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Sports

Is there a future for women’s pro soccer?

Women’s professional soccer is still coming to grips with two failed leagues and being labeled a niche sport.

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images/File 2009

Women’s professional soccer is still coming to grips with two failed leagues and being labeled a niche sport.

SOMERVILLE — Rain pours in at either end of the tunnel under the seats at Dilboy Stadium. Staff members come through with pizza from an abandoned birthday party, offering some to the three dozen or so fans chased from the seats by lightning.

There is no concourse, and concession food can be found in carts just outside the gates, brought in for Boston Breakers home games, played on a field seemingly more suited for high school lacrosse than a team with professional aspirations.

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The Breakers, Boston’s women’s soccer team that has survived two failed leagues, share the stadium with the Boston Militia, the local women’s football team. The Breakers have the cheaper tickets. Many don’t know they still exist.

Having lost one league, the WUSA, then another, the WPS, women’s professional soccer — the child of Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain — has been reduced to a niche sport, the teams a mix of amateurs and professionals, the names sprinkled on rosters far brighter than the league itself.

When the news came in May that the WPS had folded, it seemed women’s professional soccer was destined for failure. Leagues had been unable to capitalize on the World Cup success of 1999.

Those at the top have miscalculated and botched the finances, their dreams bigger than the sport’s reality. So as women’s soccer fights to survive, its best-case scenario might be a league of lower costs and lower expectations, a league that builds its way into the public consciousness without fanfare and fireworks.

The machinations have started. Meetings are being held. Minds are at work. But there is trepidation. Because if women’s soccer suffers another defeat, that might be the end.

Downsized dreams

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After the WPS folded, a few owners gathered their pride, assessed their resources, and joined the semi-pro WPSL Elite, a place where paychecks are not enough to live on (or don’t exist), where busing is the preferred method of transportation, and where a 2,100-person sellout is celebrated.

Life in the WPSL looks nothing like the pioneers of the WUSA imagined in 1999. The dreams have been downsized.

Back then, coming off Chastain’s shootout-winning goal, the plan was to capitalize on the millions captivated by the World Cup win. A league would be built and would flourish. The WUSA lasted just three years. It was tried again in 2009, this time with the WPS. That also lasted just three years.

Brandi Chastain helped draw attention to women’s soccer when she removed her shirt in celebration of her shootout-winning goal in the 1999 World Cup.

Lacy Atkins/The San Francisco Examiner/AP

Brandi Chastain helped draw attention to women’s soccer when she removed her shirt in celebration of her shootout-winning goal in the 1999 World Cup.

And now, it seems, it’s time to try again.

To that end, there was a meeting in Chicago last week. In the room or on the telephone were former WPS owners, representatives from MLS, US Soccer, and US Youth Soccer, former players, former national team coach and WUSA commissioner Tony DiCicco, and representatives from the USL, which runs the W League, a pro-am league like the WPSL Elite.

They discussed logistics, finances, partnerships, a future. They discussed managed expectations and modest hopes. They walked out with optimism.

“I would say on many levels the future has never been brighter,” said Breakers managing partner Michael Stoller. “I think everybody in the room agrees on what the league should look like, and if it did it would be the right base for national team players and for players developing to be national team players.”

The options have seemed twofold. Either the women’s league should be smaller, a league where players have other jobs and other ways of supporting themselves, or it should be attached to Major League Soccer, as the WNBA is affiliated with the NBA.

With MLS not interested, it appears the first option is the way women’s soccer is headed. The likely result is a 12-16-team league built from franchises that already exist in semi-pro and pro-am leagues.

US Soccer seems likely to be a part, though the role is yet to be determined.

“We’re absolutely willing to be actively involved in it in a way that makes sense for us, for the clubs and leagues that are involved, and the role that the federation has,” said Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation. “So I think everything’s open to discussion and certainly the discussion we had last week was wide-ranging and, I think, very productive as a first step.”

Tough lessons

We’ve heard this before. The WPS promised to learn from the mistakes of the WUSA. It didn’t.

The issues were the same in many ways, just on a smaller scale. Financial viability has been the culprit, starting with the $40 million budgeted to take care of the first five years of the WUSA, a league that spent $100 million in three years.

So, average salaries were slashed from $40,000 in the WUSA to $32,000 in the WPS, which got even smaller as it became clear the numbers didn’t work.

“Both WUSA and WPS basically looked for a bunch of rich people to fund a start-up with a tremendous cost structure, not on the league level but on a team level, that wasn’t sustainable at that level,” Stoller said. “It was just too high a starting point.”

In the first year of the WPS, the salary cap was $600,000, though clubs took advantage of loopholes to spend more, especially on stars, such as Brazilian Marta’s three-year, $1.5 million deal.

Operating budgets started between $3 million and $4 million in the first year of the WPS, and declined from there, though the Breakers were still spending between $1.5 million and $2 million in 2011, according to a source with knowledge of the team’s finances.

