Author Topic: WPS commissioner knows what challenges lie ahead  (Read 1330 times)

Offline David

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WPS commissioner knows what challenges lie ahead
« on: September 18, 2008, 09:49:01 PM »
This Tuesday, the seven fledgling teams of Women's Professional Soccer found out which "marquee" names they'll be able to tout in their towns.

What these teams and players alike don't know is how much of a chance they'll really get.

WPS is coming into existence in the shadow of one of the more spectacular sporting flameouts in recent memory, the now-dead WUSA, an outfit that managed to burn through some $60 million in its first year alone.

And WUSA was a league with marquee names such as Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy that barely managed to attract 3,000 fans a game.

WPS' biggest name is likely to be 'keeper Hope Solo.

A confluence of factors beyond any commissioner's control — the global credit market meltdown, the slowing economy in America and the disappearing "disposable fan dollar" — also mean that WPS will make its debut next year in the midst of what is perhaps the most inhospitable time for any sports venture in America in the past twenty years.

Did we mention that WPS is also selling women's sports?

If your eyes are rolling up into your head at this point, you are not alone. WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci is under no illusions about how tough the road is, how few chances WPS will get, and how elusive success is.

She's also jaw-droppingly frank about where womens' soccer went off the rails. Antonucci said that having a pro league for women is a privilege, not a right; that sex sells; and that this new league deserves nothing.

She also says, bluntly, "We only have this one, second chance."

"It was a grotesque amount of money to spend on women's soccer," says Antonucci of WUSA's flameout.

"WUSA was positioned as the '13-year old girl with the ponytail'. It was so aspirational ... that it probably excluded people," says Antonucci, as gently as possible. "We are trying to make it as a sport.

"We think there is an audience out there that loves sports ... and if [WPS] presents the best players in the world, some of them might say 'I might check this out.' If they are attractive to look at — and I think that goes for male and female athletes alike — and it's a complete competitive package, we can get some of that audience."

"We saw how a one-time event can be successful in America. But winning the World Cup, or winning a gold medal doesn't translate to a league. In fact, it shows up all the challenges."

Antonucci ticked them off. "We can't match the World Cup. We need not to overspend. We need to be more realistic. We have to manage the expectations, first and foremost, and be conservative and modest. We think there is a fan desire, and we know that we need time to grow from that."

How modest? "If we can get 4K and 5K per game, we would consider that a success."

For some in women's sports this kind of chatter is outright heresy. Wasn't the whole reason for women's soccer to give "hope" to "millions of little girls everywhere," as Brandi Chastain once claimed?

"We love Title IX, but we can't confuse a legislated right with what a sports league needs to do. A sports league needs drama and intensity, and fans need specifics. So, we are telling our players that they don't deserve anything — they need to go out and earn it," Antonucci said.

Changing a mindset of entitlement may be one of Antonucci's biggest challenges. Since the 1999 Women's World Cup, women's soccer and the American national team have suffered from inflated senses of grandeur. Instead of seeing 1999 for what it was — a one-off event that became that summer's smash hit — women's soccer's boosters have instead chosen to see it as a sign of the sport's supremacy.

At its zenith, this became outright delusion. In an infamous column, USA Today's Christine Brennan opined that the men's national team should just give up because the women were always going to be the more popular of the two. When WUSA was formed, that same attitude was evinced by Foudy, who loudly told the media that "their league" would go it alone, needing no help from MLS or other American soccer pros.

Unfortunately, the future of the sport was not feminine. WUSA failed. The women's team relevance in America has faded badly in the past decade. And in 2008 sports fans can tune into MLS, the EPL or the Champions League instead.

Some of women's soccer's missionaries never learned their lessons, and remain convinced of their own PR. Proof? According to Antonucci, who cut her teeth at Yahoo!, the reason WUSAII never got off the ground was because "they asked people to take an equity position [in the league] for seven figures. That is not how a marketing deal works."

While information about ownership groups has trickled out, only one of them — AEG — is in the same financial class as MLS' ownership group. WPS has not released information on sponsors or on venues for all the teams, either.

