MagicTrick

illustration by Bryan Christie Design

Borislow has pumped millions of dollars into a struggling WPS but at what price?

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 17 Franchise Issue. Subscribe today!

DAN BORISLOW'S EYES sparkled as he plied half a dozen of the greatest women soccer players on the planet with hundred-dollar bottles of wine on a rainy evening in April 2011.

Six months earlier, the telecom entrepreneur, whose MagicJack phone service is valued at $450 million, was spending his spare time coaching youth soccer in Palm Beach, Fla. Now he had Abby Wambach and her teammates at his elbows, laughing at his jokes and watching him throw around so much money that, as one player at the dinner recalls, he "seemed to have thousands of dollars in cash in his pocket."

There is little that the 50-year-old Borislow denies himself. At his oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, there's a soccer field by the water, not far from where he keeps his 66-foot yacht complete with nine flat-screens. And on this night in Philadelphia, he was in rare form, drunk on the celebrity he'd paid handsomely to be near. The two tables of women in Borislow's party were members of a team in the fledgling Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league -- a team he'd recently purchased. Sparing no expense on his new MagicJack recruits, he put them up in lavish condos and let them drive his luxury fleet of Bentleys and Benzes. But as the evening wore on, the wine started to wear down Borislow's charm.

According to some of the players present, Borislow leaned into one woman and asked about her roommate: "Which one of you is the giver and which one is the receiver?" he blurted out. Then he turned to another player and asked, "Why have you never had a sexual relationship with a woman?"

A few of the women laughed -- either because they thought he was amusing or because they were supremely uncomfortable.

Shortly after that dinner, one of his new recruits found herself confused about what to call her employer: Dan? Mr. Borislow? Boss? Coach? His reply says a lot about the man who can make or break professional women's soccer in America.

"Call me Daddy," he replied.


IN AUGUST, A year and a half after the boisterous dinner -- the details of which Borislow denies -- key MagicJack players like Wambach, Christie Rampone and Hope Solo were part of a women's national team that captured its fourth Olympic gold medal before a record 80,203 fans at London's Wembley Stadium. In the glow of their win over Japan, the team's stars should be returning to steady jobs in a pro league that caters to its fans, a la Candace Parker and her gold medal teammates in the WNBA.

Instead, they arrive to find WPS out of business -- another casualty of the struggle to sell women's soccer to America. The league began play in March 2009 with an ambitious plan for growth. But like the failed Women's United Soccer Association of the early 2000s, WPS couldn't figure out how to bridge the excitement of World Cup and Olympic years. Oh, the league tried, spending wildly to create buzz and luring the biggest names to franchises in Chicago, St. Louis, LA and Washington, D.C., but it got walloped by runaway costs that fans couldn't support, not the least of which was a league office running on a gaudy $5 million budget. By the end of WPS's first year, most franchises were already hemorrhaging north of $2 million.

Now most of the league's former players face a hollow choice: move to Europe to play elite soccer for as little as $20,000 a season, or settle for an even lower-paying gig on a minor or semipro team closer to home. If you're lucky enough to make the U.S. national team, you can earn a salary of up to $60,000 from the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) to play friendlies and international competitions like the Women's World Cup and the Olympics. But in between tournaments, the options remain the same.

Jerome Davis/Icon SMI

Wambach (left) and Hope Solo, two of Borislow's stars, have been firm in their support of the MagicJack owner.

Enter Borislow, who is moving forward with his MagicJack team, with or without a league. And because he has retained the loyalty of some of the biggest stars in the sport, including Solo and Wambach, he finds himself the most influential backer of women's soccer in America. "Why is it okay that the athletes who represent our country the best should be paid wages that leave them at poverty level?" he wrote in one of several email exchanges with The Magazine. "I would never pay someone who is best in their field these types of ridiculous wages. It would be embarrassing. We should not have a pro league in this country unless they get paid real wages."

To his ex-partners in WPS, Borislow is an insufferable bully who made them choose between shutting down the league and playing by his rules. But to the elite women players making 200 bucks a night in dingy stadiums in the middle of nowhere, he's the best game in town -- even if the price for taking his cash is being subjected to his humiliating barbs and unpredictable behavior.

