predmore and Chicago’s Arnim Whisler about the reality of an independent team’s life in the NWSL.

A false dichotomy?

Baked into this entire survey is an assumption, one that may not necessarily be true. Is NWSL life that much different for independent clubs and owners? Whisler not only challenged the assumption, but sought to turn it on its ear.

“I think it’s [an] incorrect question and starting point,” he said, when asked whether he bought into the dichotomy we’d created. “There is a clear difference between well-funded and not well-funded clubs,” he explained, “but the idea that the approach to finding well-funded, long-term clubs is all through the MLS, it’s a false assumption.”

To illustrate his point, Whisler walked through the reality of his market. If the purpose behind MLS affiliation is to tap into a team’s strengths while enjoying the efficiencies the broader organization can offer, why would teams only consider partnerships with MLS or USL clubs? Perhaps, he posited, there’s better relationships within Chicago’s sports landscape than with the area’s MLS club.

You’d start with these megabrands who could, with a click of an email, bring you an extra 30,000 fans that were unaware that you even existed

- Chicago’s Arnim Whisler

“It’s not because I’m against the Fire. We love the Fire,” said Whisler – hence the teams’ Toyota Park double-header against Portland on March 31. “But you would start with the Cubs, or the Blackhawks, or the Bears, or the Bulls. You would start with these megabrands who could, with a click of an email, bring you an extra 30,000 fans that were unaware that you even existed. Or who could swing not just a couple million in sponsorships that they control – for instance, with the MLS team – but we’re talking tens of millions or a hundred million dollars more in annual sponsorship revenue for somebody like the Cubs. 

“[The Red Stars are] a rounding error. Their existing sponsors could include us in those deals at numbers far above what most MLS clubs could do.”

Whisler recalls the Red Stars’ time in Women’s Professional Soccer, the NWSL’s predecessor, where “there were plenty of well-funded millionaires … All I’d ask you to do is ask: Who is still standing?” he said. “And it wasn’t necessarily the deepest pockets, it was the deepest commitment. That’s the other thing I would say is more important: finding partners who were committed, come hell or high water, to women’s soccer in this country. Because they’re the ones who are going to be standing a decade from now.”

Whisler wants to change the conversation, asking “who wants someone that’s a dependent? … Don’t you want somebody in this who is all in, of, by, and for women’s soccer? And not with other agendas which might temporarily coexist with women’s soccer?”

Diverse approaches, common goal

Washington’s Lynch, though, takes a slightly different view of the dependence dichotomy, noting that at each business’ core, there isn’t a divide at all. Although each franchise may operate in different ways, each has the same motive and the same challenge – to expand their market. 

“Each of us has to figure out where the leverage is in our market to do the best we can or expand the best we can,” Lynch explained, “and then you’re responsible to focus on what gives you the most leverage and bang for the buck in your market.

“Regardless of the business you’re talking about,” he said, “it’s always how you balance spending to grow the market and not spending faster than you can build the audience or build the market. So, the number one thing, and the thing that we obsess about in this market, is building the audience as deeply and broadly as we can. Ultimately, that’s what’s going to drive ticket revenue and eyeballs and everything else.”

Washington's Bill Lynch (left) at the 2018 NWSL College Draft. [ISI Photos-Howard C. Smith]

That bottom-line goal is no different in Portland, where the Thorns still have seats to sell in Providence Park, despite averaging nearly 18,000 fans per game. It’s no different in a huge market like Orlando or a smaller one, like Sky Blue’s in central New Jersey. Each team is trying to make the best choices to most efficiently use the resource available. Some teams just have more resources than others.

Spiritually, I view myself more aligned with the MLS teams. Financially, we might find ourselves more aligned with the independents

- Seattle’s Bill Predmore

“I would say there’s probably not as defined camps as you’d expect,” Seattle’s Predmore said. “Just because you’re an independent or an MLS team doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with all things that group might want to do.

