Big Brouhaha Over Women’s Pro Soccer

     WEST PALM BEACH (CN) – A South Florida soccer team claims Women’s Soccer kicked it out of the professional league unfairly, after the team “literally saved that league from extinction, and then became the league’s most popular drawing card.” The magicJack team says it got the boot as it was on the verge of signing National Team heroes Abby Wambach and Hope Solo for the 2012 season.
     Freedom Soccer and Magictalk Soccer Club claim: “the purported termination comes just at the time that the team was preparing to re-sign many of the star players that played for it in its inaugural season in South Florida, including seven members of the United States Women’s National Team that was the darling of the 2011 Women’s World Cup, including two of the most popular women’s players in the world, National Team members Abby Wambach, the team’s player/coach in 2011, and Hope Solo, the goalkeeper who recently starred in television’s popular prime time television program, ‘Dancing with the Stars.'”
     Freedom Soccer LLC and its majority owner, magicTalk Soccer Club, sued Women’s Soccer aka the Women’s Professional Soccer League, in Palm Beach County Court. It wants the league enjoined from excluding Freedom from the 2012 season.
     Freedom Soccer and magicTalk operate the Boca Raton-based women’s professional soccer team magicJack, which boasts several star players who led the United States to second place in this summer’s Women’s World Cup.
     MagicTalk’s CEO Dan Borislow, who invented the magicJack, a device used to place phone calls over the Internet, bought a majority of the failing soccer franchise and renamed it magicJack to promote his brand and affiliated companies.
     According to the complaint: “(I)t was only eleven months ago that the team purchased the failing Washington Freedom franchise, and in doing so saved the league and the sport of women’s professional soccer in this country, as otherwise the league would have had too few teams, and would not have been sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body in this country. In this short period of time, following the expenditure of substantial monetary and other resources, the team turned a once-failing enterprise into a successful franchise, and provided a home for some of the most popular players from the United States Women’s National Team – the runner-up in the highly publicized 2011 Women’s World Cup.
     “Now that the team has successfully completed the 2011 season, and the sport of women’s soccer is at its zenith in popularity – on the heels of the 2011 Women’s World Cup, and with the 2012 Summer Olympics right around the corner – the league is attempting to exploit the fact that it is now the off-season, and hopes to accomplish an unlawful termination during the off-season, allowing the other teams to sign the team’s best players, to their significant advantage. In furtherance of this scheme, this time the league has purported to terminate the team’s membership in the league for unspecified reasons, ignoring the parties’ clear agreement to complete all contractual dispute resolution procedures prior to effectuating any termination, in an obvious attempt to head off preemptive litigation.”
     The team says the league’s move is “obviously timed to exclude the team from the player signing process” for the 2012 season.
     It claims that magicJack’s practice of offering well-paid contracts to players bothered the league and the other teams, which are trying to sign its players to lower salaries.
     Despite the team’s increasing popularity following its players’ success at the Women’s World Cup and its contributions to the league’s success, the plaintiffs say, the league threatened to fold the club during the 2011 season.
     They say the league’s former CEO Anne-Marie Eileraas took issue with Borislow’s and the team’s cost-saving marketing decisions and stadium selection, claiming they violated the league’s rules.
     MagicJack signed a contract with Florida Atlantic University, which hosted magicJack matches and profited from the team’s gate proceeds. Though this year the team played at a smaller venue, as attendance numbers increased it planned to move to the university’s 30,000-seat, state-of-the-art football stadium, according to the complaint.
     The team says it increased its stadium’s capacity by 1,500 seats to accommodate a sell-out crowd of 3,500 in its first home game after the World Cup, but the league continued “its campaign of complaints and threats” against the team.
     MagicJack and Borislow sued the league in August, after it failed to complete its mandatory arbitration process and claimed that the team had waived its contractual right to a hearing on the league’s termination attempt.
     “Tellingly, after the team filed that action, the league, realizing it had no basis for what it was planning to do, and recognizing that it would be the subject of negative publicity if it tried to do so, immediately reversed course just as its showcase event, the WPS playoffs, was starting up,” the complaint states. “Instead of defending the suit and adhering to the accelerated schedule set by the court, the league backed off and immediately requested a two week extension of time to respond to the team’s petition, and then publicly, and in court filings, announced that it really had no intention to terminate the team, and that if anyone had jumped the gun, it was the team by commencing legal action.”
     MagicJack dismissed its lawsuit, but the league, under new leadership, renewed its efforts to disband the team after the season ended, the plaintiffs say.
     Eileraas resigned in September and was replaced by Jennifer O’Sullivan, according to the complaint.
     “Then, in October 2011, the team began to approach many of the star players that had played for the team in 2011, as it was the team’s plan once again to offer them attractive player salaries and sign them for the 2012 season. Notably, under league rules, during the period prior to Nov. 9, 2011, the team the player had played for in the previous season had the exclusive right to sign the player. Inexplicably, however, while the team maintained good relations with all of its players, and made clear to them it wanted to sign them, none would sign, indicating they still had concerns that the team would not be playing in the league in 2012.
     “The team has subsequently learned that in October 2011, the league was in contact with representatives of the Players’ Union, and advised the union that the team’s status for the 2012 season was in doubt, even though the league never gave the team any such indication during this period. As a result, the team has been unable to re-sign any of its star players from 2011 during the exclusive signing period, which ended on Nov. 9, 2011,” according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs say other teams asked magicJack to pay its players lower salaries, to keep costs down for the 2012 season, but magicJack refused.
     They say that in September the team received a $2.5 million invoice from the league for alleged “damages” relating to the 2011 season, but refused to pay it despite the league’s threats to exclude it from the 2012 season.
     “The team has subsequently learned that the timing of the league’s termination of the team’s membership in the league is not a coincidence,” the complaint states. “As noted above, under the league’s agreement with the Players’ Union, the exclusive period for the teams to re-sign their own players to player contracts for the upcoming 2012 season ended on Nov. 9, 2011. The team has further learned that in recent weeks, even before the team was terminated, the league discussed with the Players’ Union a mechanism that would allow the team’s players to be signed by other teams for the upcoming 2012 season, or otherwise allocated to other teams.”
     The league denied magicJack’s request to extend the exclusive player signing period until December, according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs claim the league eluded mediation and arbitration by claiming that the current dispute was an extension of the August dispute with the team, which had received proper notice and had waived its right to a hearing. But, they say, the league acknowledged that the termination was related to the team’s alleged failure to agree to comply with certain unspecified league rules in the upcoming season, and thus could not be part of the old dispute.
     “Notwithstanding its termination, the team continues to be contacted by several of its former players, who have indicated that they would like to play for the team in the 2012 season, and would have considered signing with the team prior to its termination if they had not been informed, during the exclusive signing period, that the team’s membership in the league for 2012 was in doubt,” according to the complaint.
     Even if the dispute resolution is completed, the plaintiffs say, the team will not be able to sign any of its former players for the coming season.
     They say the termination damaged the team’s economic value, its reputation and the magicJack brand name, and affects the university and fans who attend team games.
     They want the league enjoined from acting on the purported termination and compelled to extend the exclusive player signing period for 30 days.
     They are represented by Joseph Ianno Jr. with Carlton Fields, and Louis Ederer with Arnold & Porter of New York City.

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