Soca Princesses should get more than $5 to qualify for a World Cup

This might seem strange, but I have to ask: Do you feel like a princess? What about a Soca Princess? Aren’t we all — to borrow a phrase that JFK used more than 50 years ago when he declared himself a citizen of Berlin (or, as the joke goes, a jelly donut) but has metastasized into an unstoppable viral swell in the language of the Internet —- Soca Princesses now?

The Trinidad and Tobago women’s national team, nicknamed the Soca Princesses, is underfunded and poorly run. We know this because, last week, when the team arrived in Houston to prepare for the 2014 Women’s CONCACAF Championship, its coach sent out this tweet:

Here are some things that happened next:

  • The website called began to raise money for the team;
  • The local chapter of the American Outlaws made a supply run;
  • The Hunt family, owners of FC Dallas, pledged to provide training facilities and meals;
  • The Haitian women’s national team donated some of the money it had raised in its own meager fundraiser.

It was a huge mess, a soccer emergency, and the community responded. I felt the spirit. I was uplifted. For a short time, I was a Soca Princess, just like you.

The soccer community helped solve this problem, but I worry that we won’t do anything to actually solve the underlying problems. It’s tempting to draw big conclusions about the state of women’s soccer, or CONCACAF, or the Trinidad and Tobago federation itself. Women’s soccer is not financially viable. In some vague way, CONCACAF is still corrupt, even after getting rid of Jack Warner. And those Trinidadians? Well, what did you expect from the country that gave us Jack Warner?

The problem is, none of these conclusions is correct. Let’s take them one by one.

At the top end, there is money in women’s soccer. The U.S. women’s team brings in more revenue for the U.S. Soccer Federation and sponsors like Nike than many men’s teams. The former coach of the U.S. women, Tom Sermanni, made a comfortable six-figure salary (he was replaced earlier this year by the current head coach, Jill Ellis). The team’s expenses in fiscal year 2014, which ended on March 31st, totaled more than $8 million, and if I’m reading the report correctly, that figure doesn’t include Sermanni’s pay.

Of course, things look much different at the bottom. Coach Waldrum, whose day job is head coach of the NWSL’s Houston Dash, is an unpaid volunteer. The Haitian women’s team reportedly had only $1,316 in its account. But this isn’t a women’s soccer problem; it’s a soccer-in-developing-countries problem. Back in July, the T&T federation canceled a men’s camp ahead of the Caribbean Cup. The women had been supposed to begin a camp in Houston on July 10th. They ended up going on July 29th and 30th, weeks behind schedule, and in two separate groups, since a delay in selecting the squad had resulted in late visa applications.

Surely we can blame CONCACAF, right? Years of mismanagement by Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer have earned the organization a bad reputation, but Jeffrey Webb seems to be improving the way the organization is run. The confederation is putting on the championship, which kicked off last night, with the U.S. beating Trinidad 1–0 in Kansas City. In fact, CONCACAF covers the travel, lodging, and food expenses of each team. Crucially, CONCACAF doesn’t cover expenses for pre-tournament training camps, such as the one the Soca Princesses were hoping to hold in Texas last week. Though Waldrum’s tweet made it sound as though his team was expected to make it through the entire tournament on $500, the T&T federation was only on the hook for expenses until the tournament began.

So it isn’t a CONCACAF issue. Is it the Trinidad and Tobago federation’s fault? On the surface, yes. It’s poorly run. But it’s hardly alone. And, honestly, it isn’t all that surprising. Soccer’s governance structure is generally pretty terrible. Exhibit A: FIFA. Exhibit B: CONCACAF, which, yes, seems to be getting better, but that kind of cultural change takes time.

So, sure, you can blame the people who run the Trinidad and Tobago federation, and CONCACAF should hold them accountable, but stopping there would be shortsighted. The problem is money. Revenue. Cash flow. The defining issue in club soccer over the past 20 years has been the rising financial inequality between rich clubs and poor clubs.

The same problem exists in international soccer, with some key differences, such as lack of competition in the marketplace (each national team essentially enjoys a monopoly within its country) and subsidies from FIFA. Club teams generally seek to turn a profit, while U.S. Soccer and other national federations are non-profits – a difference that should make them even easier to hold accountable. For example, The Gates Foundation puts conditions on the funds it provides to NGOs. CONCACAF could do the same, making financial support contingent on good governance and oversight. FIFA could threaten to withdraw its recognition (the monopoly) if the people in charge can’t make it work.

International women’s soccer is one area where CONCACAF can truly claim to be a leader. It’s also an area where the financial stakes are a little more relaxed, where FIFA is clearly willing to experiment. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use it to make soccer teams more sustainable? If we could test reforms that might save global soccer from itself? If we could all, every one of us, feel like princesses without having to feel sorry for a soccer team?