"Nobody in women's sports has ever seen an owner like Dan," says Solo. "You're not always going to get along with him, but he's invested in the women's game."

"At the end of the day, we need people to buy in," Wambach told ESPN at the Olympics in London, where Borislow paid for the national team to have luxury dinners and got them into the sold-out men's semifinal basketball game. In her decade-long pro career, Wambach has now seen two women's leagues come and go. "It's not always going to be easy," she says. "And it doesn't always need to be a feel-good."


BORISLOW'S STORY BEGAN in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, where he grew up as one of four boys. He was born with a hearing defect that left him partially deaf as a child and inhibited his ability to communicate. He describes his father, who held a government job as a mental health director for several counties, as an imposing workaholic who bridled at his son's speech impediment, once threatening not to talk to him until he "fixed" it. "He demanded we work, and there were no handouts," Borislow wrote. "He was a very tough guy."

When Borislow was 13, his parents divorced, and he began spending summers in Florida with his maternal grandfather -- a dapper, carnation-wearing gambler named Nathan "Nocky" Lerman. Nocky mingled with bookies and jockeys at racetracks and liked to sit his grandson down at bars while he threw back a few drinks and imparted life lessons. "His grandfather pretty much raised him," says John Scanlan, a Pennsylvania-based horse trainer and longtime family friend.

At Widener University in Chester, Pa., Borislow studied business but also developed a love for soccer as the left fullback for his school's team. "After how I grew up, it's the safest place I know," he wrote of a soccer field in one of his emails.

After graduating in 1984, Borislow was making a living installing cable boxes and tending bar outside of Philadelphia when he had his big idea: Thanks to the government breakup of AT&T, it was suddenly possible to buy long-distance phone minutes at bulk discounts and then resell them at retail on the open market. With a $160,000 loan from a local gambler, Borislow launched a company called Tel-Save in 1989. Eight years later, in a visionary move, Borislow negotiated a deal with AOL to market those minutes over the web. After single-handedly building Tel-Save into a giant with thousands of employees, he sold his shares in 1998 for a reported $300 million, making him one of the first dot-com millionaires. "I laugh at people who say they need millions to start a business when I grew a company from that loan to $2 billion," he wrote.

Why is it okay that the athletes who represent our country best should be paid wages that leave them at poverty level? We should not have a pro league unless they get paid real wages. -- Dan Borislow `

In the late '90s, Borislow settled down on a $20 million estate in Palm Beach with his wife, Michelle, and kids, Danny and Kylie. Living large in an early retirement, he threw himself into horse racing. He worked closely with Scanlan, who describes Borislow as "probably the smartest, most loyal man I know." But he also concedes the mogul hated to be corrected, even when he was wrong. "I remember a race years ago where Dan wanted me to put $50,000 down on a horse that I didn't think would make it past the halfway point," says Scanlan, who estimates he's spent $25 million on horses for Borislow over the years. "Well, I wouldn't do it. I ripped up the claim slip. And sure enough, the horse broke his leg at the halfway mark. I called Dan, figuring he'd be happy I'd saved him 50 grand. He screamed at me, 'Next time you do that you're fired. It's not about winning or losing. It's about doing what I want!'"

Borislow is equally fanatical about his 15-year-old daughter's traveling soccer team. He surrounded it with the best trainers and, in a move that raised eyebrows even in lavish Palm Beach, flew in top-rated kids from as far away as California to play in tournaments. In 2008, he took the club to the world's largest youth soccer tournament in Sweden, where it went undefeated.

But the lure of making a second fortune pulled at Borislow, and he eventually returned to the telecom world with his next invention: a small device that plugs into a computer's USB port and allows users to make cheap web calls with their phones. Boosted by a campaign of fast-talking TV commercials, "MagicJack" was another hit after it debuted in 2007.

"Dan is very efficient," says Mike Latimore, a Wall Street analyst who notes that MagicJack has increased in value sevenfold, to $450 million, since it went public in 2010. "All his operations are as scaled back as they can be."

