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September 1, 2012
Gulati: new league has to have the right economic model

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — So, will there be a professional women’s soccer league 3.0 in the United States?

It all depends on the correct sustainable economic model, says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. He should know more than anyone else because he is a professor of economics at Columbia University.

Women’s Professional Soccer went out of business after three years of existence in January.

Gulati said the league needs to be sustainable.

“What we’ve been talking about and looking at is a different economic model – a model that is sustainable,” Gulati said at halftime of the U.S.’s 8-0 victory over Costa Rica on Saturday.. We’ve been talking with a number of people, stakeholders in the game, people that have had professional teams in the past, people that run professional leagues now at different levels, players, so I think if you see something come together it will be a very different economic model. Sustainability is far more important than getting it started.”

The first women’s professional league in the United States was the Women’s United Soccer Association, which ran from 2001 to 2003, only weeks prior to the kick off of the 2003 Women’s World Cup.

Whether this country needs a pro league to prepare players for the WWCs and Olympics is another matter.

“We have won six [championships] in 21 years,” Gulati said. “None of those has happened in a year where there was a professional league. We’ve had a pro league six of the last 21 years. We’ve had a model that can succeed on the field without that on the senior National Team level. So, is it a necessary and sufficient condition for success on the field? The answer is no. Now there are a number of things a pro league can bring aside from the senior team. You’re looking for a situation where the best players are in a good environment. You’re looking for a situation where the next 50-100 players are getting good training and competing to be one of those best players.”

But it’s not just players.

“You’re looking at developing coaches and referees,” Gulati said. “You’re looking at developing markets for the game more broadly, popularizing the game more broadly. Those are all important pieces that you can’t do with just one team. There are a lot of things that a pro league can do for the sport that a single team can’t do. It’s really a combination of those two.”

FIFA hasn’t pressured the U.S. to start a women’s pro league, but the sport’s powers that be would “like to see the women’s game continue to grow and see us continue to take a leadership role in it,” Gulati said.

“But they also understand that it has to be viable. There is no league in the world on the women’s side where all the players are earning a full-time salary through soccer. So it’s a tough economic model. There are very few examples of any sport in the world where there is a full-time women’s professional league. We have one here, but that was heavily subsidized by a very successful basketball league. We like doing tough things. If we can figure out the right model with the right people, then we will absolutely jump in and get at it.”

Gulati said he did not think Major League Soccer would be involved with a new league, if it got started.

“I don’t think that’s in the short-term timeline,” he said. “Whether some potential owner-operators in MLS chose to be part of a structure, that’s possible. I don’t think the league itself would particularly. I don’t think you’d see an NBA/WNBA type model.”

Asked if there have been discussions with U.S. players about a pro league, Gulati responded, “It may be that not everyone wants the same thing. I think if the situation is right, for all the obvious reasons, most of our players would prefer to play in the United States. Having said that, if some choose to go abroad, there is nothing wrong with that.”

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