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Boston Breakers fold after ownership deal falls through

The end of an era.

UPDATED 1/25/18 10:00 PM ET: Added tweets from Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson regarding the status of the Breakers before the decision was made to fold the team.

A new ownership deal that could have kept the Boston Breakers local but moved them down to the Union Point land development in Weymouth has fallen apart, and with no new ownership able to step in on such short notice, the team will fold. Front office staff received the call today and the NWSL players association was informed via e-mail, a source close to the team confirmed. The Breakers have been one of the longest continuously-operating women’s soccer teams in the United States, originally competing in WUSA, then WPS, WPSL Elite, and finally NWSL for the past five years.

Presumably while negotiations were ongoing, president of soccer operations Lee Billiard followed the Union Point twitter; meanwhile, the Union Point group had already spoken about wanting to build a 10,000 seat soccer/lacrosse stadium and bringing in pro sports. The potential move was confirmed by a source close to the situation.

The Union Point project is backed by LStar Ventures, a privately-held real estate development firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina. This comes after current ownership group Boston Elite Soccer, LLC, which includes John Power, chief investment officer at DaVinci Capital Mangement, and Michael Stoller, managing partner and CEO at LCB Senior Living LLC, were either unwilling or unable to back the team going into the 2018 NWSL season.

This deal would have brought a new owner with deep pockets into the league and injected life into an NWSL brand that, despite its storied history in American women’s soccer, has never managed to quite keep up with the rest of the league. The Boston Business Journal reported in 2015 that LStar had at that point invested almost $6 million in the 1,500 acres they purchased in South Weymouth for an “undisclosed price.” A recent Huffington Post article said in the long term the project could cost an estimated $5 billion over 15 years or more.

But when the deal fell through, as reported by Dan Lauletta, the league had to look for a last-minute purchaser who could step in and conceivably operate the team in 2018. That purchaser never surfaced.

One option floated by fans and media was that the league might operate the Breakers for the 2018 season until either a new owner could be found or the team could be disentangled from the league in a more orderly fashion, but whether or not the league ever seriously entertained the idea, it won’t be happening. Now NWSL will have to go forward with nine teams and the Breakers roster will enter a dispersal draft, a heartbreaking blow to both the veterans of the team and the young rookies who were just drafted.

A week ago at the NWSL draft, NWSL managing director of operations and acting commissioner Amanda Duffy said the league was “actively working with the existing ownership in a business-as-usual capacity” and emphasized that NWSL wanted to be a 10-team league. It seems that despite her assurances, 10 teams are not feasible at this time.

The cost to operate the team probably would have fallen in the $3 to $5 million range; Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen told the Philly Inquirer that that was the figure he envisioned investing in the Royals over the next three years. Of course, Hansen has a different set up than the Breakers, who don’t have their own stadium and have had to rent from Harvard for four years. But if the league - and by extension, US Soccer, who have a vested interested in a stable NWSL - really wanted to keep the team afloat, that $5 million price tag (if that) was certainly doable. It seems in the cost/benefit analysis, it was deemed better to simply cut losses and deal with the chaos rather than have the team limp to a quieter ending after 2018.

Additionally, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson tweeted that the Breakers did not have “facilities and staff” in place for 2018 and that the decision not to float the team for 2018 was about more than just the cost.

(Paulson later apologized for calling fans “clueless” when they were asking questions based on available information.)

Less than two years ago, then-general manager Lee Billiard told supporters that the team was expecting to reach at least break even if not a profit by 2018. Rising costs of league standards combined with a big drop in average attendance seem to have derailed that statement completely, although it’s hard to imagine that a team on track to profitability would have been undone by one bad year. It seems like Billiard’s statement at the time may not have drawn the entire picture, though.

Another source close to the Breakers described a pattern of missed payments as far back as 2014, the second year of operation for the team and the league. “It was a pattern of not having funds immediately available to make purchases,” said the source. “They were never able to provide full funding all at once. It always had to be, okay we’ll pay them in a month. We’ll pay them in two weeks…. It was a hot mess.” Certainly potential buyers may have been reluctant to take on a team with debts, and so close to the start of the season.

LStar’s purchase of the team would have been an experiment with seeing if further shifting the team’s fanbase to suburban families with cars could even out attendance and ticket sales. The team’s new location in Weymouth would have put them on the commuter rail, 12 miles south of Boston. As we’ve seen with other teams based in suburban areas far from public transportation, location can both suppress audience growth and limit total audience size. It’s also been a long-standing criticism of American women’s soccer that leagues’ focus on marketing to children and families has pinned the sport in a niche and held it back from achieving more widespread popularity and legitimacy in the eyes of the general public.

Then again, Boston’s relatively centrally-located Jordan Field saw a big dip in average attendance from 2016 to 2017; good location is no guarantee of attendance, especially when the Breakers’ president of business operations admitted that the team couldn’t figure out why their increased marketing spend in 2017 wasn’t corresponding to higher attendance. And to be fair, in a year when most teams saw not insignificant dips in their average attendance, Sky Blue FC with its similarly far-from-city-center location managed to increase their average attendance nearly 21% in 2017. But Sky Blue’s average was also only 2,612 for the year, which is not nearly enough to keep up with the likes of Houston and Orlando, let alone Portland.

What does this mean for the league as a whole? With Real Salt Lake’s entry into NWSL in order to take over FC Kansas City’s spot, it’s not awful, and the league will undoubtedly be expanding somewhere on the west coast sooner than later. Boston’s fate is not necessarily an indicator of league health as a whole, and teams do come and go from leagues regardless of sport. But it’s a damn shame that a team as old and as connected to the history of women’s soccer as Boston should be folding in a time when NWSL itself is striving to make the next leap forward and entering its sixth season, double the lifepsan of previous pro woso leagues. Undoubtedly more details will begin to emerge, especially after the league makes its own official announcement, and people will be dissecting what went wrong in Boston for years to come. For tonight, it’s enough to think of the players and staff who are now out of jobs and the fans who were blindsided after the team was allowed to go through a draft as though they would be fielding a team in 2018. A damn shame indeed.