Battle for Seattle: Is market big enough for two women's teams?

Rick Stewart

A new team with no name, no players, no coach and no history is entering the market already occupied by the Sounders Women, a spurned lower-tier club that doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

If you thought the decision on which ownership group would be granted entry into the latest attempt at a women's pro soccer league would settle anything, think again. I've spent the last few days talking to various parties involved with the new Seattle pro women's team, the Sounders Women, Seattle Sounders FC and U.S. Soccer and the only thing that's clear is that last week's announcement was only the latest chapter in a story that is far from being over.

To be sure, I believe both ownership groups are well meaning. I'm not sure that guarantees that this will end well for everyone, though. Both teams are intent on plowing forward on paths that may not necessarily lead to peaceful co-existence, but it does seem that the local women's soccer fan will get to choose which one ultimately comes out on top.

The new kid on the block

Bill Predmore is obviously a smart guy, a successful businessman and someone with a genuine interest in women's soccer. As the founder of the digital marketing firm POP, he clearly has an eye for branding and he has aspirations to make his new team into one of the world's great women's soccer clubs. I can definitely understand what the decision-makers saw when they entrusted him with what could very well be the marquee franchise in their new league.

He's also never owned a professional sports team. That doesn't mean he won't be successful, obviously, but there are going to be some growing pains.

To his credit, he appears well aware of the fact that he still has to prove himself. This is, after all, a team with no name, no history, no coach and no players that is playing in a still unnamed league that was born from the ashes of two failed predecessors that never saw their fourth birthdays.

"We are taking nothing for granted," Predmore told me on Sunday. "We are a brand-new club. We don’t expect fans to follow us until we’ve done something they can believe in.

"In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to have make some moves to get people excited and show them we’re serious about this. If that happens, we’re very hopeful the fans will follow."

The first order of business is finding a coach. Bringing a coach into such a blank slate of a situation has some positives and negatives, but Predmore says he's been pleased with the response he's received so far. He says that most of the people he has called are at least intrigued by the idea of being the head coach of a team in a market that has shown as much enthusiasm as Seattle. The goal is to have a coach in place before the new year and definitely before players start being signed.

As if those weren't enough challenges, the fact that there's an existing women's team in the area that has a fair amount of name recognition is not making it any easier...

The old guard

The Sounders Women have existed in some fashion or another since 2001, mostly playing in relative obscurity. That changed last year.

Not only did they rebrand with the colors and logo of Seattle Sounders FC (their closest association with the men's team in several years), but they also were in great position to benefit from the sudden collapse of WPS. Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Megan Rapinoe were just four of the United States national team stars who suited up in Rave Green, suddenly putting the team in the national spotlight.

They averaged 4,500 fans per game and basically sold out Starfire Sports Complex every night. That set a W-League record and was more than all but two WPS teams from 2010-11.

The once tiny supporters group "The Aux" was reborn as Jet City Auxiliary, and ended up turning into a major part of the gameday atmosphere. Their songs and chants -- usually tweaked versions of the ones sung by ECS -- were the soundtrack of your average match at Starfire and stood in stark contrast to the usual hum of adolescent screams long associated with women's sporting events. JCA has already declared its allegiance for the Sounders, regardless of what league they play in.

After having their bid to join the new league rejected, the Sounders Women will return to the USL's W-League and retain Sounders FC branding. They were still technically an amateur side last year -- even the big-name players were never paid by the team -- but are now at least considering their future as a semi-pro side.

"We’re not sure if we’re going pro or not," Sounders Women co-owner Lane Smith recently told me.

If the Sounders Women go pro, Smith thinks the talent gap between them and the new Seattle team would be rather small. He likens the gap to the one between the Division 2 NASL and Division 3 USL-Pro, as opposed to the one between those leagues and MLS. No specific names were mentioned, but Smith is hoping that some of the players from last year's team will be back.

It's worth noting that any player on the United States national team who signs with a W-League team would be doing so against the wishes of U.S. Soccer. The federation is, after all, acting as the league's administrator and is paying the wages for 24 players. While national team players are free to go to Europe, the expectation is that the only reason they'd choose to play outside of this league is to play in another top-flight division. Say what you will about the W-League, but the regionally-focused 30-team league is most certainly not top-flight.

