The End of the Breakers: How Did It Come to This?

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The Boston Breakers have been a part of professional women’s soccer in this country for as long as professional women’s soccer has been a thing. Losing them is a terrible thing for the fans who have spent so much time and energy with them, and who will now never get to see the team they were building grow into something more. It’s terrible for the league, which will always face understandable growing pains but ought to be beyond this sort of thing. It’s terrible for the players, who have just had jobs, livelihoods, and any sense of security ripped out from underneath them.

The league certainly did not plan for things to go this way. The winter was spent in negotiations to bring in a new owner, only to see that plan fall through, inspiring the recent bout of scrambling. Apparently, the decision was finally made to give up hope and accept defeat. That judgment cannot have been undertaken lightly, and presumably represents a sense of serious concern about whether Boston’s setup could be sustained in anything close to its current form.

The team was, after all, apparently drifting further and further away from the rest of the league on the financial side. Their home ground was expensive and below league standards, the costs of operating in Boston are significant, and it’s not clear that there was any viable path to profitability, even in the long term. In a world increasingly defined by a split between ‘big’ and ‘small’ teams, Boston looked increasingly like an outlier. Eventually, something was going to have to give.

But there is a huge difference between a managed relocation—undertaken during the offseason with plenty of time to smooth out the effects—and abrupt closure less than a month before preseason was scheduled to begin.

As it stands, Boston is shuttering its doors a mere week after participating in the draft. In many ways, that’s the most heartbreaking part of the whole mess. To hold out the promise of a new career, only to yank it away the following week, feels particularly cruel. And then there are the other players, who have suddenly been cut adrift. Will the league step in to expand roster sizes and disperse these players across the other nine teams? Will they simply become free agents, desperately searching for a European club who will take them before the transfer window closes next week? To force these questions onto players at this point in the year is unconscionable.

Faced with all this, one can’t help but wonder who is to blame. That’s a difficult subject, and we certainly need to exercise some caution. Situations like these are often far more complex than it seems from the outside, and it’s important to remember just how little we actually know so far. Moreover, while the natural inclination is to look for villains, it’s also important to remember that no one wanted this, and that no solution was going to be a perfect one. Everyone involved was likely wary of creating a moral hazard—incentivizing financially risky behavior by providing bailouts—or taking on responsibilities that could ultimately sink the league as a whole. We certainly have had experience with other professional leagues sagging under the weight of commitments that couldn’t be matched. Those are legitimate concerns, and as more details emerge, it’s possible that we will find out why some of the obvious stopgap measures weren’t taken.

All that said, it’s not so early that we can’t draw at least a few initial conclusions.

First and foremost, while this was obviously not the preferred solution for the league, it’s a massive indictment of their ability to successfully manage a known problem and avoid the worst result. Why did the negotiations break down? What were the sticking points? Why did they drag on so long—to the point where a failure to reach a deal would make pursuing other options impossible? Why weren’t secondary choices cultivated? Was there any consideration of a single-year stopgap alternative? Could the league not cobble together the funds to cover a final year and enable an orderly transition in October? Who ultimately was in charge of these decisions? Amanda Duffy is the league’s Managing Director of Operations, and presumably the buck stops with her. But would things have been any different if the league had a genuine Commissioner? There may be good answers to all these questions, or there may not be. But it is certainly fair to expect answers. Perhaps not immediately, but at some point.

Second, there should be serious and probing questions asked of US Soccer. As an organization, they are sitting on well north of $100 million dollars. While no one expects them to invest all of that money into the league, it would take a very small percentage to inject a little stability. Obviously, US Soccer is in a state of flux at the moment, with new elections coming down the pike. But that is hardly an excuse. If anything, it ought to clarify the situation more. As an institution, US Soccer claims to value women’s soccer, and claims to care about the league. Why weren’t those words backed up by action here?

Some might also wonder whether A+E (not just an investor, but an active partner with the league) might have done more. This is a company with a total estimated value of well over $20 billion. Obviously, no one expects them to throw good money after bad, but it’s not difficult to make the case that losing Boston right now will do enough long-term harm that it would be well worth paying a smaller upfront cost to keep them afloat. One of the big selling points of bringing in a big player like A+E was supposed to be that they would have liquid capital available to smooth over situations like this. Why didn’t that make a difference?

Again, I don’t ask these questions in order to suggest that there was any single obvious solution, or to suggest that any particular actor was entirely responsible. While US Soccer and the league have a lot to answer for, we shouldn’t necessarily assume the very worst. That said, neither should we assume the best. This is a bad situation, and it’s important to hold those decision-makers who brought us to this point responsible, if only to help prevent another similar crisis from happening the next time around.

Tonight, my heart goes out to the Boston Breakers family. You deserved better.