By: William Brady (Loyola Junior)
The Women’s United Soccer Association was established in 2000, and after three seasons it folded. Arnim Whisler, Owner and CEO of the Chicago Red Stars, was one of two team owners that met with the US Soccer Federation in 2012 to establish the National Women’s Soccer League. Taking a look at his story shows how after nine years, and a second failed league, female athletes finally have a sustainable professional women’s soccer league to compete in.
Professional women’s soccer began in the United States following the victory of the U.S. National Women’s Team in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The popularity of this victory showed there was a viable market for women’s soccer in the US. Thus, the Women’s United Soccer Association was established in 2000. In 2003, after severe overconfidence and financial mismanagement, it went bankrupt.
“The assumption was that this would be just like any top men’s sports league,” Whisler said. “They spent tens of millions of dollars a year and were gone in two and a half years.”
There would not be a professional women’s soccer league until 2009. This would also be the year the Chicago Red Stars were created, and when Arnim Whisler would first serve as one of seven owners on the board. But Whisler did not start out in soccer. He had built his career in corporate America, working with solving financial problems in major telephone, TV and other media companies. However, a sense of purpose was missing from his career. He would end up leaving corporate America.
“I really didn’t know who I was, what I wanted to do… I was fully defined through that company,” Whisler said.
Whisler took the next year, working on a non-profit board, reorganizing that entity, as well as drawing and painting three days a week. In 2007, Chicago would stand up a new women’s professional soccer team to participate in the also newly established Women’s Professional Soccer. Whisler soon found himself as one of seven owners of the Chicago Red Stars. But soon, the WPS would go the same way as the previous league, folding due to financial mishandling, with the added impact of the Great Recession.
“It was just the wrong time,” he said.
Halfway through the 2009 inaugural season, the team had burnt through three years of capital, and found itself in dire straits. Whisler then took the reins with the mission to help get the team out of the financial hole they found themselves in. One of the first steps was removing the other owners who were not, as he puts it, “in it for the long haul.” By 2011, Whisler was the sole owner of the near bankrupt Chicago Red Stars. His experience in corporate America would prove vital to the survival of the team.
“I spent twenty years learning to sort of fix businesses and solve business problems,” Whisler said.
The Red Stars also had to buy themselves out of the league because they could not afford to play in it. This would prove to be a financially smart decision, as Whisler could see the league was doomed to go bankrupt itself. The Red Stars continued to play in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, a second tier semi-pro league. A new league, WPSL Elite, was then formed with eight other teams. This was still semi-pro, but athletes were housed and were beginning to be paid again. For Whisler, this was not the end for women’s professional soccer in the US.
“We should be a popular league,” Whisler said. “You give it the air time, you tell the stories and women’s soccer in the World Cup has blown away all the US men’s world cup ratings.”
In 2012, Whisler and the CEO of the Boston Breakers went to the US Soccer Federation, or US Soccer, to discuss establishing a new league. A women’s league was necessary to keep the Women’s National Team players sharp for international tournaments, the World Cup and the Olympics. This new league was the National Women’s Soccer League. The priority of this league was to be sustainable, avoiding the financial failures of the past leagues. Eight years later, the NWSL is by far the world’s most successful women’s soccer league, in terms of viewership, revenue, and sponsors.
“So I founded, with the Boston owner and US Soccer, this new league called NWSL. And we constructed it, first and foremost, to make sure that it was sustainable. That it wouldn’t fail again.”
To Whisler, the success of women’s soccer is not just about financial success. The importance of having positive, strong, female role models for his daughters was something he could not find in popular society. Whisler brings up how one of the most popular females at the time was Britney Spears, a perhaps less than ideal role model for young girls.
“The closer I got to women’s soccer,” Whisler said, “the more I realized that some of these founding ladies, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, and some of these household names were incredible people.”
With the absence of a professional women’s league for so many years, many women’s soccer athletes played in college, while pursuing higher education. It was their dedication to sport and academics that made Whisler realize these were the role models he was looking for, and that they needed a league to play in professionally. This is what gave him his desire to help.
“Those dreams didn’t exist for young women, to play sports professionally as an option.”
The approach to developing a women’s league is different from a men’s league. The creation of a tight knit community has led to the success of the Red Stars, and to women’s soccer as a whole. Chicago Local 134, the official support group of the team, has been actively engaging with the community throughout the pandemic, helping connect those who have been affected by the virus to the necessary contacts and organizations. They are open to all people, as stated on their website, regardless of race, gender, age, color, national origin, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. They doubled membership in 2020, showing their success as a community, even during the 2020 season where no in-person games were played.
“Women’s sports are not just about a team,” Whisler said. “It really is about a community.”