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WPS in good hands with O’Sullivan

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blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Fortunately for new CEO Jennifer O’Sullivan, her introduction to Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) has been markedly smoother than her first major sports role as Vice President of Legal and Labor Affairs for the Arena Football League.  At her first position, the AFL quickly went bankrupt—no fault of O’Sullivan’s—and she persevered long enough to witness the successful sale and reincarnation of the league in Tulsa.

Now directing the top league in women’s soccer, O’Sullivan enters in a positive yet precarious position, as Boca Raton-based magicJack was terminated after constant quarrels between the league and owner Dan Borislow.  magicJack’s absence leaves WPS with only five teams—Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Sky Blue and Western New York—a disturbingly low number for any professional sports league. 

“A lot of times in your first year or second year, you get that big buzz of interest and have [owners] jump in,” O’Sullivan explained.  “And they’re not in it for the long haul, and for whatever reason, they may fade away.  Maybe they thought it would be easier or that they’d make more money than they did.” 

Could the entire system collapse despite the surge of momentum stemming from the Women’s World Cup last summer?

O’Sullivan answers that question with a resounding “no.”  “We have five owners who are committed and believe in the strength of the league and the mission and purpose behind the league,” she stated firmly.  Early indications are that the league will be fine, but the issues that the new CEO must tackle are plentiful:

1) Determine the layout for the 2011-12 season.  There are still late negotiations about adding one more team—almost assuredly Connecticut—but the clock is ticking.  “The [decision on] the sixth team is going to have to happen soon because of the compressed time frame,” O’Sullivan said.  “We want that team to be poised for success and to be able to come in and do well—not behind the eight-ball or rushed to come in.” 

The second major task in preparing the league for the coming season is maneuvering around the Olympic tournament schedule, which runs much later than last summer’s World Cup.  Because the WPS’ talent draws heavily from the international ranks—which includes players like Marta and Christine Sinclair that fans crave to see in action—it’s imperative that the schedule is organized in such a way that these marketable players aren’t away on Olympic duty during the WPS postseason. 

2)  Come to agreement on a business model for the league.  The single entity vs. franchise model as a benchmark for professional leagues is an enduring debate, and even a hybrid model of the two—much like Major League Soccer’s set-up—is a possibility.  For O’Sullivan, the need to operate conservatively—perhaps using the “forced parity” tactic by the MLS as a hybrid single entity—makes sense, dimming the hopes of gigantic profits in the name of league permanence. 

3)  Create as simple of a CBA as possible.  Collective Bargaining Agreements are essentially a curse word in pro sports right now, but O’Sullivan and WPS shouldn’t worry about this obstacle too much, as they’re not splitting up nine billion dollars like the NFL.  O’Sullivan was practical and clear in her description, saying, “We’re just making sure that the players are being compensated and treated fairly, and from our perspective that the ownership is paying what it can handle at this point.”  In a league with a wide range of contracts, including megastars like Marta and Abby Wambach, a designated player rule—like the MLS—could make sense.

4)  Smartly expand the league without too much risk:  With internal deadlines looming in regard to a possible sixth team for 2012 and a bizarre schedule needed to account for the Olympics, O’Sullivan agrees that 2011-12 will be a bridge year.  “We have a pipeline of teams talking about coming in for 2013, including West Coast expansion.  We’re an East Coast league right now, but we want to reclaim that West Coast footprint.”  O’Sullivan continued to suggest that WPS would invite 3-4 teams from the West Coast at once, simply because it would make sense from a travel and division perspective. 

From spending two hours with O’Sullivan at a “Road to 2012” media gathering at Sahlen’s Sports Park, it’s clear that she’s the ideal person to have in the position.  Sure, the CEO position is new ground for the University of Richmond and Columbus School of Law graduate, but she appears genuinely excited and passionate about seeing Women’s Professional Soccer become the elite league in women’s professional sports.  Myriad obstacles stand in the way, but she’s more than ready to tackle them.

TAGGED: arena football league, cba, jennifer o'sullivan, western new york flash, women's professional soccer, wps

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