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Conference Call With U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and Women's Professional Soccer CEO Jennifer O'Sullivan


U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati

On the process that eventually led to the sanctioning of WPS with only five teams:
“The league applies or gives their status report for the year in advance of the meeting in Los Angeles. At that time, given the fact that they have five teams and we didn’t have certain other information we wanted, we weren’t able to approve it at that point. Certainly having a sixth team was important for us in subsequent meetings with the Professional League Task Force, it became clear that the league is quite confident that they will have additional teams for next year, and there are possibilities out there, quite firm prospects. I don’t want to say quite firm teams yet, because obviously they weren’t ready to go. In one case, they probably could have had a team that could have played this year, but it would have been better for the development of the game, for that team and for the league, for that team to wait. Trying to get ready in three or four months – and we’ve got history of this in our other leagues – isn’t the best way to launch a season. Rather than push them on that front, we were able to have a structure where we’ve got certain assurances of what the league would look like after this coming year. On that basis, we granted a waiver to sanction them with five teams.”

On whether the Olympic Games in London will help the league going forward:
“I’m not sure we should put such pressure on specific events that last a couple weeks or months in terms of helping us build a long-term platform for the sport. Clearly what happened in the summer of 2010 with the men’s team got a lot of buzz. We didn’t see that in immediate attendance issues regarding MLS. We certainly see that in the notoriety and publicity around Landon [Donovan] and other players. What happened this past summer at the Women’s World Cup, we certainly saw it there in the short term, some definite bumps in attendance, especially in games involving returning U.S. National Team players, and within that group, especially Abby [Wambach] and Hope [Solo] and so on. How that translates into long-term development is a little bit trickier to figure out. Clearly having the team be successful at the Olympics and having the country supportive of the team is a plus for the league, but it can’t be the only launching pad, and I don’t think it is. Episodic events like the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics are extraordinarily important, but we can’t build everything around them. Eventually that will be done, but we’ll still see support for the game, players being heroes for young players, family entertainment, all of those other things which make the sport successful.”

On any alternatives considered by the Federation or put forward to WPS:
“They weren’t discussed with the committee. The goal with WPS had been to be sanctioned as a Division I league, and they’ve been sanctioned as a Division I league previously and have met our requirements to be able to do that, obviously with a waiver on the number of teams. That wasn’t something we seriously discussed in terms of taking a hiatus or anything else.”

On how U.S. Women’s National Team players will be involved, and going into the Olympics, what their future is in these leagues:

“I can’t comment on the meetings. [U.S. Soccer CEO/Secretary General] Dan Flynn has been leading the meetings with Jennifer [O’Sullivan, CEO of WPS]. I met with one of the owners in the process, but it wasn’t part of the review process here. On the women’s side, because of the two unique events of the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics, with the same group of players representing it for a year, every other year is a world championship here. The players played in WPS last year, they’ve done so in the past when we had the WUSA, so we expect that to be the case. Those are individual decisions the players will make given their own schedules. Some of them I think are close to signing or have signed, others will continue to do that. I think some of them were clearly waiting for this process to take place, so we talked with [Women’s National Team head coach] Pia [Sundhage] last week – Dan Flynn and I talked with Pia – and certainly I think her expectation is that with the league going forward now, there will be a number of players playing in the league. We are building a national team program and a training schedule that is not a residency-based model for the Olympics. If the league hadn’t been going forward, or if we didn’t have a league as in past years, [there would be] a residency program that increases the number of games, increases the time the players are together in a centralized venue. That’s not the model we’re going to be running for this year.”

On why the league is moving forward with five teams:
“Obviously in a pretty well-publicized case, the league made a decision regarding one specific team, which would have put them at six. We’re convinced that given the prospects they have in different markets, that they will meet that target. We’ve worked out a set of conditions that I think will be met. Those conditions have been met, but I think they’ll add a sixth team, and we’re satisfied with that.”

On whether there could be further sanctioning next offseason for additional teams:

“Any time there’s a situation where teams don’t meet the criteria that are outlined, there’s a need for a waiver. This year, it’s been unique because we’ve gone to five, which we thought was below what we wanted to see. But we’ve had that previously, where teams haven’t met certain conditions, but if there’s progress, and we’re moving toward increasing the number of teams, that’s much less of an issue. The most important thing is that we’ve got a league that’s stable – showing growth and stable ownership would be a huge plus. I’m not going to predict what we might do a year from now or two years from now, but going from five to six with the same owners returning, stability and growth would go a long way toward showing us that the model is going to work and that the game is developing in the right way.”

On the conditions WPS had to meet and if every league must go through an annual review process of this type:
“The answer to the second question is yes. All of the leagues submit their plans for the future and a review of their past season’s activities. In the case of MLS, NASL and the USL, that was done and approved at the board meeting in Los Angeles.  This has now been done for a number of years. In terms of WPS, some of the conditions relate to the number of teams going forward, certain bond requirements, which are actually part of our rules. Those are the main areas: bond requirements and confirmation that there will be an additional team in the course of this year.”

