Sean Jones: The Outspoken President
The world of women’s lower league soccer is effectively split four ways: WPSL, UWS, UPSL, and regional leagues. Much like the men’s side, there is almost no coverage of these lower leagues, as they continue to generate great players without a sniff of national media coverage. In an effort to remedy this situation, I sat down with Sean Jones, President of the WPSL, to discuss the WPSL from a variety of viewpoints. Jones was a candid interview, speaking bluntly about every question I threw at him. Typically these types of interviews yield bland answers that have been carefully cleansed of any strong opinion or outspoken takes. Jones definitely didn’t take that approach. Honestly, his approach was absolutely refreshing. I hope you enjoy this interview and Sean Jones’ perspective on the state of lower league WOSO.
Protagonist: You’re going to be a complete unknown for most of our audience, so let’s begin with you, personally. What’s your background and how did you come to the sport of soccer?
SJ: That’s going to be a long story... My mother is German, my father was in the military, so I had a little bit of an introduction to soccer because my mom followed it. Every summer spent in Germany, playing, going back and forth, staying with my grandparents. I fell in love with the sport at an early age. Never really got to play because I grew up in central Ohio. The year we moved to Oklahoma from Ohio was the first year they started soccer in schools. So I started playing. Played a little bit collegiately for a year before playing for a rec league at Oklahoma State. After college I played in the USISL, with the Oklahoma City Warriors, but I made no claim to fame as a player, I was a very average player who just really liked it. Got involved, at an early age coaching, started at 14 or 15, helping out with my coach. By the time I was 16, I was helping run Oklahoma and Texas All Star soccer camps. I spent my summers coaching in soccer camps, all the way through college. Paid my way through college basically paying for it by coaching soccer through the summers. Ended up married with 5 children and they were all involved with soccer. My oldest, my son, coached him quite a ways. I had 4 daughters, that was kind of my involvement in women’s soccer. I just enjoyed coaching women more, I really fell in love with that part of the sport.
Protagonist: Your 2019 Championship match was less than a month ago. Do you think playing the match in a neutral site offers unique challenges for a league which sometimes struggles to draw crowds in the best of situations? Does a neutral site just magnify that problem?
SJ: There are challenges, but we took this approach - when we took the league over and moved the headquarters to Oklahoma City, for the first several years, we wanted to host it, because we want to make sure it’s a great event, #1. #2, our team [that Jones is involved with], Oklahoma City FC, had made it to three Final Fours. So the first year we made it, we went to Pensacola. They had a home field and there were probably 200 people in the stands, it was not well-supported. This whole argument, “it’s a hometeam, you’re gonna have a crowd.” I think that some teams (Asheville, Tulsa) produce really good crowds during the season and those teams can also draw a good crowd for a championship. There’s others that don’t produce great crowds during the season and I don’t know why a championship would change that.
What we felt was, what if we tried to produce a top-notch event? Where the players are all treated very well, where we do a lunch paid for by the league. We put much more money into making sure it was a great facility, that the livestreaming was good. We wanted all the things around the championship to be done right. When the players arrived, we gave them t shirts, gift baskets, had a luncheon for them. Let’s try that and make it a great event. Then let’s start working on the crowd. Even though we might not have great crowds in the first couple of years, by hosting the championship, over time we can. “If you build it they will come” kind of idea. I'd be willing to bet you a steak dinner we’ll have 1,500 people at next season’s championship.
Protagonist: It seemed like a lot of lower leagues struggled to draw fans to their championships this spring. How much do you worry about fan support and match day atmosphere for a championship match?
SJ: We clearly want it to be better. Like I said before, we first wanted to get it in a great facility, which we did. Second, we wanted to make it an amazing weekend for the players, where we provide everything and they are treated like royalty. Everything was taken care of. So now we have that part hammered out. So the next part is the fans. Let’s give it two years and let’s see if we can drum up interest. Let’s try and get the local community to come out and support it. Let’s see what we can along those lines.
