They call Portland Soccer City, but I don't agree with that. I think Kansas City is Soccer City."
The man speaking is Brian Budzinski, owner of the Missouri Comets, the indoor soccer team that plays at the Independence Events Center. And he has a new reason to believe that he's right. Budzinski and his business partners, in an ownership group called TOTA (a reference to the indoor-game term "top of the arc"), now control two of KC's three professional soccer teams. TOTA owns FC Kansas City (nicknamed the Blues), part of the National Women's Soccer League that the U.S. Soccer Federation announced in November.
The league's creation comes only seven months after a previous women's pro league went out of business. And that league was actually the second women's soccer league to fold, a failure that ran conspicuously counter to the national boom in fandom enjoyed by the U.S. Women's National Team.
The structure of the new league — set to include teams in Chicago; Boston; New York; Washington, D.C.; New Jersey; Portland; and Seattle — looks a bit like sports socialism. U.S. Soccer wants the third time to be a charm, so it's working with the Canadian Soccer Association and the Mexican Football Federation to pay salaries for members of their national teams to play in the league. U.S. Soccer will fund 24 players, the Canadians 16 and the Mexicans at least 12.
When announcing the league's creation, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati explained that the league was designed to focus on building talent. "What we need is a sustainable model: less hype, better performance," he said at a November press conference. "The hype will come if we have the performance."
Downplaying hype is an idea that Jeff Kassouf can get behind. He's the founder and managing editor of Equalizer Soccer, a website that covers women's soccer around the country.
"Sometimes it feels like optimistic as a stand-alone word is strong," he tells The Pitch. "You've got to be realistic. The best way to put it is, it's the most realistic shot so far."
That structure of distributing big names and skill among a small number of teams should help the league succeed as well as build hype, Budzinski says. He likens the strategy to the NBA's exhibition games that send big stars to, say, the Sprint Center.
"LeBron James comes, sells 16,000 tickets," Budzinski says. "I mean, they [fans] aren't coming to see Mario Chalmers. They don't even know who they're playing. Obviously, it's not the same level. But it's very, very similar."
A women's soccer analog, he adds, is U.S. Women's National Team forward Alex Morgan, who scored 28 goals this year.
"Alex Morgan was just named the [U.S. Soccer] Female Athlete of the Year. And she's going to be — bare minimum — playing in Kansas City twice, if she's not playing for us," he says.
Kassouf says generating thrills enough to attract casual fans is going to be one of the new league's biggest challenges.
"The issue here is, can you get people excited about Alex Morgan or Hope Solo or Abby Wambach when they're not wearing red, white and blue, and you can see them 10 times a year in your home market," Kassouf says.
Budzinski says previous leagues — including Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), which folded in May — miscalculated by trying to emulate other professional sports leagues. "I think part of the problem is, in the previous incarnations, all of the team ownership groups were responsible for bringing all of their players in."
With a sport of limited profitability, that didn't work. The new league is streamlined: eight teams, which will each be assigned roughly seven players, combined from the three founding soccer bodies. This, Budzinski says, allows the teams to develop unknown domestic talent.
"As owners, instead of us going and maybe signing somebody like Marta [Vieira da Silva, the highest paid woman soccer player in the world], now what we'll do is try to look for that next Alex Morgan.
"We're doing this because it's what's good for Kansas City and it's what's good for young female athletes," he adds. "And then you get to be a part of the top players in the world and U.S. Soccer and trying to win a World Cup. That's what's good for the game."
That sounds noble enough, but is that enough to keep this new league from the fate that befell the previous two? The question lingers: Can professional women's soccer make money?
The way U.S. Soccer plans on operating the league might make it easier for team owners to turn a profit. In November, Gulati explained that the league would be highly centralized to minimize cost. "U.S. Soccer will absorb all of the costs of running the front office so there is no capital contributions needed to the normal functions of a normal front office of scheduling, promotions, websites," he said. "All of those things will be handled by U.S. Soccer," he said.
FC Kansas City has hired a head coach and an assistant coach, and TOTA is looking for a home field with a minimum of 5,000 seats. But the WPS's average attendance was 3,518 in 2011, a season that followed the popularity boost of the women's national team after the 2011 Women's World Cup.
Sporting Club, the ownership group behind Sporting Kansas City, didn't bid to acquire a team in the new women's league. That may seem telling, but Budzinski — who owns an indoor soccer building in addition to the Comets — is bullish. Cautiously bullish.
"Would we like to make a profit? Yeah, of course we would," he says. "Do we plan on making a profit? Not right off the bat. We think we can."
Psst, Hope — Come Here!
Three Players We Want in KC
Members of the U.S. Women's National Team can expect some control over where they play in the newly formed women's professional league. Here are three we'd like to see suit up here.
Goalie, age 31
Solo has reason to remember KC. In September 2011, when the National Team was training with Sporting Kansas City, Sporting forward C.J. Sapong serenaded her with a little rap. It was a wee bit awkward, but Solo was game. She's a standout keeper whose public comments have made her a lightning rod — a potential boon to local sportswriters.
Duh. Wambach, a brilliant clutch scorer, has also become the face of the National Team. And sometimes that face is a little worse for wear. In August, she took a punch to the eye in a game against Colombia. Unfazed, she scored a goal later in the game before proudly tweeting a photo of the shiner. That's grit we like.
If you're ever feeling down, just search YouTube for Rapinoe's goals and subsequent celebrations. The pure exuberance in her play is joyous to behold. And she has chops: The rising star set up one of the most remarkable American goals ever in the waning moments of the World Cup quarter-final game against Brazil in 2011. The U.S. was down 2-1 when Rapinoe's pass somehow found Wambach's head, then the inside of the net. (The U.S. eventually won on penalties.) Rapinoe is an explosive talent, and she'd grab local attention.