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In any sport, new leagues are money pits, and rarely work

Aug 13, 2012, 9:35 AM EST

7T

Everyone hates a buzz kill, so let me apologize straight away.

Since women’s soccer and women’s professional leagues are topical, there’s something that needs to elbow its way into this conversation straight away, something that always gets left behind as the debate motors right into more provocative and polarizing stuff:

That starting a league in this country is damn near impossible.

When we start talking about soccer leagues, the prospects of success or failure almost always becomes a referendum on whether Americans like soccer. But that’s not where the conversation needs to start. It needs to start here:

Most professional sports leagues that didn’t start more than 50 years ago are doomed the day they open a front office. In this way, it has nothing to do with a sport’s popularity.

(MORE: A breakthrough moment for women’s soccer that wasn’t much of a breakthrough)

Even pro sports with well-established domestic roots struggle mightily to find their way in a league upstart. As I’ve written before, the graveyard of busted and bankrupt leagues are littered with corpses from American football – and I think we can all agree that football is a popular sport here.

XFL, r.i.p. Same for you, U.S.F.L. (Ask your father. Or his father.)

We keep hearing about some rich guys starting another pro football league to compete with N.F.L. – but presumably those guys went back on their meds and ditched such a  cockamamie notion.

Properties with no recognition, with zero history from which to draw, without any brand equity are massive money pits.  They are mostly failures waiting to happen. (All of this is why Major League Soccer, even though it continues to lose money, is a pretty amazing success story. This is MLS season No. 17.)

Think of it like this: so many of expenses of an upstart league are the same as with a recognized one, although on a much smaller scale. (Player salaries, front office salaries, stadium costs, event expenses, marketing budgets, travel, etc.) But the income disparity in receivables is outrageous, mostly because there’s so much less TV money (or none at all) coming into a freshly dug league.

So, any conversation about whether a U.S. women’s professional soccer league needs to begin there, with the no-BS recognition that it’s a long, brutal, uphill slog, no matter which sport we’re talking about.

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