The fact that Women's Professional Soccer is preparing for its inaugural championship game this Saturday is the first victory for a league that is bravely attempting to pull off a minor miracle.
When WPS got under way earlier this year, the skeptics were many – and vocal. It will be a shock to some that the league has even survived to this stage.
The Women's United Soccer Association, the initial attempt at pro women's competition in the United States, crashed and burned after three years despite coming on the heels of a burgeoning economy and the drama of the 1999 Women's World Cup.
The odds were stacked firmly against WPS, however, with sponsorship dollars stretched tighter than ever before. And a highly skeptical sports market needed strong-armed persuasion that this was something worth taking interest in.
When the Los Angeles Sol host the Sky Blue FC at the Home Depot Center on Saturday, the match will serve as both a moment of pride to those who had faith in the league and a reminder that many challenges still lie ahead.
We take a look at where WPS has hit or missed in Year One:
Standard of play: Hit
Landing Brazilian superstar Marta, clearly the best women's player in the world, was vital for credibility. Marta has been a solid investment, leading the Sol to first place in the regular season and a spot in the championship game. She has not been let down by the level of play around her, with the league competitive and challenging throughout.
"The level has been high all season,” Marta said. “This is the toughest league in the world for women, and after the players got used to each other the standard has just continued to grow.”
Quite simply, the officiating in the early part of the season was dreadful and caused severe embarrassment to the league. WPS officials took swift action to try to improve refereeing standards, but there is still a long way to go before it reaches an acceptable level. The world's best female players deserve better than the amateurish refereeing that has reared its head far too often.
Crowds: We'll see …
WPS has just about hit its attendance targets, which were extremely low to begin with. There have been some reasonably encouraging signs, with 8,000 showing up in Chicago for the Red Stars' final regular-season game. But the overall average was just 4,500 – which was boosted by a doubleheader including a Major League Soccer game – and it is hard to see significant upward movement. Despite very reasonable ticket prices, these are tough times – especially with the ever-increasing amount of soccer the U.S. audience has to devour.
Playoffs and soccer make uneasy bedfellows, and MLS has struggled over the years to find a fair and appropriate format. Yet the postseason is one area that WPS has gotten spectacularly right.
The idea of rewarding the best-placed regular-season team with the right to host the final is a worthy reward – and means there is significant importance to both parts of the campaign. The four-team structure, meanwhile, ensured that there was still interest for other clubs deep into the year.
Not one WPS team made a profit in 2009, with losses between $1 million and $2 million commonplace. The league's investors show every sign of being in this for the long term, but that doesn't mean they will keep throwing money into a bottomless pit.
The projected turnaround in the economy can help – and compared to the drastic and horrific WUSA losses, WPS is in infinitely better shape.
Sustainability and future: We'll see …
All in all, WPS has done as well as it could have hoped for in Year One. It has marketed itself cleverly, making intelligent use of social networking and the Internet to reach out to fans. The on-field product has been strong, and the level of commitment shown by the players cannot be faulted.
Overall, WPS has been a positive experience for fans. Now the difficulty lies in how to attract more of them.
With so much other soccer available on television, making an imprint in the ratings is difficult enough for MLS, let alone WPS. If the WPS ceiling is close, then the league needs to find a way to make itself profitable even with the current level of interest.
The league doesn't appear to be walking a tightrope, and it has the backing and sustainability to stick around. Making a major impact on the crowded U.S. sports scene, however, could require a magic act as intricate as one of Marta's famed step-overs.