May 27, 2010

Athletica Folds

Saint Louis Athletica has discontinued operations and folded. Founding owner Jeff Cooper released the following statement concerning the team today:

“The termination of Saint Louis Athletica is a painful outcome from the funding shortfalls and ultimate default by the investors who had the obligation to fund and operate the team on a day-to-day basis. I’ve given this matter my complete attention since returning to a more active role in the last few weeks, and numerous parties have spent a lot of hours during that time exploring what options or solutions might be available. Despite best efforts, nothing was found that would answer the immediate needs of the franchise. With more time, it is possible the answer to the financial challenges Athletica faced would have been met, but unfortunately we do not have the benefit of extra time. The investors who defaulted on a contract to fund Athletica through this season and beyond broke a promise to a league, team, players and a community, and that is what is most troubling about today’s development. I am grateful for everyone’s support of Athletica and am particularly appreciative of our players who represented the sport and our community with such class and spirit.

Despite the disappointing outcome with Saint Louis Athletica, we continue to work hard on securing the long-term future of AC St. Louis.”

WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci made the following statement regarding Athletica's demise:

“It’s incredibly difficult to lose a team in mid-season like this. We looked at a few options as a league together with our Board and U.S. Soccer, but the operational hurdles and finances just didn’t work out. In the face of a severe funding gap in St. Louis, the local ownership group is shutting down the team at this point.”

The loss of Athletica brings WPS back down to 7 teams, which is the number of teams that started last season. However, the loss of perhaps the league's two marquee franchises, the Los Angeles Sol and Saint Louis Athletica, within 5 months does not bode well for the league. The two teams finished 1st and 2nd in the 2009 regular season with a combined record of 22-9-9, while the rest of the league's combined record was only 31-44-25. Athletica was only in 5th place in 2010, but were the only team to have defeated the top two teams, FC Gold Pride and Philadelphia Independence.

To make matters worse, three of Athletica's players, Shannon Boxx, Aya Miyama, and Tina DiMartino, have had to go through this twice in a very short period of time.

“This is a setback, but it’s one individual franchise and the loss of a team is an unfortunate reality of pro sports,” said Antonucci. “We’ll continue to have great games and an exciting season for our fans. The solid foundation that we built in 2009 is there. We have the same number of teams that we had last year during a successful first season. We’ll get through this stronger and keep moving the league and business forward.”

While it should be stressed that the Saint Louis financial situation is isolated from WPS as a whole, we also heard similar comments about the strength of the league going forward when the Los Angeles Sol folded just four short months ago.

In addition, it is a major blow to soccer in the city of St. Louis. Once thought to be a frontrunner for an MLS franchise, the city has now lost one soccer team and may eventually lose their NASL team if things don't improve. There appears to be an inability to find a responsible ownership group in St. Louis and support thus far has been less than hoped. Quite frankly, the city's credibility as a major soccer town is crumbling.

Saint Louis Athletica will not play any further matches and Athletica's players will become free agents as of June 1. The scramble to sign free agents which will ensue could create a bit of chaos of its own in the middle of a season. Unless roster sizes are increased by the league, several players on the remaining WPS franchises will be losing their jobs. One also has to wonder about the financial ability of those teams to sign free agents if they are already at the limits of their budget.

The league will reconfigure the 2010 schedule shortly and it will be released next week.