Women’s soccer battle brewing in Seattle
The Seattle Sounders Women held a press conference on Tuesday, the content of which was far less interesting than the timing: four days after U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati briefed select media on the status of their aspirant women’s professional league; four days after former Sounders Women General Manager Amy Carnell started informing people that she had left the club for a still-forming competitor. Following those developments, Smith’s press gathering made him out to be an opportunistic explorer thrusting his country’s flag into a newly “discovered” land - because fabric and poles mean so much.
But that was the subtext of the Sounders Women’s message. The team announced they would be back in 2013. In what league? They’re not sure. Where would they play? Starfire Sports Complex, they hoped. And would the big names - Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Sydney Leroux - be back? It’s too early to talk about such things, even if Solo seems to have developed a connection for the brand. In most ways, the Sounders Women are little different than a team that’s just starting. They don’t know where they’ll play, with which players, or against which teams.
With so little to announce, why call a press conference? Surely a press release announcing the team’s intentions would have sufficed. Even that might have been overkill. Few assumed the Sounders Women were going away. The team could have brushed off questions as they came up. “Back? Of course, we’ll be back. We’re hear to stay!”
The press conference makes more sense when you know about Carnell’s new employer. Seattle-based business man Bill Predmore, president of the digital agency POP, is starting a team. He had linked up with the previously-announced (but now, unlikely to happen) league but has since positioned the team to be among USSF’s candidates. His team has also hired Carnell, who fired a shot across the Sounders Women’s bow in saying (about her new employer), “I am currently working with an owner here in Seattle that believes in the game as much as I do.”
For the Sounders’ part, the team announced the decision to not renew Carnell’s contract was made “about two months ago.”
With Predmore’s group still unknown to casual fans, it’s difficult to see Smith’s press conference as anything but an attempt to get ahead of the game. With no other substantive news to announce, the team took the opportunity to leverage their brand recognition, placing them in a de facto incumbent’s position. And since it’s unlikely Seattle (or any market) can support two professional women’s teams, the Sounders’ press conference could put Predmore’s group in a position to have to prove themselves against the implied potential of the Sounders’ brand.
There are, however, alternatives. The Sounders could elect to stay in the W-League rather than incur the costs and commitment of a professional league. Not only would player costs increase in a fully professional environment, but travel costs for a national league and staffing for a larger organization could dissuade owners from committing to a venture likely to lose money in the near future. Given the unique relationship between Sounders FC and Sounders Women, the women aren’t assured support from the men’s club. Last season, the MLS entity essentially licensed the Sounders branding to the women, with other connections loose, informal, or non-existent. They’re partners in name but little more.
Predmore’s group faces the same choices. For a team with no history, starting at the semi-professional level would have its benefits, even if it risks permanent second-team status. Predmore, however, had already committed to one professional league, and although he had made it clear that keeping costs down would be a factor, he also expressed cognizance of the long-term goals of any new league. The between the lines message: I’m willing to lose money, but let’s be smart about it.
From a public relations standpoint, Predmore seems to have lost ground to the Sounders Women, but that doesn’t matter. That’s why Tuesday’s press conference in Tukwila was so curious. The only thing that matters right now is the relationship with U.S. Soccer. The federation will decide who will be plays in the league come Spring 2013. If the Sounders Women have the branding but aren’t willing to commit to the standards U.S. Soccer wants to enforce, Bill Predmore will likely have the team.
Then again, USSF could pick both. Or neither, another thing which makes this flag-planting so interesting. Though U.S. Soccer’s likely to announce something before the end of the year, the process is still in a very uncertain state. Now is not the time for flag-waving.