Western New York expansion in 2011 is well worth the risk for WPS
Western New York will be WPS' new team for the 2011 season
The Buffalo-Rochester market wasn't on WPS' radar until two months ago
Western New York franchise has strong finances and little local competition
At first glance, the addition of western New York as a 2011 expansion team in Women's Professional Soccer raises eyebrows. In fact, the Buffalo-Rochester market wasn't even on WPS' radar until two months ago when talks with team owner Joe Sahlen began; the league had been set to enter next year with the same seven teams that ended this season.
At the WPS All-Star Game on June 30, then-commissioner Tonya Antonucci broke the disappointing news that talks with potential Los Angeles and Dallas franchises were actually for 2012 expansion, not 2011. It was yet another concern for a young league that looked unstable after two franchises folded this year (the Saint Louis Athletica shut down in May and the Los Angeles Sol went under in January).
But then along came Buffalo. Confident in his ability to turn a semipro USL W-League team into a fully professional WPS team in just a few months, Sahlen is ready to take on the commitment WPS will demand. The resources are already there. Sahlen's meat packing company has great financial clout an an impressive business network.
Sahlen's is the official hot dog of the Buffalo Bills and the company's partnerships throughout western New York are vast, which will help the team secure sponsors. If there was ever any question about Sahlen's influence, look no further than his securing Niagara University as one of two home facilities.
The western New York franchise, which will reveal its name and logo next week, will split its games between Niagara and Marina Auto Stadium, home of the USSF D2 Pro League's Rochester Rhinos. Niagara Field holds just more than 1,000 fans, but Sahlen negotiated to expand the facility to more than 4,000 for WPS play. Talk became action in just a few weeks of discussion -- exactly the type of productivity and commitment WPS needs.
Granted, the skeptical view is that WPS made a desperate move in bending its own expansion timetable to allow the new franchise entry in 2011. (Late August had been considered the latest a new team could enter for 2011, and serious talks with Sahlen didn't start until early that month.) And the comparatively small regional market of Buffalo-Rochester is not the new area that fans were hoping to hear about. It's a largely unknown women's soccer market that has many thinking it's a backup for failures to persuade other big markets to join the league.
However, what it comes down to is this: WPS has added a new team and owner with money who is committed to the women's game. The seven-figure expansion fee paid by Sahlen is additional revenue for the league, and the move is a sign of strength for WPS. Sahlen has said from the start that he would not join WPS unless the league presented him with a convincing long-term business plan. The franchise's addition should put to rest any immediate concerns about the league not making it to 2011.
That comes as mild relief to fans, but more important serves as a confidence boost for other potential owners thinking about investing in new franchises.
The western New York market is also one that serves as a perfect test for WPS' expansion approach. While WPS features world-class talent, the business model lines up closely with minor league baseball. Rochester was just named a top minor league market by the Sports Business Journal. Despite recent declining attendance, the Rhinos have historically been one of the best-supported second-division men's teams in the country.
Sahlen's team has the opportunity to be a moderate-sized fish in a small pond. There are very few teams to compete with during the summer in the Buffalo and Rochester markets. Hockey and football rule the region the rest of the year, but WPS action could fill a niche void during the summer months.
A capacity of just 4,000 at Niagara will be intimate, but that's exactly what WPS should be aiming for. FC Gold Pride defeated Philadelphia 4-0 in Sunday's championship in front of a near-capacity crowd of 5,288 at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, Calif. The environment was much better than that of the 2009 final in which 7,218 fans filled the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Selling out a 4,000-seat stadium consistently creates both demand and an energetic environment. The key, of course, is eventually turning that into a profit, but it all starts by presenting a good product.
Also, with what is expected to be a heavy turnover of players to free agency, the new franchise will have the ability to pursue big-name players who could help with marketing. The most obvious target is star U.S. forward Abby Wambach, who is a Rochester-area native.
Despite the addition of an eighth team, WPS still lacks much of a West Coast presence. The loss of Los Angeles before the 2010 season left FC Gold Pride as the sole representative on the West Coast and made expansion there a priority. Discussions with potential owners in L.A., Dallas, Denver and Seattle, among others, have taken place, with no results so far.
Six of the league's eight teams are located on the East Coast, while Chicago and FC Gold Pride (Northern California) stand alone. If the league truly seeks to make a national footprint, the next round of expansion has to come out west.
Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer who runs The Equalizer, a Web site devoted to women's professional soccer news.
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