Although it was well within U.S. Soccer's projected budget, Smith admits the business plan he put forward to the new league was relatively conservative, exactly the same as the one they used last year in fact. He acknowledged that he and co-owner Cliff McElroy were disappointed not to be chosen, but also wasn't interested in risking millions in potential losses and is perfectly happy to keep operating on a smaller scale.

"We’ll be fine," Smith says. "The W-League is a very scaleable model. We have sponsors. They understand the branding association with the Sounders. Pro, non-pro doesn’t matter to them. They’re more interested in having an association with the Sounders brand."

The Godfather

The 800-pound gorilla of Seattle soccer is obviously Seattle Sounders FC. Since earning entry into MLS in 2008, part-owner Adrian Hanauer has helped turn what was once a sparsely supported USL team into the one of the best supported clubs in the history of North American soccer (only the New York Cosmos ever averaged more fans). The Sounders drew more than 900,000 fans to home games this year, attracted crowds of at least 44,000 six times and averaged 43,144 fans during the regular season.

Knowing the value of the Sounders name and understanding the sway they have in the soccer community, Predmore made overtures to Hanauer and to Sounders Women ownership.

Although no one claims the two sides ever intended to work together on one team, Predmore did make some attempt to obtain the Sounders Women name. How much was ever offered is disputed, but the Sounders Women say they were never really interested in selling and Predmore says he came to welcome the idea of starting a new brand.

Like a scene out of one of the Godfather movies, Predmore also made sure to get permission from Hanauer before proceeding with his bid. Hanauer voiced no concerns, but also made it clear that he was in no position to get involved from an ownership standpoint.

Whether Hanauer was supporting one side or the other in their bid to compete in the top-division, it makes sense that this new league would have been very interested in having the Sounders brand associated with them.

The easiest way to do that would likely to have been picking the Sounders Women as the league's Seattle franchise. Yet, that didn't happen. U.S. Soccer is mostly mum on the specifics of how they chose the teams, but it's probably fair to say that the financial support of Sounders FC would have made it an easy decision to pick the Sounders Women.

Once the USL was no longer going to handle the league's administration, the Sounders Women lost another element that could have worked in their favor. In the end, D.C. United Women were the only team with significant USL ties to be chosen for the new league, while four teams from the old WPS (Western New York Flash, Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC and Boston Breakers) and three essentially new teams (Seattle, Portland and Kansas City) made the cut.

Bright future or another doomed attempt?

All we know for certain at this point is that Seattle has one more women's pro soccer team now than it did several months ago. The new Seattle team will be top-flight in name, but it's far too early to say if local soccer fans will see it that way in practice. When tickets go on sale, likely by the end of the year, that will be a good early indicator.

The Sounders Women will still be wearing Rave Green, still be playing at Starfire Sports Complex, still have JCA supporting them and may even have a few of the same faces back. Whether or not they go pro, they'll also be working on a far smaller budget. They might not even have to win the turnstile battle in order to be the last women standing.

At the same time, it's hard not to root for this new team. Even if you would have preferred U.S. Soccer to honor the Sounders Women's legacy, I think most people would appreciate Predmore's ambition. He's married to a former Division I women's soccer player and seems to have his heart in the right place. Predmore looks around at the world landscape of women's professional soccer and not so crazily thinks his team could eventually develop into one of the best clubs in the world if given the opportunity.

It may sound presumptuous, but this league needs the Seattle team to lead the way and someone with Predmore's ambition might not be such a bad thing. Yes, the other teams will need to find their own levels of success, but the ceiling is probably highest in Seattle. This could become the next great Seattle soccer success story, heralding the first lasting success of women's pro soccer in the United States. Or, it could fail miserably, joining the scrap heap of other well meaning but ultimately failed leagues.

It wouldn't necessarily be unprecedented for two women's teams to co-exist in the same market, but that would probably require the Sounders Women to return to their pre-2012 status when they were happy to have a few hundred fans in attendance and operated as a relatively low-risk business. The W-League has managed to exist for 17 years basically following that model. But if these two teams are intent on competing with one another, as now appears to be the case, that's likely a recipe for mutually assured destruction no matter how strong this market may appear to be.

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