So in the fall of 2010, when Borislow learned that the owners of WPS's Washington Freedom -- John and Maureen Hendricks -- were losing more than they bargained on and were considering selling the team, he was ready to make a deal. Late on a Sunday night, he got a phone call from the team's GM and president, Mark Washo, who recalls finding Borislow "open and charming."

Around 1:30 a.m., Washo hung up the phone and dialed the Hendrickses. "I think I've found the guy to save the Freedom," he said.


WPS OWNERS WERE so thrilled to have an investor who was willing to inject new money into the Freedom franchise (Borislow declines to disclose the purchase price) that they rolled out the red carpet. They let him erase any vestige of the old Freedom by moving the club from Washington, D.C., to South Florida and renaming it after his prize invention, MagicJack.

Thomas Cordy/The Palm Beach Post/ZUMA PRESS

Borislow looms large in women's soccer, posing here in 2011 with members of his daughter's U14 squad and his MagicJack team.

In return, Borislow changed the scale of the sport almost overnight. The salary cap that was in place for WPS's first two seasons had been rescinded for 2011 to let owners pay their players less. But Borislow turned the tables by going on an almost unhinged spending spree. Over 10 dizzying days, he surrounded Wambach, whom he'd inherited with the Freedom, with free agent pickups like Solo, Rampone, Shannon Boxx, Marian Dalmy, Lindsay Tarpley and Tina Ellertson -- all current or former members of the U.S. national team who were thrilled to be making far more than their colleagues elsewhere. (While Borislow didn't disclose his players' salaries, the average WPS player made $25,000 per season.)

Asked why he overspent at a time when the rest of the league was retrenching, Borislow replies: "It is not okay to treat women like crap and abuse them. For some reason, many people think that is all right. The women to a large degree have accepted this treatment. They don't stick together and tell the USSF and Olympic committee to give them what is fair and equal."

Borislow also moved his 18 players into condos in the heart of the luxury corridor off the Intracoastal Waterway. Suddenly, these women, many of whom had struggled to make a career out of soccer and a few of whom were straight out of college, were living in a building with a giant rooftop pool, a private theater, a sauna and, as one player puts it, "the nicest beds ever." On Easter Sunday, he took the team to a nearby country club, where they shared a lobster-and-caviar brunch with Donald Trump.

But if Borislow was building a world-class franchise in his backyard, he was also curiously uninterested in attracting soccer fans to see it. He signed a deal for the club to play at Florida Atlantic University, which had just a few hundred seats, despite a WPS requirement that teams play in places that could accommodate 5,000 fans. He also neglected the team's website, refused to assemble a front office staff and discouraged players from doing interviews.

"I spent all of last year offering him support from our league," says Dr. Joe Meeroff, a member of the Florida State Soccer Association who was eager to tether the FSSA to WPS. "His response was always, 'I don't need any help.'"

It quickly became clear that Borislow wanted to control every last detail of the insular world he was creating for himself in South Florida. He would show up at practices wearing a MagicJack T-shirt, long shorts and shin guards that he announced were "bulletproof" and would scrimmage with the team, often bringing his daughter and her teammates.

"Dan would try to play with us as our sweeper, behind the defenders, and sometimes he would bring his daughter or his employees," says a member of the squad. "We had to play 13- and 14-year-old girls."

Borislow also brought his Philly tough-guy gambler act. According to several firsthand accounts of the scrimmages, he routinely berated his players. "You're f--king idiots!" he screamed at them. One player remembers him shouting, "You're retarded!" In an email, Borislow vehemently denies these accusations.

"Until I got to preseason camp, it was all rainbows and butterflies in West Palm Beach," one of the targeted players recalls. "But the worst times were being with him on the field as he degraded you. I wanted to hit him. All the time."

In his emails to The Magazine, Borislow likened his success at anticipating customer demand in the tech world to knowing what's best for his players. "I am not running for public office. I am trying to do what I think is right," he wrote. "Steve Jobs didn't ask people, 'What do you want?' He figured out what they need. I believe in this philosophy."

