The Vanishing Game: The FC Davis Women's Team Project
That’s the number of pro women's soccer teams in America.
The US women have won three World Cups.
Four Olympic Golds.
Eight CONCACAF Gold Cups.
Ten Algarve Cups.
Have produced five FIFA World Players of the Year.
And have less professional teams than most towns have Starbucks.
For a country that produces so much talent, how is it possible we don’t have the most dynamic pro league in the world?
Currently our women’s game is in a dire position. The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is the third time the US has tried to start a women's professional league. The first two failed and the NWSL, by all accounts, is on the ropes.
We are for the third time on the cusp of having the #1 ranked women's team in the world who do not have a domestic league to play in.
Let that sink in for a moment.
It seems odd this could happen. Families, city governments and corporations invest hundreds of millions of dollars during girls youth playing days. Though far from ideal, we have an established collegiate system where our female players compete at a high level. Yet for the overwhelming majority, college is where the dream ends.
And that's not right.
Not for players.
Not for families.
Not for the game.
Recently, The Fight For American Soccer: The Story of FC Davis, was released.
The heart of the argument was the lack of opportunity being created by a closed system (no promotion/relegation).
Yet for all the chaos and corruption that takes place on the men's side, the women might have it worse, especially when it comes to opportunity.
From a purely “professional” standpoint, it's anything but.
At no point in time should a soccer player be called professional when making $15,750 a year. That's the NWSL minimum salary which players are currently signed under.
Shockingly, this number is up from 2013 when the league minimum was only $6,000 a year. How is someone supposed to live off of that?
The NWSL salary cap isn’t much better, with clubs only having $350,000 to pay an entire team. Figure out the math on that one. Then consider not all teams spend their allocated amount and it becomes even more cringe worthy.
Another glaring concern is how few markets the NWSL occupy. With only nine teams, so much of the country is left without a club to cheer for. This disenfranchises millions of female fans across the United States. California, home to more soccer players than anywhere in the country, doesn’t have a team.
Due to so few domestic teams operating in such a volatile landscape, the top US talent leaves the country for Europe to join what players call “real soccer leagues”.
With star power leaving and teams absent from so many major markets, games are only shown once a week...on the Lifetime Network.
Without TV contracts and major sponsorship which are critical to funding basic operations, some teams are working in “sweatshop” like conditions. From not being offered showers after games to training in facilities with no air flow and roofs caving in, what our female players have to endure is embarrassing and to some degree, illegal.
There is more, but the list of problems can go on forever.
To say the current system does not work for our female athletes would be a comical understatement.
But how did we get to this point?
What has gone wrong?
And how do we fix it?
The Vanishing Game
1999 was supposed to be the “breakout year” for women's soccer in America.
After our dramatic World Cup victory on home soil, interest in the women’s game was at an all-time high. Already possessing global superstars such as Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm, the United States was set to house the top women's professional league in the world.
With so much momentum, there was no way a league could fail, right?
There are millions of quotes on mistakes.
If we put them all in a blender and it spit out a summary, it would be this: Learn from them.
20 years have passed since the US women grabbed the hearts of the American public and the United States has yet to create a sustainable women’s pro league.
Each time a league failed, it was for the same reason: Structure.
This structural problem was fueled by one issue: The sheer size of our country.
The question always brought up is this: “How do you create a national league in a country so big?”
While the details may be complex, the answer is simple: You don’t.
Trying to create a single conference national league for the women's game on a land mass nearly 2,700 miles wide is a recipe for disaster.
The fact the NWSL is trying to cover this territory with just 9 teams is pure insanity.
The repeated attempts to do so is why the women's professional game has made it nowhere in 20 years.
So why after two failures did a third group of individuals think it was a good idea to set up another nationwide league in the same exact format?
Behold the power of cultural norms.
For the most part, Americans are obsessed with “national” leagues.
Our brains are wired to think of sports leagues in terms of LA vs New York, Miami vs Dallas and Chicago vs Boston.
It's the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys who clash with rivals on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years Day.
It is what we are used to.
Anything else just seems, well, less “professional”.
But when looking at the history of baseball, football, hockey and basketball, NONE of them started in the manner we are trying to force soccer to do.
Major League Baseball didn’t start from scratch as a national league.
Neither did the NFL.
Or the NHL.
Or the NBA.
So why women’s soccer?
When you try to occupy the same amount of territory as the NFL, you need levels of NFL interest and funding.
Women’s soccer is not even remotely close on either of those levels. That goes for the interest of fans, sponsors and investors.
Without a proper business structure to support teams competing against each other across the country, money dries up.
As a result, a vicious cycle is formed of clubs who can’t or won’t re-invest in their product coupled with a business model that repels new investors.
In the end, the league stagnates and is destined for doom.
We’ve already seen this twice and the third time is happening before our very eyes.
In order to not just survive, but grow, women’s soccer has to figure out how to do the following:
Reduce Travel Costs
Construct Appropriate Venues
First, between airline tickets, hotels, meals, and bus rentals travel costs are crippling teams. We are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars every season to play games around the country.