That’s a far cry from the estimates for a new league.

The Boston Breakers tried to make a splash in 2008 when the announced coach Tony DiCicco, left, would return with players Kristine Lilly, Angela Hucles and Heather Mitts on his squad. At right was WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci.

Bebeto Matthews/AP

The Boston Breakers tried to make a splash in 2008 when the announced coach Tony DiCicco, left, would return with players Kristine Lilly, Angela Hucles and Heather Mitts on his squad. At right was WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci.

With the lessons — supposedly — learned, operating budgets are expected to stay around $500,000 to $750,000, half of what some teams were losing per year in the WPS, with no salary cap.

Instead of the 5,000 to 8,000 fans the WUSA expected, the hope would be that the new league could draw maybe 2,000 per game. Teams would play in smaller venues with more manageable costs.

The financials weren’t the only issue. There weren’t enough teams — seven initially — and the West Coast and major television markets weren’t represented enough.

But the financials were the biggest issue.

“The economics had to match what the market was bringing,” said Melanie Fitzgerald, the WPS’s director of operations in its final season. “I think they were conservative, but I think we learned that we have to be even more conservative.”

Serious business

But what ultimately killed the WPS?

“Fatigue,” said former Breakers general manager Andy Crossley, only half-joking.

Teams became ghost ships, shedding front office personnel and salaries, turning players into community relations directors and interns into integral parts of the operation. Experienced executives were forced out or left. Puma, an important sponsor in terms of dollars and product, dropped out.

“They just didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Crossley said of team owners. “They went into it with great intentions, lost a lot more money than they wanted to, started getting annoyed with each other.”

And then there was magicJack. The Washington Freedom were acquired by Dan Borislow, moved to Florida, and renamed magicJack to advertise his telephone equipment business. The team brought on some of the sport’s most recognizable names in Abby Wambach and Hope Solo — and became a disaster. They had no real coach, no athletic trainer, and a caste system.

“That unfortunately made people not disrespect our league but not take our league too seriously,” said Leslie Osborne, a former US national team player. “We got more attention, but at this point we don’t need the attention, we actually need the respect.”

The team was eventually terminated, resulting in a lawsuit that signaled the death knell for the league.

And with that ending, it seemed their last chance was gone.

Developing situation

The ramifications are deeper, because a professional league serves as a development and feeder system for the national team.

“We still are very much in a leadership role around the world on the women’s side of the game,” Gulati said. “The trick is how do you continue to maintain that leadership position when everyone is investing a lot of resources?”

A professional league would help. After all, some of the US’s biggest stars have been discovered not in college but in the pro ranks. Such as Wambach, whose career didn’t take off until she played alongside Hamm with the Freedom.

“Abby Wambach could have easily been just somebody who was a college soccer star,” said Breakers coach Lisa Cole. “She became who she is today because of the WUSA.”

There are others — Shannon Boxx, Amy LePeilbet, Becky Sauerbrunn.

Without professional leagues, they might have turned to coaching. They might have retired. They certainly wouldn’t be in the national team player pool. And even if they had continued playing overseas, that becomes difficult to monitor, especially since FIFA restricts when teams can request their players come back for national team camps.

“I think you see a lot of countries are taking steps forward in terms of development,” said Osborne. “I don’t know if we’re taking those steps.”

That’s one reason the USSF is willing to help make it happen, despite cautioning that discussions are still in the early stages.

The idea is not just to discover talent. The idea is to foster a development system that keeps the US atop women’s soccer, even as strides have been made by countries such as Japan and France.

“That’s the only way that the US can remain on top is if we grow it from the ground up in America, not going overseas and hoping for the best in America,” said former national team player Cat Whitehill. “I think it’s a huge concern. I think the gap is already closing.”

Faith renewed

So, don’t expect trumpets. The next league might just show up quietly.

But at that level, will the biggest names want to be a part of it? Will the stars of the national team risk their health and careers for such low salaries?

“I’ve been talking with US national team players and I think there’s a lot of them that want to stay and play,’’ Cole said. “I think that for players on the national team, maybe the money can’t be their No. 1 concern.”

That’s something the new league will have to sell to veterans and rookies alike, that the league can grow and gradually increase its presence, budgets, and salaries. If they don’t, though, can a league survive without them?

“I believe we all think we can,” Stoller said. “Will we have every single star in the galaxy? Absolutely not.”

But they’ll have a competitive league, something that many of those overseas leagues haven’t been able to match.

For now, there is faith that they can find the balance that will allow a league to survive beyond three years. There is faith that they can attract talent, and that talent can attract fans.

“What we’re hearing from players is you’re finally doing it the right way,” Stoller said. “We’d like to make a hell of a lot more money, but this is about the game and this is about making this a league that will be here in five years and 10 years and 20 years.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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