To be honest with you, just because this is our idea doesn’t mean it’s going to work or that it’s right. Let’s give it a couple of years and if we are able to draw good crowds, then we’ve solved that issue.
Protagonist: The two clubs in the Championship were Pensacola FC and Utah Royals Reserves, from a league perspective, is it a good thing to have a NWSL reserve side finish as the runner-up for your 2019 season? Does that question the strength of the league?
SJ: There’s a couple of ways to look at that. Most of their players, even though they are called a reserve side, are collegiate players. I’d venture a guess, if you looked at their roster, 80% of their players were collegiate athletes, just like every other club. So, it wasn’t like it was the 8 players that train with the first team [NWSL] that are filling time with the reserve team. In order to play with collegiate players, they are not under contract. So they are amateurs. The reality is, I know some of those girls train with the first team, but I don’t think a single person on their [Utah Royals Reserves] roster got minutes or even got on the bench for a first team [NWSL] game.
So although they are called “reserves,” I think the way Utah is looking at this is that they are bringing some players in that they may potentially want to draft and look at in the future. Also local players who may have the potential to play for the Royals in the future. That’s the way they are looking at it. It’s not a true “reserve” club.
We’ve got the Chicago Red Stars, they lost in the regional finals last year to Motor City. If all four teams [in the final four] were “reserve” teams, I’d say we have a problem. I think our top 20-30 teams can all compete with them very easily.
Protagonist: What’s the relationship between the WPSL and the NWSL? How do the leagues interact?
SJ: Right now, we really don’t have a relationship, but it’s something we’re working on.
In our first two years [with Jones as WPSL President], we’ve focused on getting the league standards up. Trying to promote the league and get the social media going. Our next step is to meet with the NWSL and find out how to work more closely. Our goal was to get Utah in this year and see how they work. Let’s prove the model, that it does benefit the Utah Royals to have a reserve team in a league like this and then maybe we can go and work together to go to the NWSL and see how our leagues can work more closely. That’s something we definitely want to do.
Protagonist: Well, the small size of the NWSL really sets up the second division leagues to have a high level of talent because there are only so many roster spots in the NWSL. That size issue creates a bottleneck on talent that the WPSL and UWS can absorb.
SJ: Absolutely. I think a lot of people don’t understand that. Last year, there were 36 players drafted in the NWSL. 23 of those 36 played in the WPSL the summer prior and 30 of the 36 have played in the WPSL at some point. 12 of the 23 on the USWNT had played in the WPSL. Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle both played in the WPSL. The talent level in this league is really high, especially on the top end.
I mean, you’re absolutely right. On the men’s side, there’s probably 60-70 teams of professional men’s clubs in North America, if not more. And then there’s 9 women’s teams. You can be an all-american your senior year and still not be drafted to the NWSL. There are a lot of developing opportunities overseas, but a lot of players don’t want to go overseas. So yeah, the level of our league is really high, which is fantastic for the clubs. The problem is, it’s a limited season, October to the end of July because 70-80% of our players are collegiate players, so it limits when they can play, which hurts those players who are post collegiate and want to use it as a springboard. It’s a great thing for our league, but I do think it’s something, over the next five years, that a league like ours and the NWSL do have to solve.
There should be a second division of professional women’s soccer. And I think that’s coming, but I don’t think it’s happening until the NWSL gets to 18-20 clubs. It’s the same issue that MLS had in the beginning. USL didn’t really start to grow and prosper until MLS had matured and gotten stronger. Then USL solved the regional issue, getting enough clubs to get travel costs down. From my perspective, it’s a great position for the WPSL to be in to eventually help foster that second division, maybe it’s a WPSL Elite or something that the top teams in our leagues aspire to do. I will tell you, that out of the 120 teams in our league, 20-30 of them have that as their ultimate goal but they realize that might be 5, 7, 10 years down the road.