The Houston Dash have to travel nearly 1,000 miles to reach their nearest opponent!
With such large distances between teams, every game is a plane ride away. This adds a tremendous amount of stress to budgets that are already stretch so thin.
Having to spend so much money on travel, it eats up other areas of a clubs budget that could be used to re-invested in areas of need.
Without income to cover these costs, the floor eventually gives out and clubs fold.
Second, outside of a few clubs, getting people to games is tough.
With the NWSL void of any true rivalries, interest levels remain extremely poor.
In addition to no national rivalries, NWSL teams are without any local derby’s which is a massive cause of fan support. That goes for a home and away match.
Two English Premier League clubs, Liverpool and Everton, play in the Merseyside Derby. The two stadiums are separated by a park! Imagine the environment at those games! Something you would want to be at!
Even the MLS, which is riddled with issues, saw LAFC vs LA Galaxy break league TV ratings. Big local clashes not only captivates regional audiences, but national audiences as well.
In addition, with only nine clubs, teams host the same eight organizations all year long. As NWSL fans have pointed out numerous times, the product is stale.
Third, venues have to improve for fan retention. This picture is an actual regular season game played between Western New York Flash and the Seattle Reign. You can’t make this stuff up. The game took place in the outfield of a minor league baseball stadium. The field was only 58 yards wide. Side note - Western New York Flash folded along with two other teams after the season. Shocker.
Clubs do not need huge, luxurious stadiums. They need small intimate environments that makes fans want to return.
Due to a lack of available funds to build soccer specific stadiums that suit a teams needs, clubs wind up hosting games at facilities that are either shockingly excessive or shockingly poor. This kills the atmosphere needed to create the intimacy fans crave.
A game day environment at a soccer match is supposed to be an experience unlike any other. Supporters sing, jump and heckle the opposition for hours on end while lighting flares, playing drums and waving flags of honor. It is part of what makes attending a live game so attractive.
Just take a look at this game from Sweden! This is only HALFTIME:
From a stadium and atmosphere standpoint, the NWSL is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from what we see in places such as Sweden. Some of our teams play in much larger venues with a fraction of the amount of fans.
How bad is it?
Five of the nine NWSL clubs play in stadiums of over 20,000 seats. Aside from one team (Portland Thorns), none of the remaining eight teams even come close to reaching this number.
Four of the nine teams average less than 4,000 fans per game.
Seven are under 5,000 fans per game.
Sky Blue from New York only averaged 2,390 fans a game. How can they possibly support a proper professional team with numbers like that?
Out of all the teams in world soccer only the major clubs have stadiums that rival the numbers of seats at some NWSL stadiums. AFC Bournemouth, currently in the English Premier League, has a stadium capacity barely over 11,000.
At 25,500, the Orlando Pride would have the 17th largest stadium in the English Premier League and 12th largest in La Liga, Spain’s first division.
On any given weekend, Barcelona and Real Madrid could be playing in a stadium under 15,000 seats. That's 10,500 less seats than Orlando, who don’t have Barcelona or Real Madrid coming to play, but rather the Utah Royals, who sport a stadium capacity of 20,213 in Salt Lake.
In American sports, it seems there is a race to arms for bigger and better. Big money, large crowds and seating so far away you have to watch the game on a stadiums jumbo-tron.
The end result?
An evaporated sense of intimacy.
That is not soccer.
It especially isn’t women’s soccer.
The only way to solve the three major problems hurting the women's game is to create clubs in each state with regionalised competition underneath a national league umbrella.
This will reduce costs, create pockets of ever expanding interest and allow teams to find smaller, more intimate venues to host games.
But how do we start this?
A league that spans the entire county?
In tons of markets?
In a regionalised format?
Will it ever exist?
Better yet, does it exist?
Unknown to many, America is home to the largest women's soccer league in the world.
The Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPSL) has over 110 teams that span from California to New York.
Playing from May - August, the WPSL established itself as a mainstay in the women’s soccer landscape.
From national team players to college All-Americans, the league houses talent from nearly every level of women's soccer.
The WPSL is an amateur league, which means the players are not paid, although if a team does not have NCAA athletes they can elect to do so.
Northern California has its own conference, PAC Northwest, and resembles most conferences within the WPSL which has no overnight stay for most of its teams during the regular season. This saves clubs tens of thousands of dollars.
Currently, California has 19 teams alone, which is 1,900% more teams than the NWSL. With more teams expected in the 2019 season, this number could reach north of 25 clubs.
The reigning champions are the Seattle Sounders women. The California Storm (Sacramento) have won three national titles and are a mainstay at the top of the PAC Northwest table alongside the San Francisco Nighthawks and Fresno FC.
As a result of its business friendly league structure, the trajectory of the WPSL is skyrocketing. With low barriers to entry and reduced operational costs, the ability to provide opportunity for legions of female players while joining a nationwide league has never been more attractive.