That confidence carried into MagicJack's inaugural season. When the Boston Breakers came to town for the team's opening game in April at the FAU Soccer Stadium, the Breakers' coaching staff walked the field and realized it was three yards narrower than the standard 66 yards. They discovered why when the game started and Borislow fielded an unorthodox 3-4-3 formation that placed three strikers up front, presumably to give Wambach more opportunities to score.

"FAU has a beautiful wide field, but Dan told them to make it narrower to help him play that crazy offense," says Breakers GM Andy Crossley.

Three days later, Melanie Fitzgerald, the league's operations manager, wrote Borislow to explain he needed to play on a standard field for the league to remain in compliance with the USSF and fined him $1,000. "I don't ask for a worthless speech from you," he replied after several more run-ins with the league. "Have somebody else respond to my requests and inquiries." He signed the missive, "Your Boss Dan."

On May 12, 2011, he fired off another email to Fitzgerald: "You will be lucky," he wrote, "if the league is still in business by the playoffs."


AS BORISLOW'S RESPONSES grew sharper and the media began picking up on the story, a running focus of coverage came to be whether the WPS could survive its new explosive owner. But behind the scenes, a more complex subplot was playing out. As one rival GM puts it: "The real scandal on that team was that the national team players never stood up for the lesser players."

One of the midlevel players, who asked that her name not be used, recalls, "There was a group of our teammates who got $50,000 for doing four minutes of work advertising Dan's company. And they bragged about it." Meanwhile, he harangued those not on the national team, monitoring their Twitter feeds and taking them on private walks around the field where he told them how "Daddy" wanted them to act. (Borislow denies ever telling players to call him Daddy.) "You are playing with living legends with Christie, Hope, Shannon and Abby," he wrote to the team on May 23. "You have no clue how they got to the top, so I will tell you. They give everything they have."

"It was all just a way of trying to manipulate me for reasons I didn't even know," says a player who got one of the lectures. Adds another: "It always feels good to get praise, especially from a man that powerful. But he changes so fast."

Thomas Cordy/The Palm Beach Post/ZUMA PRESS

Borislow often showed up to MagicJack practices riding this flashy three-wheeler.

Cat Whitehill, a former Freedom and national team player, says the complaints magnify the often subtler reality of women's soccer: There are so few superstars that the majority of players can be easily intimidated. "A lot of people put the conflicts within that team on Abby," Whitehill says. "I won't deny that people think that. But I have a hard time believing it. I think the national team members never deliberately meant for the other players on the roster to get treated badly. But it does appear that they didn't consider what standing up to Borislow would mean for the rest of the team."

Wambach was unavailable for comment through her agent, Dan Levy. But in her interview with ESPN in London, she said, "When it comes to Dan, sometimes you are going to take some of his punches. I was one of those players. But Dan has always supported me, always loved me."

Indeed, during a 2-0 win over Atlanta in May 2011, Wambach felt emboldened enough to openly argue with her head coach in front of her teammates. "Abby wanted to play one position, and [coach] Mike Lyons told her to play another," says a person who was on the field that day. "She complained to Dan, and 10 minutes later [Lyons] was fired."

When Wambach and her national team colleagues left for a four-week stretch for the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany, Borislow began to ride those left behind even harder. "That's when Dan really came out of the woodwork," says one player.

After a 2-1 loss to Boston, he lashed out at his players in an email, writing, "I didn't play this sh--y game, you did." But the bluster was tinged with a deep sense of personal failure and frustration. "I [want to] help teach you how to be successful at whatever you want to do in life." In closing Borislow wrote, "I did the opposite and helped create some even bigger losers."

He also threatened to institute five-minute-mile runs that the women dubbed "suicide miles" and required them to take hot Jacuzzi baths before practice. "We would be in there for 15 or 20 minutes because he thought it would be good for us," one player remembers. "It made us so uncomfortable that he thought he knew what was right for our bodies."

It always feels good to get praise, especially from a man that powerful. But he changes so fast. -- Former MagicJack player `

Some players said they worried they might not even get medical attention if they were seriously injured. Ella Masar, a forward who is the only MagicJack player to publicly break with Borislow, wrote on her blog that when she suffered a kick in the nose, the owner offered to drive her to the hospital but abruptly changed his mind. "He took me to dinner with his 'boys,'" she wrote.