Protagonist: We’re pretty in favor of promotion relegation on our site and, in theory, your league could develop really strong clubs that could eventually move up into the NWSL. They would have already developed both their talent base and their fan base to a point where they could sustain going professional. That kind of idea seems to be something you could get to with a little bit of hard work and coordination between the two leagues.
SJ: I would agree 100% and I think the first step there is to get those clubs that are interested, maybe 8-10 regional clubs, who are interested in taking that next step and having an extended season. Those who have a reserve side in the WPSL during the summer, but their first team is post-collegiate players and ex professionals. They could play in a 5-6 month league. That could become a true second tier professional league. The key is we have to get enough teams close together to where they aren’t spending $20,000 a week on travel costs. That’s the problem with the UWS, isn’t it? The Western Conference, there’s a team in Colorado, two in Canada, two in California. Every week is a flight. For me, that’s a tough sell when that $100,000 you spent on travel could have been reinvested in your club. That’s the difficulty.
If you’re going to start paying players and have professional staff and invest the money to do that, yet the 20 game season, 10 trips, is going to be $250,000 to $300,000 to travel, that really makes it difficult. Now if you could put it together where out of your 10 trips, eight of them were by bus and two are flights, now all of a sudden it becomes much more reasonable. Much more sustainable. We need to grow this league to the point that we have enough clubs to get there. But I think that can happen, I really do.
Protagonist: You brought up the UWS, so let’s go that direction. Why should a club choose the WPSL over another national league? What sets the WPSL apart?
SJ: I’ll take this backwards first. I completely understood the reasons Joe Ferrara started the UWS in 2015. We were very frustrated with the way the WPSL was being ran, the lack of professionalism. I can remember how we would try to put games on - we would get in the car and drive to Texas and play a match in a mowed pasture with a portapotty in the corner. It was frustrating. It just wasn’t done right. I know that Joe and Jerry [Zanelli, previous commissioner of WPSL] had a falling out. I think he was frustrated with the minimum standards and I think he convinced eight or ten other teams that were all frustrated with the same things - they went out and started this league [UWS]. And I think in the beginning, for some clubs that wanted to play at a higher level, not necessarily on the field, but in standards and organization - Joe’s league had value.
I think since we took the WPSL over, I don’t think that exists any more. I think if you look at what we’ve done, as far as social media, media presence, website updates, statistics, I don’t think there’s any difference. In fact, I think we do a better job, because we have more financial backing. With the volume of teams in our league, we have more money to spend on those things, which we are. So I think the reason the UWS spawned made sense, but if I was looking at coming into the UWS versus our league now, I think it completely depends where you are in the country. In certain areas, the UWS is strong and the travel is good. In other areas, it’s terrible. There’s no reason to be in the UWS if I’m in Colorado and I can make one trip instead of eight, it makes no sense. If I’m in Michigan and I’ve got enough teams close enough, then I have to make a decision on which league I join.
I’m not going to say anything negative about the UWS, they’ve done a good job. I do think you’ve seen though, they got as high as 30-32 teams and this year they’re back to 20-22. I think a lot of teams that thought about joining one league or the other, are now looking at us and saying “there’s no reason to join the UWS, this is a better league.” And when I say better, everything else is done well and they don’t have to spend the money on travel. For that reason, I think our league makes more sense.
Secondarily, I also think we have more resources. We had prize money this year. $52,000 went to clubs that made the regionals and nationals. Teams that made it to the finals had prize money, basically a bonus for advancing. We’re able to do that because of the volume of teams we have.
So, again I’m not saying anything negative about another league, but I think, looking from the outside looking in, if the travel is better in the WPSL and everything else is the same or better, why would I join one league versus the other? I think in the beginning, Joe and the UWS could push the fact that they were “a higher level.” That’s what they told everyone - “a higher level of soccer.” If you look at the competitions where our teams have played one another, like the Milk Cup in Michigan. There was a very good UWS team, Detroit, Motor City beat them 7-0 in the final. So, Houston Aces is one of the best UWS sides, the Houston Aces struggled to win our conference last couple of years before they went over to the UWS. We beat them, FC Dallas beat them, they struggled to win. I can tell you right now, if they came over, they would not win our conference. They just wouldn’t. They are a good club and would be a good addition to the WPSL, but this idea that somehow the UWS is a higher level, I don’t buy it. You’ve got a couple of very good teams, but I promise you, if one of those teams were in our championship, the sixteen teams we had in regionals are just as good or better than any of their teams. I think the level is comparable. We both have the same issues. The bottom 30% of the leagues isn’t good and that’s one of the top things we’re always trying to do.
