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Sun, Dec. 08

Column: Women's sports - why aren't they successful?

Six days before the Super Bowl, a celebration of America's most popular sport, the Women's Professional Soccer League (WPS) announced it was suspending operations for the 2012 season.

You hadn't heard? You never knew there was a women's professional soccer league? You're not alone. With announced attendance of 190,000 in 2011, few people in the U.S. ever heard of the WPS.

WPS was the second incarnation of women's professional soccer to bite the dust. The Women's United Soccer Association, whose inaugural season was 2001, had a tumultuous three-year run and lost upwards of $100 million before it too went belly up.

Jennifer O'Sullivan, CEO of WPS, blamed the suspension on an ongoing legal dispute with Dan Borislow, former owner of the league's Boca Raton, Fla., franchise. Borislow sued the league after he was ousted last year for "failing to meet league standards" and "unprofessional and disparaging treatment of his players (and failing) to pay his bills."

While the lawsuit is real, it was merely a convenient excuse to avoid the truth. The league, which has had eleven different franchises in its three-year existence, none of which turned a profit, expected to operate with only five franchises this season. Welcome to the world of women's professional sports.

The only women's professional sports league to experience even a modicum of success is the WNBA, which was founded in 1997. Despite its 15-year run, teams in the WNBA have never been profitable. The WNBA has survived courtesy of the deep pockets of the NBA, which funded the league almost exclusively for the first 10 years of its existence. When the NBA got tired of losing money on the league, it decided to sell franchises to individual owners, giving others the privilege of losing money through ownership of a professional sports franchise.

So why haven't women's professional sports leagues been successful in this country? Among the reasons suggested are the women's game in each sport is different than the men's, which is code for not as good; the so-called lesbian factor; more men than women watch sports and they don't want to watch women compete; and marketers sell sex rather than talent, and men don't have to watch women play sports to see sex.

When female leaders lament the failure of women's professional sports, they invariably mention the loss of role models for young women. That may be true, but professional sports is first and foremost a business. Making a profit, not serving as a role model, is the number one goal. In fact, it's a necessity and, what seems to be lost in the discussion, a prerequisite for providing role models for anyone.

Sports teams don't survive unless they're financially successful. That's as true in men's sports as it is in women's sports. If you don't believe it, ask Tom Hicks, former owner of the Texas Rangers, and Frank McCourt, soon to be the ex-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fortunately for MLB and other men's sports leagues, there are owners available for those franchises, confident that with good management, they can be successful where others have failed. The same can't be said for women's professional sports.

Another frequent lament is that despite the "success" of Title IX, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, women's professional sports have never been successful. Again, the experts miss the point. Title IX is a government mandate requiring equal opportunities for men and women in sports on the collegiate and high school levels. Women have the opportunity to play amateur sports as a result of court decree, not because women's sports pay for themselves. There is no equivalent to Title IX at the professional level. You sink or swim based on the bottom line, which for women's sports, shines bright red.

What can be done to make women's professional sports successful? The first person who can answer that question will become very, very rich. Many have tried, and all have failed.

Reflecting the triumph of hope over experience, the WPS Board of Governors said it hopes to resume play in 2013, this time with six teams. We'll see. But even if that "hope" becomes a reality, here's a guarantee: After a brief and financially troubling existence, the league is destined to go the way of its predecessors.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Associate Professor of Sport Management and Sport Law at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at jkobritz@mindspring.com.

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