On past discussions of U.S. Soccer helping WPS financially:
“We’ve had an ongoing commitment to WPS. The framework of that has changed along the way. Last year, we were involved in a marketing relationship with the league, where we supported the league through sponsorship agreement, and I would anticipate that we would do the same this year.”

On the long-term viability of the WPS model:
“The history of women’s team sports and long-term viability in the marketplace, in the U.S. or elsewhere, is pretty well-documented. It’s not an easy path. We want to do everything we can for WPS to have a stable environment. Let’s make it stable, whatever level is possible, in terms of development of the game. We think it’s a huge plus for the game, but I don’t want to predict 10 years from now. We think some of the things the owners have put in place going forward are absolutely what’s needed in terms of trying to build a stable model that’s economically viable, that it’s appropriate in terms of the standards we would want for a professional league, and we’re hopeful in that. From there, having the five committed owners back for this year is a plus. They’ve indicated some people that we think will join them, and that’s the most important criteria, is getting a group of investors and owners who are committed to doing this for the long term, have the capability to do it for the long term and have a business model that makes sense. Hopefully we’re well on our path to doing that.”

Women’s Professional Soccer CEO Jennifer O’Sullivan

On possible expansion cities:
“We generally don’t disclose this early in the process identity of cities or markets. I can tell you generally, there’s at least one on the East Coast, at least one in the Midwest, and at least one on the West Coast.”

On whether the teams could be in Connecticut, Chicago or Pacific Northwest:
“I will say that those are all certainly candidates as we move forward. There are a few that have risen to the top, so to speak, in terms of the extent of discussions that have gone forward. Those are all potential teams that are still in the pipeline and very strong candidates, but there are three others that really do make their way to the top that we just can’t identify at this early stage.”

On the number of teams WPS wants to add for next season:
“I think our focus is on adding teams as appropriate. If we feel that an ownership group or an owner is right for the league at this particular moment, this particular time, it’s about slow and steady growth for us. I don’t think we’re looking necessarily to feel like we have to add three. If we can add three, that would be great, but I think we’re really going to look closely in terms of who the markets are, where they are. Certainly if it’s a West Coast team, we would not want to add one team from the West Coast, we’d be looking to bring multiple teams in in order to be mindful of travel costs. I think it’s similar in respect to a Midwest team, although that’s a little bit easier in terms of travel. I think it’s really going to be an overall what market is or what markets are best for the league at that particular time.”

On whether the Boston Breakers have found a majority owner:
“It has, yes. I can only say that Boston has solidified their investor group for the coming season.”

On whether season tickets and overall attendance or sponsorship is more important to success:

“I think that it’s all important. When Thomas Hofstetter (President and CEO of Sky Blue FC) was talking in terms of sponsorship being more important, I think he means from a local perspective for him in terms of team revenue. I think certainly attendance is crucial and critical in a lot of matters for us, particularly in terms of sponsorship. I think it helps our sponsorship dollars and sponsorship revenue, certainly, so I think it’s all intertwined. I don’t see it as separate, I see it as really related.”

On new sponsors for the season:
“I am hopeful that I am going to be able to make some announcements very soon. I think that now we’ve handled the Division I sanctioning issue, it’s back to work for us in terms of getting on board with all of our potential sponsors and resigning our current sponsors. That’s what we’re in the process of doing as soon as I get off this call.”

On her plans going forward:
“I have a very long to-do list, as you can imagine, and a lot of it is a priority for us. In terms of solidifying our sponsors, continuing those discussions with our expansion teams, working with our Players Union on establishing a collective bargaining agreement. These are all things that I feel are critical for WPS moving forward, and they’re all things that are deserving of our attention. Now that we have [the sanctioning] behind us, those will be the next big issues for me to turn my attention to and work on as we get ready for 2012.”

On deadlines for expansion clubs to join the league:
“You never want to be in a position where you’re rushing a new franchise on board. I think that is only something from a business perspective could be harmful for the league, it could be harmful for the team and certainly not an environment you’d want to put your players into. In terms of adding teams, we would like to be able to do it with as much lead time as possible because we’ve had some significant discussions with potential markets, I do think we’re in a good position to be able to add them well before a deadline looming of 2013. I don’t want to put specific dates or times on when we think someone needs to be on board, but just be mindful that we want to give that potential market coming on board as much lead time as possible to be well-prepared. We want to make sure there’s an infrastructure in place, that they have the proper facilities, they have the proper staff and leadership at the team level before they’re ready to come on board. The more time we do that with them, the better prepared they will be to join the league.”

On scheduling around the Olympics:
“We’re looking likely to do something similar to what we did with the World Cup. We’re wanting to give those National Team players the opportunity to be able to go play in the Olympics and take a break if we can. We’re continuing to work out the schedule with U.S. Soccer, and once it’s finalized, we will announce it as we have every year, probably in mid-February.”

On any concerns regarding the magicJack lawsuit:
“No, there were no concerns raised with respect to the lawsuit. The only discussions we had were, as Sunil hinted before, to the reason why the league is currently at five teams instead of six. But there were no concerns raised about the lawsuit itself or the termination.”


 

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