Masar eventually had to undergo surgery for a collapsed left nostril.

"People in women's sports are softies," Solo told The Magazine in August, criticizing Masar's lack of toughness. "You have to have thick skin. I just don't think [Masar] had thick skin at all."

By July 2011, the non-national players had had enough. They met in their practice facility to vote on a grievance they wanted to file through their players' union. Coincidentally, in the middle of the discussion, Borislow called. Ellertson, a defender, gave him the news. When he asked who voted which way, she simply replied that it was a team decision among the players who were there to take the vote.

"Okay," he said and hung up.


WHEN THE NEWS broke weeks later that WPS was banning Borislow from being on the sideline for the rest of the 2011 season, his first reaction, according to Masar's blog, was to tell his players that they could either disavow the grievance or have him cancel the rest of their season. Unable to be on the field with his team, he named Wambach player-coach of the MagicJack. He also sent a fuller response to the team -- a long, rueful, contradictory email.

"You think I needed this crap," he wrote. "I should be left with little remorse about what happens to women's soccer after the players union shot me in the head ... I always thought I would be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem when I donated to this charity called Women's Professional Soccer."

The question is what solution he thinks he has to offer. Even after the five remaining WPS owners voted on Oct. 25 to terminate the MagicJack franchise, Borislow came up with an endgame worthy of a Russian oligarch. He would walk away from WPS in exchange for keeping the MagicJack team as his personal bauble -- a barnstorming exhibition club.

He would, in other words, keep the world's best players living in luxury without having to worry about how to sustain women's soccer as a business. But when the USSF failed to bless the deal, WPS's partners finally decided three months later to fold their league, causing scores of jobs to evaporate. "I felt that with all the issues, there was no hope in sight," says Thomas Hofstetter, a management guru who led New Jersey's Sky Blue.

But Borislow's stars are still aligned with him. He still has Hope. And Abby. And Christie. And Shannon. While they're technically not on a team anymore, they all retain MagicJack sponsorships. And he's in a prime position to offer top dollar to anyone else looking for job security. "The only way a league works in the U.S. is to get the best talent the world has to offer and treat the players with respect and fairness, only hiring real pros," wrote Borislow. "I do not believe any league in the world will work if you dilute the product. There just aren't enough quality players who people want to watch."


ON THE DAY the U.S. women triumphed in London, several franchises -- including three that were part of WPS -- announced plans to start yet another league in 2013. Hofstetter, an organizer of the new league, promises that his group will deliver more with less. "The trick is to scale back the operations to a manageable size," he says.

For the moment, Borislow seems to be going in a separate direction. He tells The Magazine he intends to keep Wambach, Solo, Boxx, Rampone and Megan Rapinoe (whom Borislow acquired from the Philadelphia Independence when he learned they were having financial issues) on the MagicJack payroll and is approaching two players "to see if they want to own a team that we would sponsor."

Left unsaid is where they would play. But wherever it is, he'll make it hard for anyone else to compete with the expectations he's unleashed -- not to mention the deeply personal role the game plays in his life. About a week after WPS shut down in May, Borislow attended a friendly that pitted the U.S. against China, walking around with "ABBY" written in thick pink paint across his forehead. "It was like Braveheart," says a coach who saw him that day.

"I love being on the field," writes Borislow. "It's a place where you find people you can depend on. A place where you can heal the soul."

It's the oligarch talking, the man with enough champagne and cash to offer the best women players on the planet the kind of heedless lifestyle that the LeBrons of the world enjoy. "Dan Borislow would never have had the balls to do what he did without those influential women in his corner," says a former coach in the league. "He basically bought the key players' support. He gave them the chance to say, 'Screw this, I don't have to worry about residency near a training facility, about clinics and appearances, even ... about the league.' The inmates ended up running the asylum."

Still, the women of professional soccer are trapped inside the madness.

Additional reporting by Lizzie Haldane.

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