Women’s Pro Sports: A Hypothesis

Actually, this isn’t really a hypothesis about women’s sports per se. It just manifests itself more obviously in women’s sports. It can apply equally to something like, say, men’s lacrosse. But it came up in discussion about women’s sports, so here goes.

If you look at a sport like women’s soccer in the US, you’ll see a gap:

Youth league soccer: very stable
High school soccer: very stable
College soccer: very stable
Pro league soccer: one miserable failure after another
International soccer: very stable

Women’s World Cup and Olympic soccer get very good ratings. College, high school, and youth league soccer are all quite stable entities. But multiple attempts to create a women’s pro league in the US that sits in-between college and international soccer have been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, you don’t really see that gap. Each level is just about as stable as any other. So what we see when these pro leagues fail in the US is that American players who have reached that level go over to Europe to play.

How do we explain this? Here’s my hypothesis:

A sports league must reach a certain tipping point of popularity to survive independently in the long term. Below this level, a league requires deep local community support for stability.

In America, youth leagues are primarily supported by a large network of parents. Then at the high-school and college levels, the school community (alumni, teachers, students, parents, school district) provides the support structure. But the pro teams don’t typically have a very deep or tight network of local community support. If they need something done, independent pro teams can’t easily reach out into their community and find people willing and able to chip in — they are expected to pay people to do things. And in the long run, it’s hard to make that math work, and that’s where things fall apart. It’s was hard even to make this work for men’s soccer — America saw several different league iterations before soccer finally became popular enough for MLS to get the kind of attendance and TV ratings for the league to stabilize and succeed.

In Europe, it’s quite different. You don’t have different kinds of league structures at different ages. In each community, a single organization typically manages everything from youth teams up to the pro level. The pro level functions under a national organization, where clubs move up and down with a relegation system.

I played basketball in Sweden for two years in one such organization. Our top men’s basketball team played in Division One, and the year after I left, they managed to advance into the top Swedish league for a year. The organizations made some money from ticket sales, some from sponsorships from local businesses, some from player fees, and some from fundraisers. The top players got some money, but typically it wasn’t enough to live off of, so local businesses and organizations often gave them day jobs and hired them as employees. (Sorta like alumni hiring college athletes, only it’s not against the rules.) In return, the players were also expected to act as coaches in the organization, and indeed, I had several of these players as coaches. As a younger player in the organization, I would also volunteer support, by selling lottery tickets, or helping set up the arena before the men’s games, which were typically attended by 500-1000 people. A lot of that attendance came from younger players and their families.

Now, I was involved in a men’s structure, but the women’s structure was nearly identical. Of course, in Sweden as in America, the men’s teams were more popular than the women’s teams, so there was more money available to them. But European women’s teams can still function in this same kind of structure, because the structure embeds the pro-level team into a larger soccer community which can help support it. The nature of these communities makes it less likely for such a structure to fall apart. There are always plenty of people to figure out a way to pick up the slack if any part of the structure runs into trouble.

So if I were to design a women’s pro soccer league, I’d experiment by trying to model it after the European system. Pick a few large cities in one narrow region of the country, and partner/merge with the local youth soccer organizations. Grow the players within those organizations from age 5 up to the pro-level teams. Build a support structure in the community that can ensure the team survives, even if the league doesn’t get a national TV contract. Create a relegation system to encourage/reward those organizations that do the best job of this. If it works, expand to other regions, and then nationally.