“For us, spiritually, I view myself more aligned with the MLS teams, or often find myself aligned with some of the things that they would want to do. From a financial perspective, we might find ourselves more aligned with the independents, just in terms of the resources that are available to us to do some of the things that we want to do.”

The change in landscape

With the NWSL’s increase in standards, those resources are becoming more tested than ever. That was the point all along: the league’s original owners founded the NWSL to grow the game, so the demands upon teams for more investment are simply a sign of the league’s growth.

The ownership groups who have left NWSL  have largely done so because of their inability to keep up. Among the remaining independent owners, though, there was confidence the league is going in the right direction, even if the league’s biggest change – its uptick in standards – creates a more demanding environment for owners’ checkbooks.

“It’s certainly still manageable,” Lynch says. “A couple of teams have moved, but my landscape here is certainly solidifying. Things definitely look positive in the market for us.

“Assuming there’s a reasonable trajectory in increases in standards, spends, those kinds of things, I think we have a reasonable plan and a reasonable focus that keeps us on a reasonable trajectory ourselves.”

Some teams have been unable to keep up with the trajectory, giving the league an attrition rate which, from the outside, can look worrisome. Even among the remaining independent owners, though, that attrition rate is understandable, if regrettable. The league has to move forward, and with that progress comes a healthy pressure to keep growing the sport.

“I don’t think [that pressure] a bad thing at all,” Predmore said. “Everybody involved in the league should want it to get better. We should all want better facilities and more investment, whether you’re independent or MLS; for the league to succeed, that’s an inevitable path we’re going to go down.”

"We should all want better": Seattle's Bill Predmore [ISI Photos-Howard C. Smith]

That path, in Whisler’s view, leaves the league in a healthy place – a place that’s attractive to new owners and sponsors; a place that’s primed to take advantage of the end of its four-year cycle.

He conceded that “There were some bleak times” in the beginning. “I can’t tell you I had full confidence. I thought we had it worked out, a new model. But you contrast that to now, when I think it’s all but certain we’ll add two, probably three new teams next year. When we’re up into our World Cup cycle, or Olympics cycle. Sponsors are paying attention. The national TV deal. It’s night and day.

“In the early stages of the league, you had to invest with your heart. Your brain was there, and you’re hoping. But it’s easy, now, to come in an invest with your brain and say this is a financial play.”

Lynch echoes that positivity. To this point, one team has proven it can be consistently profitable, but after five years of growth, other teams can see the horizon. The NWSL will need to continue investing in its product, making profitability on a league-wide scale still an ambitious notion, but the prospect of a future where even the smallest teams can balance the books isn’t so far in the distance. 

“You can argue, in Portland, they’ve already accomplished a sufficient audience to be successful, to be profitable,” Lynch said, “and a couple of [teams are] close to break-even, or about break-even. And some of us are firing at break-even, have that shot of being break-even, as well. So, I think we’re getting there.”

The challenges ahead

The ability for teams to meet standards and still dream of being profitable speaks to a shift in teams’ challenges. At the onset of the league, you could look at the ownership groups and ask how most of them could possibly keep up. Some haven’t; others have found solutions. And now that solutions have been found, it leaves the league with a new set of challenges.

“We’re all different,” Whisler said, when asked about the independent clubs’ looming challenges. “There’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all for the independents or the dependents. Just like there isn’t a single dependent answer – and I think Houston’s answer will be different from Portland, Orlando, Utah – the independents will be different.”

Chicago’s main challenge is at the turnstyle; at least, that is the perception when you look at attendance numbers. The Red Stars averaged 3,198 fans per game in their second year at Toyota Park, with only Sky Blue drawing lower numbers (2,613) among the league’s remaining teams. 

