Dan Borislow wants his pre-teen daughter to grow up knowing that females can be professional athletes, too. So he bought a women’s soccer team.
Borislow, a communications entrepreneur and former AOL vendor, took over the Washington Freedom last month. He will probably move the squad to Florida and rename it the Magic Talk, after his firm’s retail telecom product. But Borislow acknowledges things remain up in the air. He says the squad might “play some games” in the D.C. area in 2011, too.
“I really didn’t want to [buy the Freedom] now, because I have a lot going on with my business,” says Borislow. “But if I didn’t come along and rescue this team now, I really think this was the end of” the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league.
The Freedom’s financial uncertainty isn’t unique. All sorts of sports enterprises where women are paid to play appear to need rescuing. Even the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, with a deep-pocketed owner in Ted Leonsis and promotional help from the NBA, are hurting. Head coach Julie Plank and general manager Angela Taylor were fired just after the Mystics completed an Eastern Conference-leading 22-win 2010 season. Former Mystics assistant coach Trudi Lacey took both Plank’s and Taylor’s jobs. Mystics President Sheila Johnson confessed to fans that switch was about saving money.
“We just have to make these changes in order to keep the franchise alive,” Johnson said.
Title IX guarantees equal opportunity through college. After that, sports gender equity is a pipe dream. Unlike their male counterparts, WNBA stars have to pick up work overseas in the offseason to make a decent living. Adding injury to insolvency, the Mystics announced last week that star Monique Currie would miss the 2011 season after blowing out her knee while moonlighting in a Turkish pro league.
Unique or not, the Freedom’s downfall was a long one. The team once featured Mia Hamm, the most famous female soccer player of all time. They played home games at RFK Stadium and won titles in the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), credited with being the world’s first professional women’s soccer league.
The WUSA was launched following the wildly successful 1999 Women’s World Cup soccer tournament. But world cup crowds didn’t materialize, and the league folded after the 2003 season, a championship year for the Freedom. In 2007, the Freedom came back as part of something called the W League, which the squad dominated. But with Hamm no longer on board, the Freedom left RFK for the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, a rural ‘burg in northwestern Montgomery County. Since then, the team has gotten only slightly more attention than any of the hundreds of youth soccer clubs who also play at the SoccerPlex.
The Hendricks family, which founded the Freedom and stuck with it long after other WUSA pioneers had given up on women’s soccer as a business, finally sold to Borislow last month.
Borislow says he’s bullish on women’s team sports—“I wouldn’t have done this if I wasn’t,” he says—but adds that he’s convinced they can’t succeed via the same formats used by male sports leagues. Instead, he says, the way to save women’s team sports is to make everything international.
“You look at when women’s soccer was really doing well and had high visibility here, you have to look at the [World Cup] and the Olympics,” he says. “Like with figure skating, and gymnastics, it’s always the international competitions that get people interested. It’s not [U.S] clubs playing [U.S.] clubs. We can’t have a team from Boston playing a team from Philadelphia. That won’t work. But if I have a team in the U.S. play a team in China, or a team in Russia, that’s what the spectators in the U.S. would rather have.”
Borislow says he’s already gotten permission from WPS officials to stage a “half-million- or million-dollar, winner-take-all” tournament in 2011. He wants the competition to feature the top two WPS teams and six international squads. Then he wants to do the tourney all over again in 2012.
“You have to keep focused on how exciting these women are,” Borislow says.
Paul Wilson of Fairfax has been watching the Freedom’s plight with particular empathy. Like Borislow, Wilson once bought a professional sports franchise just so his own pre-teen daughter could have role models in female athletes.
By some barometers, Wilson’s Washington Glory, of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) softball confederation, did all right: The squad won the league crown in 2007, its first season. It went to the finals again in 2008. Sure enough, Wilson’s kid put up a poster of U.S. Olympian and NPF player Jennie Finch and started wearing a jersey of the Glory’s pitching ace and fellow Olympian Monica Abbott. “That was the whole reason I got involved,” says Wilson, who says he devoted all his family’s finances to the softball start-up, thinking the franchise would become a source of income.
But as a business, the Glory wasn’t very glorious. Despite playing at George Mason University, in the heart of the affluent girls’ softball colony that is Northern Virginia, the team had trouble getting press, even in its championship season. Attention was even scarcer a year later, when a renovation project at Mason forced the team to play at a high school field in Chantilly.
“You’re not going to get a crew from ESPN or Comcast to come to a game at a high school,” Wilson says. Fans didn’t show up in Chantilly, either. “Without a gate, you need sponsorship money,” Wilson says, “Corporate America isn’t there for the women’s sports like it is for the men right now.”
For all the on-field successes, the most publicity the Glory ever got came when the local all-male morning radio team the Junkies interviewed rookie infielder Bianca Cruz about some NSFW online pictures of her. Two weeks after the radio appearance, and with her photos having gone viral, Wilson announced that Cruz had asked to be let out of her Glory contract to “pursue other opportunities.”
After the 2008 season, and with losses “in the millions of dollars,” Wilson had to get out. But with the economy in tatters, no buyer stepped up. At one point, Wilson put a sales notice for his championship-winning squad on Craigslist. Eventually, he and his wife declared personal bankruptcy.
Today, Wilson takes the Hendricks family’s decision to unload the Freedom as an ominous sign for women’s pro sports.
“We lost our home, all our assets, lost everything,” he says. “I think we provided role models for a lot of girls around here, and we felt that was important. People with a lot more resources than we had are having trouble, too. For women’s sports to work, I’m afraid it’s going to take somebody really rich who wants a tax writeoff or a hobby. I’m done.”
As for the Finch poster and Abbott shirt, Wilson says his daughter put those away in boxes after the forced sale of the family’s previous home. She wears a Reggie Bush jersey around the house these days.
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