Boston Breakers at a crossroads: What ownership change would mean for the team, NWSL's future
A week after the National Women’s Soccer League disbanded one team to start another, a different franchise is facing ownership uncertainty, doubts that put the future of one of the women’s landscape’s legacy teams in serious jeopardy.
According to multiple sources, the NWSL is in the process of securing new ownership for the Boston Breakers, one of the league’s 10 franchises and the only team whose history stretches back to the U.S.’ first women’s professional soccer league, the Women’s United Soccer Association.
Per those sources, the ownership group being lined up up would keep the team in the Boston area and preserve its brand and history. Still, while the new owner is said to have significant financial backing, a number of issues are preventing the sale from going through, including whether the new backers would be able to take over the Breakers for the 2018 season.
That timeline speaks to the urgency of the situation. Multiple sources, speaking to FourFourTwo, expressed doubt about the Breakers’ ability, as currently situated, to compete in the 2018 season. In fact, prior to FC Kansas City leaving the league, the Breakers’ were the team set to be replaced by Salt Lake. Though the final obstacles in plans to give the FCKC to MLS’ Sporting Kansas City forced a changed course, Boston’s future remains in serious doubt.
A Boston Breakers team representative said there is nothing to comment about. A request for comment from an NWSL spokesman was not immediately returned.
As previously discussed at FourFourTwo, Boston’s long-term solvency issues have been a concern within the NWSL for some time, with the league’s potential to increase standards with more expediency casting doubt on the Breakers’ future. With the recent addition of a Utah-based team to the league, the behind-the-scenes dynamics continue to sway in a more ambitious direction. With demands for more spending likely to increase, the Breakers need help.
Though it’s unclear when, or if, league leadership can resolve the sale’s sticking points, the Breakers’ state provides a compelling, timely snapshot of a changing landscape. Here’s what a potential sale means for an evermore ambitious NWSL:
How we got here
The Boston Breakers are the only team that has been involved in every season of WUSA (2000-2003), Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011) and the NWSL (2013-present). Their loss would be a major one for any league, yet here we are, with many around the NWSL unsure whether the team has played its last game.
The Breakers have always been one of the league’s “small” teams, in terms of resources, but as minimum standards have inched forward and spending demands have increased, the gap between Boston’s current state and the NWSL’s aspirations has become a chasm. Now, after a year that’s seen three new, ambitious partners come into the league (A&E Networks, North Carolina Courage, Real Salt Lake), the NWSL is no longer waiting around. The opportunity for the Bostons of the league to develop a solvent business model is closing, and quickly.
Boston’s attendance decreased by 17.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, dropping from 3,570 fans per game to 2,896. The team has only averaged more than 3,000 people per game once in the league’s five years, and it has never finished in the NWSL’s top half in average attendance. Be it in Somerville’s Dilboy Stadium, Harvard’s main stadium or the adjacent Jordan Field, the Breakers have never occupied a venue that could be seen as a viable long-term home.
And after finishing in fifth place in the league’s inaugural season (2013), Boston has finished in last place three out of four years. Under head coach Matt Beard, the team finally climbed out of the cellar in 2017, but only to ninth in the 10-team league.
For all the Breakers have given the women’s game -- through multiple leagues, levels, decades -- there is no conception of the team, as currently constructed, that can keep up with the NWSL. Hence the pursuit of new owners.
What this means for Boston
Current plans for the Breakers would see the team remain in the market and likely keep its relatively historic branding, a huge positive for Breakers fans. While sources wouldn’t reveal the exact makeup of the prospective ownership group, given the sensitivity of the talks, all signs point to a wealthy, resourceful group whose backing could improve the team’s long-term outlook, a stark change from the tenuous nature the Breakers have increasingly operated under.
If this scenario collapses, though? Who knows. As Sporting KC’s connection to the now-former FCKC franchise reminds us, best wishes don’t always come true. The league may be working to keep the Breakers alive and in Boston, but a deal isn’t done, yet. And until pens score paper, plans can always fall part.
Should things go south, another ownership group could be pursued, though that could mean the end of the Breakers as we know them. And within the league, there is still skepticism as to whether Boston’s situation can be salvaged, even if that skepticism has started to wane with the emergence of a potential local buyer.
There is an insistence both behind the scenes and publicly that the NWSL will have 10 teams in 2018. Managing director Amanda Duffy and Real Salt Lake officials at the new Utah team’s unveiling made a point of explicitly noting that NWSL will have 10 strong teams in 2018, while remaining noticeably vague on further explanation.
How likely is this to happen
It’s clear a Breakers sale isn’t just speculation. The process is ongoing and widely known, within league circles. Whether it happens depends on how the league can navigate some significant obstacles.
Per multiple sources, the main owner in frame to take over Boston can’t immediately assume control, leaving all sides looking for partners who can bridge a gap in time until the full ownership group can come together. Should someone who can carry the Breakers into 2018 emerge, the franchise will likely stay in Boston.
While there seems to be no set timeline to find that owner, resolving the Breakers’ issues appears to be the league’s newest top priority. The NWSL is only two months away from its college draft, and while two teams (North Carolina, FC Kansas City) changed owners around the same time in January 2017, and the Houston Dash entered the league in December 2013, the uncertainty behind Boston’s future demands the league resolve this problem sooner.
What this says about the NWSL’s direction
We’ve hammered it home in almost every piece of analysis on this site, but it really cannot be said enough: The behind-the-scenes dynamic in the NWSL is changing, drastically. Whereas, for most of the league’s existence, there was a delicate balance between survival and ambition, the league is no longer waiting around. With the bigger, more resourceful groups forming a majority behind the scenes, aspirational plans put on the backburner may vault onto the agenda.
In the interim, though, that leaves the league in a type of purgatory, wherein it has to get its house in order before it can move forward, to a better place. While many people in the league are increasingly optimistic about the league’s future, they are also keenly aware of the fan bases, players, employees and communities that are being affected by this ongoing remodel. Even as Kansas City’s players moved to Salt Lake, ostensibly providing them with a better working environment, people are still sensitive to the Blue Crew fan base that was last behind, as well as what FCKC accomplished in five seasons in the NWSL.
In this new, transitional state, there is a melancholy that’s matching the league’s ambition. While some are, no doubt, boldly moving forward, many are pausing to reflect on the moment, one that’s seeing a five-year-old league redefine itself. Teams like Western New York and FC Kansas City have already become relics of the league’s past. In the name of progress, what other teams will join them?
Ultimately, this may prove one of the most important offseasons in the league’s history, if not its most important. In exchanging one, perhaps two limited ownership groups for investors with more resources, the league is moving out of its formational phase, and doing so with aggression. These moves are assertive, empowered, and they’ll have some casualties. But ultimately, whether now or at some point in the future, these moves needed to happen for the NWSL to move forward.
Additional reporting from Jeff Kassouf, Paul Tenorio and Charles Boehm.