That would be my sales pitch. I’m not going to say anything negative about another league, but the levels are equal, we have more resources poured into helping our teams positioning themselves as far as sponsorships, we’ve got money to travel after regional play, and you can save money on travel. For all those reasons, that’s what I think our selling points are.
As far as the UPSL, there is truly a difference in level there. They are at a much lower level, we even have a couple of our teams with reserve sides in the UPSL and they do very well. I think on the men’s side, the UPSL has done a great job on expanding nationally. But I think, if I’m trying to convince someone to join a women’s league, I’d say you should either join the UWS or the WPSL because those leagues are focused on women. It’s not an afterthought. I can promise you that every decision the UPSL makes is for men and if the women can come along for the ride, fantastic. It’s not a women’s league. To me, they’ve got some great things they do on the men’s side, I just think it’s an afterthought for them, just another way to bring in revenue, same thing with youth soccer. I think they are biting off more than they can chew and the only complaints I hear about the UPSL is that it’s not organized. They have way too much going on. So why would I put a women’s team in that league? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I would think you’re always going to have to take the back seat to the men’s sides.
Protagonist: In an interview with you that ran in Midfield Press last year, you were asked about merging the UWS and WPSL. At the time, you said you were just setting up shop and were focused on other things. How would you respond to that same question now?
SJ: I would be happy to talk to Joe and discuss it. I think there are some great synergies were they are strong regionally and we’re a little bit weaker. I think there would be some issues to work out but I am more than willing to sit down and have the conversation. I think we’ve gotten our house in order, though we still have a lot of room to improve. That’s all we talk about, what can we do better, what can we fix? At the time [of that question], we were focused on that, it wasn’t a good time. Now, I think it would be a good time. Will we reach out to him? I don’t know. Would he be willing to do that? I just don’t know. I do know we did exchange some emails and I also exchanged some emails with Yan [Skwara] of the UPSL to restart the talk about the Open Cup and the Amateur Cup, which we’re working on. But we’ve never gotten past that, to have the discussion. I’d be more than willing to sit down and talk about it. It would never hurt to talk.
Protagonist: What do you see are the biggest challenges to a Women’s Open Cup?
SJ: Number one, a true Open Cup, the challenge would be getting the buy-in from the NWSL, to be honest with you. Number two, most of the clubs in our league and the UWS use collegiate players, so you’ve got a very small window. You’ve got from early May to late July to get all their Open Cup and league games in. So the idea was, do you start it as a true open cup? Because I think if it fails again, I think it’s done for. So our idea was, and we’ve been working with USASA on, is to use our league as a qualifier. The UWS would use their league as a qualifier. The UPSL would also. Basically, you’d have an eight team Open Cup or an Amateur Cup, that took the champions of all the leagues and a host team. Just to prove that the concept could work.
Then, you go to the NWSL and say “let’s use our qualifier for a true Open Cup.” Because, we can’t start in February or March and our teams can’t afford to play multiple games in an Open Cup scenario. But what if we used our league as a qualifier? So maybe in a couple of years, the NWSL is at twelve teams and you can take the top four from the Open Cup, that have qualified from their leagues, played in the Amateur Cup, and take the top four teams that come out of the Amateur Cup, and put them in the pool to play in a sixteen team Open Cup. I think that would be an idea to make it work. The challenge is that there are so many players on the women’s side that are collegiate players. So it can’t be long, it can’t be 64 teams, I just don’t think there’s time.
