The Women’s Independent Soccer League (WISL) is working on gaining sanctioning from soccer’s U.S. governing body, US Soccer, and hopes to be well positioned for the inevitable tailwinds for women’s soccer coming out of the 2023 Women’s World Cup next summer in Australia and New Zealand.
US Soccer’s Professional League Standards require Division II women’s leagues to have a minimum of six clubs to apply for sanctioning. The league is then required to grow to eight clubs by Year Three.
Named WISL’s Managing Director on Sep 22, 2022, Lynn Berling-Manuel is leading the charge, so we asked Berling-Manuel to share with us updates and insights on the ramp up to beginning play in 2024.
Team Marketing Report: What is your primary role and what attracted you to this position at WISL?
Lynn Berling-Manuel: The opportunity to really make a difference in American soccer. That’s been a hallmark of my entire career. As Managing Director, I am leading the WISL team through the sanctioning process with U.S. Soccer and ultimately helping them identify a commissioner.
In early 2022, I started the relationship with WISL as part of my strategic development consulting practice. We were developing the mission and vision of the league and how leading from its “why” and building a powerful, positive culture creates a strong business. I was impressed with the WISL team and the power and opportunity of creating a women’s professional Division II with an independent club business model..
TMR: How confident are you that the inaugural WISL season will kick off in 2024?
LBM: We have had a lot of interest in the league with both investors and communities enthusiastically stepping forward. There are still many pieces to get through the US Soccer sanctioning process and that deadline is spring 2023. When we complete sanctioning, my confidence in 2024 will be 100 percent.
TMR: What are the challenges you face leading up to the inaugural season?
LBM: They are the same challenges as any new business: finding great people—in our case, both on the field and in the front offices, engaging and exciting each community, helping clubs adhere to best business practices, keeping the cultural integrity at front of mind for every player, coach, staff and owner. New businesses are thrilling, but plenty of very hard work..
TMR: At TMR, we talk about the importance of teams/leagues being engaged with and responsive to fans, i.e., “fancentric,” to grow revenues. How will WISL be fancentric?
LBM: Community engagement is foundational to the vision of WISL. We don’t talk about markets; we talk about communities. Every fan wants a “sense of place” and our clubs will embrace that. As an independent club, rather than a franchise, the individual club is intimately tied to its community as the best clubs in the world have always been. Each in-stadium experience and how each club keeps the fan at the front of their thinking will be crucial.
Berling-Manuel: When we complete sanctioning, my confidence in 2024 will be 100 percent.
TMR: How closely tied is WISL to third-tier men’s pro league NISA?
LBM: We have some common league investors, and we share a common business model of independent clubs. WISL also has the good fortune of being able to learn from the successes and challenges NISA has already gone through. That’s a gift!
TMR: Why do we need another women’s pro league in the US? How will player salaries compare to NWSL and their 2022 minimum of $35,000?
LBM: There is a major gap in the women’s soccer pathway in this country. Our objective is to be the connection between women players coming from college and the amateur game to whatever their higher aspirations may be. There are nearly 1,000 NCAA women’s programs across all divisions, plus NAIA. It’s as many as 40,000 players with thousands moving out of college every year. A handful of job opportunities exist in NWSL and Europe, but for hundreds of others, today there is really nothing.
The playing level for many, many of these women is shockingly good. A period of polishing at the pro level can open new doors for them. WISL may just be the coolest first-ever job out of college before the rest of their life, or it may be the pathway to whatever higher soccer aspirations they may have in the U.S. and abroad. We will celebrate and support those opportunities.
The salary structure must be appropriate to a Division II league, but our objective is to make them competitive wages.
TMR: Can WISL honestly be financially viable? Media rights money is obviously critical to league health. What are the plans for media deals?
LBM: Our clubs don’t pay millions of dollars in franchise fees, so they start in a much better financial place. WISL clubs can be financially viable with sponsorships, ticket sales, merchandise, local media rights and other revenue opportunities, along with smart budgeting and proper expense controls. We’re also seeing the valuation of women’s pro clubs at all levels escalating rapidly with no end in sight.
The universe of media deals has become incredibly creative. It is early in our process, but discussions have begun about both new media options and more traditional ones.
TMR: Will this league only be US-based clubs?
LBM: Initially, it is U.S.-based, but the opportunity for international clubs is certainly an option. It has to make good financial and practical sense for all parties.