Ticket revenue is necessary but not sufficient. Let’s not kid ourselves: The future of this league is on the commercial revenues, and it works that way in every major men’s sport, as well

- Chicago’s Arnim Whisler

As Whisler points out, though, Chicago has increased its draw every year – save between 2015 and 2016, when it switched venues – and while you always want the most people possible coming to games, attendance alone is not going to pay most club’s bills.

“There is not a major soccer club in the world that achieves their goals on attendance,” he said. “Ticket revenue is necessary but not sufficient. The future of this league and the future of this team is on the commercial revenues, and it works that way in every major men’s sport, as well. Let’s not kid ourselves. We have to do everything we can to be the more attractive sponsorship opportunity and the most attractive television opportunity.”

Arnim Whisler with Emily Boyd at the 2018 NWSL College Draft [ISI Photos-Joe L. Argueta]

Sponsorship is a huge priority for Whisler, as is potential partnership, both for his team and the league. The Red Stars are in the NWSL’s bigger media market, but the league needs to be in other, key cities. Los Angeles, New York, back to Boston, into San Francisco: Whisler lists off the targets, insisting the league’s “footprint has to pay attention to that.”

Facing the challenges

On a personal level, Whisler says he’s open to anybody who wants to help. The one condition: The commitment to the women’s game has to be there.

“I personally won’t be in the way if some well-funded partner wants to be a part of what we’re doing with the Red Stars,” he insisted. “They’re welcome, and I don’t need to have my name anywhere associated with it, but we do need to have our vision and strategy and commitment associated with whoever is part of this team. 

“I am certain that we’ll bring on a partner, at some point, and there are plenty that talk to us over the years, but it’s got to be the right strategic fit and committed … to this being part of the fabric and culture …”

The challenges in Seattle are different and have been documented before. They’re also challenges Predmore acknowledges. While the Reign has crafted a strong, growing brand within Seattle, the team faces major questions regarding where it can actually play its soccer in the years to come.

“Obviously, Seattle, the stadium problem for is really complicated,” he admitted. “There is no obvious solution to it, certainly in the short-term. Other markets are going to have their sets of challenges.”

I can imagine partnerships forming: clubs changing hands and moving over to a USL club with a 7,000-seat stadium, sharing its structure, sharing staff, and really being able to deliver a world-class experience

- Seattle’s Bill Predmore

Predmore also notes that the stadium issue isn’t unique to Seattle. In fact, having a venue where you can “build a world-class soccer experience” could determine team success going forward.

“I think the teams that have that are going to have a massive advantage over teams that don’t,” he said. “For us, that’s a huge problem that we’re working very hard to solve …

“I can imagine, in the future, partnerships forming. In the future, you could see clubs changing hands and moving over to, maybe, a USL club, with a 7,000-seat stadium, sharing its structure, sharing staff, and really being able to deliver a world-class experience.”

Should Lynch encounter that problem, it will mean the Washington fanbase will have grown beyond the Maryland SoccerPlex – a nice problem to have. Before that can happen, though, Washington faces a more basic problem, one each of the NWSL clubs must tackle on some level.

“If you’re losing money at any level, you’re overspending the market or audience that you have. Period,” he explained. “It’s black and white. You can argue anything that you want, but the evidence says you’re spending more money than there’s a market to return that value to you.

“Until we get to the point where we are well above the standards that we want to be, we’re in all the places we want to be, we’re in the markets we want to be, and we’re throwing positive revenue off, as a league, the main challenge – period – is building an audience that appreciates the value of your product enough to provide you with more value back then you’re putting into feeding the beast.”

The NWSL isn’t there, yet, but in almost all of its markets, progress is being made, and obviously so. The question that was there at the league’s onset, though, still remains: Can that progress keep pace with the league’s need to increase standards, expand the footprint, and improve the product?  There is no point in the foreseeable future where that balance doesn’t define the league’s course.

On losing teams

All of this sounds fine, in the abstract, until you bring up Boston. Until you bring up Kansas City. Until you bring up Western New York. How can the league be on this positive course if you’re losing owners? 