I think we have to prove that this model will work, then go to the NWSL. Let’s be honest, the Utah Royals or North Carolina Courage would spank a lot of the amateur sides. It would be so lopsided. On the men’s side it works because there are so many rounds to weed teams out, so get the two or three really exceptional amateur clubs who are fantastic and get to go play those kind of games. But if you take the first couple of rounds opponents and put them against the Seattle Sounders, it would be ugly. You have to have several rounds to bring those teams in. I just don’t think we have that on the women’s side yet.
Protagonist: How could U.S. Soccer help to grow the women’s side of the lower leagues?
SJ: I think for one they could give a rip. Because right now I don’t think they do. I will tell you, USASA has been fantastic - they really do care and want to grow it. I don’t think U.S. Soccer even cares - we’re an afterthought. They really don’t care. They only care about the NWSL. I understand why; they want the NWSL to grow. They are taking a top down approach. We’re taking a bottom up approach. But I do think there are some ways they could help. Help some of the expenses or promote an Open Cup. I think it would be good to sit down with them and brainstorm about how they could help. But, as of right now, I think we’re just a fly on the wall in their world. We’re just not that important to them.
Protagonist: Two years into your role with the league, what are you most proud of?
SJ: Honestly, I think that I’m proud of the teams in our league. We have amazing owners who are so dedicated to providing a top, high quality, professional environment for women to play, which hasn’t been there in the past. I’m very proud of the teams in our league and the owners. It’s 100% about women’s soccer. It’s not an afterthought. I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of how we’ve raised the standard, where the women have a fantastic gameday experience. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but that’s what I’m proud of. We’ve got great people all pulling on the same rope, to keep this league growing.
Protagonist: So what are your biggest priorities moving forward?
SJ: Number one, I think we’ve greatly improved on the technology side, but we’ve got more room for improvement. I really want to make that work better. The less time our teams, coaches and administrators have to spend on player registration and stuff like that, I think that has to improve. I think getting more teams to livestream and finding ways to monetize those streams, helping our clubs realize how easy that is and getting them past challenges they might have. Streaming can be a revenue source that helps sustain those clubs. And finally, bringing more teams into the league in certain areas to help limit travel costs. If a team has to spend $5,000 to travel to a game, that’s $5,000 less for the club. It’s going to hotels, bus companies, etc. We’ve got a lot of areas of the country we need to fill in with good clubs, so that every team’s travel is limited to three or four hours at the top end. That’s a challenge we’re working on and want to improve.
Protagonist: Final question, looking over the makeup of your league staff, the entire executive committee is made up of men. Do you see this as problematic, running a women’s soccer league without a woman being on the executive committee? Has there been any thought given to adding a position that included a women on the committee?
SJ: Yes. So I’ll say this, three of our four associate commissioners are women. And that was intentional. That’s the biggest thing that bothered me to be real honest. We’ve absolutely thought about it. Our commissioner is a man and we brought him on board because he had a lot of experience in leagues. He’s also on the board of the NPSL, so he has a lot of insight on a lot of lower level soccer issues. I would think our next commissioner will be a woman, though I don’t know when that will be. But yeah, that is clearly an issue.
It’s sort of comical that there’s a bunch of men running a women’s league, right? It is something we are cognizant of and trying to improve. We also are cognizant of the fact that a lot of our team owners are men. When we get an application, or a woman that’s involved, we really try to push those. We try to help, we try to make it work. Because we really do want more women owners, women coaches, we like women’s staff. It doesn’t mean that men can’t do a good job, but inherently it’s a league for women players. So I think we would like the female perspective instead of only the male perspective.
But I will tell you, every decision we make, we run it through a group of women. We meet and run things by them. Our three Associate Commissioners are Kendra Halterman, Macy Jo Harrison, and Jessica Mendez. They’re all involved in youth soccer and their state associations, as well as the WPSL. They are all fantastic about giving insight from a woman’s perspective. So we’re cognizant of it. It’s something we’re trying to improve and I know we will get that changed over time.