Berling-Manuel: There is a major gap in the women’s soccer pathway in this country. Our objective is to be the connection between women players coming from college and the amateur game to whatever their higher aspirations may be.
TMR: What standards do clubs need to meet to join WISL? You mentioned no franchise fee, do teams have to have a certain amount of cash on hand?
LBM: WISL is an international-style independent club model rather than franchises; so, no franchise fees. Clubs pay an annual membership fee but keep their intellectual property rights and most of their own revenues. We want them to reinvest that revenue into the club and community.
The standards for Division II clubs are established by U.S. Soccer. They include a minimum capacity for stadiums, full-time employees for key staff, minimum financial strength of owners, size of markets, ability to fund a team for a minimum of three years, etc. We have found them to be rigorous but sensible. The standards for all professional levels are set by the federation.
TMR: Your mission references being “women-driven.” Will all owners/coaches/staff have to be women?
LBM: One of the seven Cultural Pillars of WISL is “Diversity Rules.” It is our commitment at the league and club level to interview at least two qualified candidates who are women or people of color for every job opening. We want to have an abundance of women, people of color and gender identity inclusivity at all levels in the clubs and league. Women have been the driving force of WISL, and we expect to build and expand on that. Women owners/investors are one of our highest priorities.
TMR: How can you guarantee WISL won’t face the same terrible incidents that NWSL and other women’s sports organizations have experienced? What keys can you put in place on Day 1 that previous entities couldn’t/didn’t to avoid falling into the same traps?
LBM: WISL is guided by its Mission, Vision and Cultural Pillars. The first of those pillars is “Safe & Strong.” It includes zero tolerance for improprieties of any kind. That includes providing a safe environment for every player, coach and staff, with a confidential reporting hotline focused on clear and consistent follow-up, communication and action.
Zero tolerance means zero tolerance.
TMR: How many clubs are ready to make the jump to pro from amateur?
LBM: No one knows for sure, but we’ve seen many amateur clubs that with proper investment are almost there. They have community support, solid infrastructure, business acumen, access to stadiums or stadiums in the works, quality coaching and exciting play. Moving to a professional level considerably increases costs with paid players and staff, but will also increase revenue opportunities.
TMR: How will the WISL professional league relate with NWSL or USL Super League?
LBM: WISL is built on an ethos of cooperation and collaboration. We are passionately Division II and see excellent synergy with NWSL. We can be an incubator for players and clubs. The USL Super League is also Division II working towards US Soccer sanctioning. They hope to launch in fall 2023 as they plan to play on a European style calendar.
We plan to kick off in spring 2024 as we will play on the same calendar as NWSL and MLS. Recent experience has confirmed to us that playing on the same calendar of American football just removes too many stadiums for consideration at all levels from high school to pro.
TMR: How have your experiences as a publisher at Soccer America or CMO at AYSO prepared you for success?
LBM: Soccer America exclusively served high level soccer fans and for 20-plus years I worked every day to understand their needs, wants and wishes. AYSO took me deep inside youth soccer for the first time and I learned about the aspirations and realities of players and parents.
When you add in my seven years as CEO of United Soccer Coaches, I really have run the gauntlet of American soccer! We were a professional association for soccer coaches at every level including high school, club, college and pro. Those collective experiences have made me the soccer businessperson that I am today. They each helped me strategically approach soccer business problems and consider all the stakeholders in the decision making.
There is a passion and tribal connection that is special in soccer, but it is still a business. Bills have to be paid, customers need to get their money’s worth, revenue has to be developed to build and grow. Fortunately, I’m just as excited about what I do today as when I started this journey. I came to WISL because I recognized it had the critical pieces that make a business successful.
TMR: What do you envision WISL to look like five years in, approaching 2030?
LBM: I go back to our “why.” In five years, we expect WISL will have bridged that gap between college and D1 pro to create professional opportunities for hundreds more young women coming out of college soccer; on the field, on the sidelines and in the front office. Dozens of communities will each have its own club that will become part of its fabric for decades. Every WISL club would be in a position to “adopt” its local rec programs!
Elite youth players tend to see the pathway, but I’d like to grow soccer passion for every child. As a fan or player, soccer—and I am on Team ‘It’s Called Soccer’ by the way—really is the game for life!
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