Women's soccer moves to centre stage - The Vancouver Sun

Some former Whitecaps stars have moved to the WPS league, but the local team shouldn't suffer

BY BRUCE CONSTANTINEAU

The Vancouver Whitecaps women launch their 2009 season today in a USL W-League missing some of its most familiar names.

Former Caps stars such as Christine Sinclair, Erin McLeod, Candace Chapman and Martina Franko now play in the new top-flight Women's Professional Soccer league in the U.S.

While the roster may have lost some of its sizzle, no one seems to be too worried about it. The Whitecaps insist they will still play at a "very high level" and soccer and marketing experts say the new league should do wonders for the sport, in the United States, Canada and beyond.

Indeed, the advent of the fledgling, seven-team WPS this spring thrust women's soccer onto centre stage, with officials able to boast about international stars like Brazilian striker Marta and Japanese midfielder Aya Miyama.

The principal investors are NBA star Steve Nash and former Yahoo! president Jeff Mallett -- both part-owners of the Vancouver Major League Soccer team that begins play in 2011.

Mallett believes the women's game has never been stronger in North America, especially in terms of quality. He said the high level of coaching and play now prevalent throughout the U.S. university and college system continues to produce great players.

"The game has improved to the point where it has become much more watchable and enjoyable for traditional soccer fans," he said. "The speed of play has improved; the women are better athletes and they possess far better ball skills."

The league hopes to attract soccer-knowledgeable women aged 12 to 40, along with male "sports nuts" who realize the league features more Olympians than any other league in the world.

Mallett also hopes to avoid some of the mistakes made by his league's predecessor, the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA). Created amid the hoopla surrounding the U.S. World Cup win in 1999, it folded after the 2003 season.

Unlike WUSA, which played in large venues and had a relatively large salary cap, Mallett said WPS has a "very, very pragmatic" business model.

WPS teams have salary caps of about $600,000 and pay players an average salary of $32,000 US over six months. The salary cap for the old league was $825,000 in 2003, with an average salary of about $45,000. (Whitecaps women are not paid a salary, although their expenses are covered.)

Mallett said the "break-even" WPS plan calls for average game attendance of 4,000 to 6,000; after seven weeks of play, the league expects to average 5,380 fans per game.

WPS has also partnered with Major League Soccer -- something the old league refused to do -- by hooking up with the MLS marketing subsidiary -- Soccer United Marketing. Mallett said that has given his league more credibility and a proven sales channel.

The recession has created some challenges in attracting corporate sponsors, but the league does have a four-year sponsorship deal with Puma that's believed to be worth about $10 million.

Derek Aframe, vice-president of sports marketing firm Octagon, said the recession might actually help the league, since it offers affordable ticket prices, averaging around $16.

"They can say they have an exciting new sport with the world's best women athletes in an affordable, family-friendly environment," he said.

Aframe said the fact the new league attracted Marta -- a three-time FIFA Player of the Year -- bodes well for its future global appeal, although the slowing economy likely will delay profitability and expansion targets.

"But the long-term macroeconomic factors are all in favour of women's soccer," he said. "It's the world's game and the increasing multi-cultural makeup of the Canadian and American fan base demonstrates this is a sport that people can embrace."

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said his organization considered joining WPS, but wanted to field a national team with the best Canadian players.

"That didn't materialize primarily because the [Canadian Soccer Association] was not interested," he said.

Lenarduzzi believes the relationship between WPS and the W-League is similar to the one that exists between MLS and USL.

"It's another level of elite soccer that girls can aspire to," he said. "The WPS provides a greater awareness for women's soccer, which I think helps the game in general."

The Canadian game in particular could also get a boost. Lenarduzzi said the longer WPS season and strong competition within the league can only help the eight Canadians who play in the new league prepare for international competition. Christine Latham, Kelly Parker, Karina LeBlanc and Melissa Tancredi are the other Canadians in WPS.

Lenarduzzi said future expansion into the league is always possible, but not until the Whitecaps perfect the MLS operation.

"Before we get two teams that require a significant investment, we want to make sure we get one right before we jump into the other," he said. "It's probably useful to sit back and see how [WPS] evolves and what kind of investment would be required to participate."

The Whitecaps men's and women's teams both lose money, but with the men starting play in MLS in two years, Lenarduzzi hopes it will require "less of an investment" by owner Greg Kerfoot.

As for the women's team the Whitecaps will field this year, head coach Alan Koch isn't complaining. They'll play a control-and-possession attacking style of soccer that dictates how the game is played.

"The group we have are very, very close to the level of the few players that we've lost," he said. "I don't think fans will see much of a drop in the level of play by any means."

Likely stars include defender Shannon Woeller, midfielders Chelsea Stewart and Monica Lam-Feist and forward Jodi-Ann Robinson.

"These are young players that are getting better every single year," Koch said, "and hopefully will have big seasons for us."

- The 2004 and 2006 W-League champion Whitecaps play a 12-game regular season this year, with four home games at Swangard and two at SFU Terry Fox Field.

bconstantineau@vancouversun.com

WHITECAPS WOMEN:

The 2009 schedule:

Home

- May 16: Seattle Sounders, 4 p.m.

- June 7: Pali Blues, 7 p.m.

- June 12: Los Angeles Legends, 5 p.m.

- June 28: Colorado Force FC, 4 p.m.

- July 1: Ventura County Fusion, 4 p.m.

- July 5: Real Colorado Cougars, 5 p.m.

Away

- June 3: @ Seattle Sounders, 7 p.m.

- June 18: @ Los Angeles Legends, 7 p.m.

- June 20: @ Ventura County Fusion, 5 p.m.

- June 23: @ Pali Blues, 7 p.m.

- July 17: @ Colorado Force FC, 6 p.m.

- July 19: @ Real Colorado Cougars, noon

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