Author Topic: Area women seek goal of soccer team  (Read 849 times)

Offline David

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Area women seek goal of soccer team
« on: January 23, 2008, 09:19:17 PM »
My editor says no one is going to read this column. He doesn't understand why I feel I need to be writing about women's professional soccer.

But I know there are a lot of hearty fans around here who care about women's sports, even if our teams are generally ignored by the sports establishment and the media. And I know those fans would want to know that two savvy Bay Area women - a former Yahoo exec and a Palo Alto intellectual property attorney - are leading the effort to launch a new women's soccer league in 2009.

This time, maybe they'll actually succeed.

It's been four years since the old women's pro league, the WUSA, folded after only three seasons and took the San Jose CyberRays with it. Created out of the euphoria that followed the 1999 U.S. Women's World Cup victory, the WUSA never drew the attendance, sponsorships or TV exposure it promised. Its demise convinced a lot of people (like my editor) that there wasn't enough appetite for women's soccer to support a league.

But Tonya Antonucci and Vicki Veenker weren't convinced.

Antonucci is the commissioner of the new league, called Women's Professional Soccer. Veenker is general counsel. They believe the WUSA folded not because the fans weren't there but because the game plan wasn't realistic.

"The environment after the World Cup led them to create a business model that wasn't the right one," Antonucci said. "They definitely made mistakes."

In 2001, no one knew how many fans would show up for games. So the WUSA booked huge football stadiums that it had no prayer of filling. It overestimated the amount of sponsorship revenue it could attract and overspent on TV commercials.

"The product on the field was excellent," said Veenker, "but the business side didn't work. That's what we have to fix."

Veenker, a partner in the Palo Alto law firm Shearman and Sterling, remembers well the day the WUSA folded. Her daughter, then an 8-year-old soccer player, asked why the CyberRays couldn't play anymore but the men's team, the Earthquakes, could.

"I didn't even want to explain it to her," she said.

At that time Antonucci, who had played soccer for Stanford in the 1980s, was working at Yahoo, where she launched Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Fantasy Sports. In 2004, she left Yahoo and joined the effort to revive the pro league. Veenker came on board shortly after that. The third member of the management team, Joe Cummings, ran the Boston Breakers in the WUSA.

Cummings said this league's business plan is based on data, not dreams. He's figuring on attendance of 5,000 a game, not 10,000. This time, the venues will be smaller, and much of the promotion will be done online. Most important, this women's league will be partnering with men's Major League Soccer on marketing and franchise management, as the WNBA partners with the NBA.

"We've done our research, we've done our homework," Antonucci said. "We think we can keep our costs in line and grow the business one fan at a time. "
So far the teams are Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York.

What? No Bay Area team? That's a huge disappointment for Antonucci and Veenker.

"We hope to pick up another couple of teams before we launch, and I hope the Bay Area is one of them," Veenker said.

Earthquakes Executive Vice President David Alioto said once his team is up and running and has a stadium they'll talk about a women's team.
"Yes, we're interested," he said. "But we're in our infancy ourselves."

So, Bay Area women's sports fans, make some noise. We've got a lot of doubters out there.