It’s impossible to answer that question without exploring how the league was founded. When, in 2012, owners started coming together to reestablish the professional league, there were no illusions about the groups’ financial power. It was going to be a struggle, everybody knew, especially if the business actually sustained itself beyond a three-year window. Would every ownership group in that room be around, if the league grew? Who knew? But if the sport grew beyond some of those initial investors, that would be, in a way, a positive.

“You get families like the Sahlens,” Lynch said of the former Flash owners, “who have put as much money and much of their heart and soul into women’s professional soccer as any family on the planet. I’m sure they would have been perfectly happy to have the situation work in a way that they were still here and there’s 20,000 people at games every weekend. 

“But the reality of the market was, for them, in Joe’s words specifically and Alex’s, they wanted the standards to increase and the women to get more and the league to be more successful, and they did not see a clear path at that point that they could follow and meet what they think are their own standards to get there. 

“They said, ‘we agree we want the future, but we don’t feel we can help you guys get there. We have to figure something else out and move along,’ and then move it to Steve Malik in North Carolina, who’s been phenomenal … And then, on top of that, the Sahlens not only do the right thing and move to a good market for us, but then they throw money at that organization in sponsoring the stadium and other things.”

The Sahlen family is a special case, but a similar situation played out in Kansas City. There was no vision of the FC Kansas City franchise that was going to be able to keep up with the next two years of the NWSL’s growth, let alone be viable in the long term. In their place, the NWSL has added what could become one of the best groups in the NWSL: Dell Loy Hansen and the Utah Royals

Boston breaking bad

Boston, unfortunately, unraveled at the same time as Kansas City – and faster than most anticipated – but in the Breakers’ wake is an environment where, according to all owners interviewed for this story, multiple new, strong ownership groups are going to be involved. Two and three expansion teams are the numbers being thrown out, with speculation having already focused on Vancouver and an FC Barcelona team in Los Angeles.

“[The league is] in as good a place,” Lynch said, “and a far better place than it’s ever been.”

Tell that to a Boston fan. Or a fan of FC Kansas City. The league may be in a better place, but in the process, individual fan groups are being left stunned.

“In Boston, they were an iconic soccer brand, and to lose them, I don’t think any of us can or should feel good about,” Predmore admitted. “It was a sad day for the sport. That being said, [in terms of] the health of the league, I suppose we’re probably as strong as our weakest link, and I think, from Boston’s perspective, it was challenging to keep up with some of the things we were trying to accomplish. 

“At the end of the day, I’d much rather have Boston in – I’d much rather have 10 teams – but I think it paves the way for expansion in 2019 where you’re likely to have, should that occur, an entity coming in that, probably, from a financial perspective, is going to be stronger, they’re going to have access to stadium.”

That situation itself is a testament to what the Sahlen family, Chris Likens (Kansas City) and people like Michael Stoller (Boston) did for this league. In a way, the NWSL is on stable ground – certainly more stable than it has ever been before. There is no fear of the league going into an offseason and never returning. But the NWSL would have never gotten to this place without Boston, Kansas City and Western New York sacrificing to grow the sport.

“It’s easy to make assumptions and think whatever the group-think kind of things that happen,” Lynch said, “ but I can tell you everybody in the beginning, we were all committed to each other and basically said whatever we need to do, we’re going to start it smartly, and nobody is getting out until it’s stable.”

Perhaps, in a strange way, the departures of three teams in 16 months is a sign of stability. It’s a sign that the league can move on. No longer does the league have to commit to a mere survival model. Now, the NWSL can be focused on growth.

Where that leaves teams like Chicago, Seattle, Sky Blue and Washington is unknown, as no women’s professional league in the United States has been in this place before. But trying to forecast their fates by looking at Boston, Kansas City and Western New York would be a mistake. The four independent teams that are still involved are here because they’ve solved their challenges thus far. And in that resiliency, we see a formula for their future.