But, in a departure from the usual secrecy that surrounds American soccer, Antonucci not only acknowledged that the league was holding back information, she offered up detailed information on the league's financials.

"We need four to five national corporate sponsors, and we think we're being realistic with what we're asking [from them]. We've been grilled by our prospective sponsors — and we think that is great, by the way — and we also think we have their questions either answered or getting there, seven months out from our launch. We're also being quiet about them on purpose. It is hard not to reveal forward-thinking stuff, but we've seen what happens when you over-promise and under-deliver.

"We have a couple of billionaires in the ownership group. The group's worth far exceeds what it does to run a team, and our model will keep it in line with revenues for the first time. Now, when we started in 2005, raising capital and credit wasn't a factor, and today it obviously is as it relates to two things. We do have money in the bank — $3.5 million is in the league office's account right now.

"Each individual franchise operator also has to have $7.5 million liquid at all times and another $3 million in the budget. We are getting a sizable investment from the U.S. Soccer Federation that, in part, rewards our owners for staying with us in the business. Finally, so far, we are not hearing that the corporate marketplace is retracting, so we're not in a situation now. In April, obviously, we will have to judge the marketplace."

WPS also acknowledges that it cannot afford to sign players to year-round contracts: the new league will only sign players for six to seven months at a time.

"Maybe that involves some of our players playing overseas, like the WNBA," says Antonucci. "And we recognize if this was all the players were making annually, it would be tough, and not enough to be fully professional. But we're trying to be creative. We will have off-season competition and compensation, and teams might employ players in an off-field capacity."

Frankness should not obscure the fact that WPS has already hit some bumps. A planned team in Dallas has had to pull back. San Diego, which was to host a team, abruptly dropped off the WPS' website last week, and Mark Ziegler of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the team had fallen apart.

And, questions have to be asked about St. Louis. If it does not get an MLS team, will Jeff Cooper stick it out with just a women's franchise?

(A WPS spokesman, Jennifer Peters, responded to questions about San Diego with a prepared statement that read: "Women's Professional Soccer holds the rights to the San Diego market at the league level, and is committed to exploring potential ownership interest for a future playing season.")

And, given the tremendous upheaval in the world markets this week, WPS knows that tougher times could be ahead.

"The irony was not lost on us [Tuesday] in New York to go outside, and see the bull dying while we're birthing," said an exhausted, but upbeat Antonucci this evening by phone from New York. "Yeah, it gives us some pause. But, look, the commercial partners are still talking, and the budgets are still there, and again, sports seem to, in tough time, offer a feeling of goodwill and relief. Our ship is still moving forward.

"But we're not irrational. If we felt [the financial situation] became dangerous, we would address it head on. So far, we've had no one saying, among our partners and our investors — no one has said the situation has changed. If they do, then we need to address that. Right now, everyone is still comfortable."

So, WPS is going gamely forward into an arena where many have tried, and failed. Soccer is a tough sell here. Women's sports an even tougher one. Can it succeed? "Let's wait and see," said Antonucci. "Today has been a great day for us. And now I have to take a nap."

WPS's initial dispersal draft placed 21 players with national team experience amongst seven franchises. The results were as follows:

Bay Area: Nicole Barnhart, Rachel Buehler, Leslie Osborne
Boston Breakers: Angela Hucles, Kristine Lilly, Heather Mitts
Chicago Red Stars: Carli Lloyd, Kate Markgraf (nee Sobrero), Lindsay Tarplay
Los Angeles: Shannon Boxx; Stephanie Cox, Aly Wagner
Sky Blue (New York): Natasha Kai, Heather O'Reilly, Christie Rampone
St. Louis: Hope Solo, Lori Chalupny, Tina Ellertson (nee Frimpong)
Washington Freedom: Ali Krieger (from FC Frankfurt), Abby Wambach, Cat Whitehill

Offline Dezxoxo

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Re: WPS commissioner knows what challenges lie ahead
« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2008, 08:08:48 AM »
Abby back to Washington! ;D
pity she didnt come to England ;)