The WPSL has everything women's soccer league needs: A foundation of sustainable teams playing in intimate venues. A large footprint with occupied markets important for sponsorship activity and maybe most importantly, teams joining, not leaving every single season.
With so many parts in place, all markets need are willing investors to get a club started.
But let's face it, understanding the landscape is one thing. Putting in the long hours of organization it takes to get a team started is completely different.
So how do individuals or communities found a club in their hometowns to help grow the women's game?
Is there a way for a person with a passion for the game to do their part in providing opportunity for the wildly underserved women's soccer landscape?
Can this be done by diversifying risk to avoid the consistently problematic single owner structure?
What if I told you this model has successfully existed for decades?
The Golden Key: Supporter Owned-Clubs
Supporter Owned-Club: A term not in most American vocabularies.
That own a team?
Is this a video game?
In the US, when we think of sports owners, we think of an individual or a small group of people that run a franchise.
This model gave us Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, and James Dolan of the New York Knicks (sadly I’m a Knicks fan).
As fans, we are used to hearing these owners rant in the media and make head scratching decisions on an almost daily basis.
At various points throughout a season, most supporters wish they had the power to get rid of their teams executives and put in competent leaders.
In other parts of the world, especially soccer, fans get their wish.
In true sporting love, supporters fully or partially own and run a plethora of teams.
Yes your read that correctly. Fans own and run teams.
These teams range from the smallest community clubs to the world powers of the game.
In Germany, aside from two exceptions, the Bundesliga has made a commitment to not let any single person or company own the majority of a club. It is MANDATORY that clubs operate with a 51% member voting block.
This includes Bayern Munich, the 27 time league champion.
Within these fan-ownership models there are a variety of different set ups, all centered around fan accountability.
In Spain, “owners” are called socios. They purchase yearly memberships that allow them to vote in elections. If the President of a club is bad, socios can vote them out and elect a new one. Simple as that.
In England, teams such as F.C. United of Manchester were formed in protest to their clubs. Fans felt so disenfranchised by the corporate take over of Manchester United they started their own team. You may think taking on United, one of the biggest clubs in the world, would be a losing battle, but not only has F.C. United succeeded, they are thriving. Their story is truly incredible.
Even when clubs do not start off as supporter owned, many end up going down this route due to the financial mismanagement of their owners. These clubs were not failing due to sporting merits, but rather the decisions made in the boardroom. As a result, fans stepped in, formed a Supporters Trust, took over the boardroom and brought their club to new heights. Imagine the community pride in that!
A supporter owned model, by far, is the best way for semi-pro and pro clubs to find financial sustainability in the United States.
Due to clubs operating in a closed system environment (no problem/relegation), a normal amount investment you would typically see in an open system isn’t possible. This limits income and funding options. By diversifying risk, teams are not balancing on the ledge with a single owner which has been a major problem for soccer in the United States.
An alternative model was needed, it just so happens this model is an already proven system practiced around the world for decades.
These clubs have power in numbers.
With a demand for local semi-pro clubs at an all-time, the United States needs to start building a foundation of sustainable teams. If we fail to do so, the women’s game will continue to be caught in a cycle of bankrupt clubs and failing leagues.
To solve this problem, it starts with founding more “clubs of the people”.
We want to start this movement right here at home.
FC Davis Lady Lions Project: Own A Part Of History
Soccer is about clubs and communities.
That is why FC Davis is starting the first ever 100% supporter owned women's team in the country.
The goal of our project is to create a model for a sustainable women's semi-professional team that can be replicated across the country. This will give towns with a passion for the game a blue print to start their own teams.
With more towns having sustainable teams, it will provide tens of thousands of female soccer players a chance to compete at a higher level. With an ever growing list of clubs, the country will reach a tipping point where standards can increase. With the infrastructure already in place, the WPSL will be in pole position to take the game to new heights. When this happens, Davis will have its seat at the table .
In the end, starting a movement that takes 10 to 20 years to grow is much better than leagues which are set up to fail.
If leaders would have taken this approach in 1999, imagine where the women’s game would be today, 20 years after our 1999 World Cup title.
The basics of the FC Davis Lady Lions can be seen below:
The FC Davis Lady Lions will be 100% Supporter Owned.
The team will seek to compete in the Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPSL).
The WPSL is the world's largest women's soccer league with over 110 teams competing around the country.
The Lady Lions would compete in the PAC Northwest Conference, which is made up of teams located only in Northern California including Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose.
Owner memberships will be released to the general public. We estimate there will only be 300 available at around $100. This will be a yearly fee to fund each season. Each membership comes with one vote.
By being an owner, you will vote on ALL aspects of the team and are privy to all club information.
The team will be a 501(c)(3).
We are hosting an FC Davis Lady Lions meeting for those that wish to hear more information or those that would like to get involved. This meeting will take place at the beginning of 2019.
To receive meeting information and membership priority, please click HERE.
Spread the word!
Share this link with your friends.
Share it with your family.
Share it with your soccer loving co-workers.
Let’s create something special for our community and the current and future female athletes in our area.
Play on Lady Lions!