Author Topic: Women's pro leagues fight to remain viable  (Read 1652 times)

Offline David

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Women's pro leagues fight to remain viable
« on: May 23, 2009, 11:31:50 PM »
The WNBA lost one of its marquee franchises and is trimming rosters.

Five LPGA tournaments have been canceled because of a lack of sponsorship. Women's Professional Soccer has scaled back expectations in its inaugural season.

But if women's professional sports leagues aren't thriving in a struggling economy, neither are they in imminent danger of going under, which is evidence of how far they have come.

"Like every company in this country, we're feeling the effects of the worst economy since the Great Depression," said Karen Durkin, CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation.

"But we're strong enough to weather the effects of the economy a lot better than we could have a decade ago. The ability of the women's professional leagues to withstand the current crisis is a sign of the evolution of women's sports."

Durkin, who just finished her first year presiding over the organization begun in 1974 by women's sports pioneer Billie Jean King, pointed to such things as Danica Patrick's IndyCar Series win last year and the equal prize money for women and men in tennis' four grand slam tournaments as signs of progress.

But what encourages her most is that women's pro sports leagues can stand on their own and not be viewed as part of a larger women's movement.

"We're no longer being positioned as a cause," she said. "That's very symbolic for the next frontier of women's sports."

As that frontier is explored, the immediate challenge is finding ways to attract new fans and sponsors at a time neither has much extra money to throw around. But with adversity comes opportunity, and women's sports advocates are quick to point out they can offer a less expensive alternative to their male counterparts.

That's the strategy employed by Indiana Fever general manager Kelly Krauskopf entering a crucial season for the future of the WNBA franchise in Indianapolis.

Pacers co-owner Herb Simon has committed to the Fever for just one more season and has said attendance and sponsorships need to improve dramatically for the team to stay afloat. The 12-year-old WNBA already lost the Houston Comets, who won the league's first four championships, and is trimming rosters from 13 players to 11 -- a net loss of nearly 40 jobs.

Krauskopf said corporate sales are up slightly and she remains confident fans will turn out if the team wins.

"People still want entertainment outlets and we're extremely affordable," she said. "I'm approaching this year as I have every year and as I hopefully will for many years to come.

"We need to show increased revenues and put a great team on the floor that will attract new fans. We need to demonstrate progress and show that this is a growing business. But that's a part of any business."

Knowing the market

Lyn St. James, an activist for women in racing since retiring as a driver, said women's sports organizations need to better identify their audience so they have a clear message to take to potential sponsors.

"We don't have demographic information on who's in the stands, so we can't go to companies and expect them to respond," she said. "Nobody knows what to do with us."

While conceding she has an "optimistic view of a pessimistic picture," St. James said women's leagues should capitalize on companies having less to spend.

"We need to be able to show them the value they can get from us when they're being forced to cut back," she said. "Then when the economy does pick up, we can hit the ground running."

The LPGA Tour, the most entrenched of women's sports leagues, also has been the hardest hit. The Corning Classic, a fixture on the schedule since 1979, will be played for the final time this month and is the fifth event since the end of the 2008 season to go away. The retirement of star attraction Annika Sorenstam hasn't helped.

Commissioner Carolyn Bivens said with no corporations automatically renewing sponsorships and every existing deal subject to review, it's more important than ever to show them a return on their investment.

"If any of us could choose, we would not choose to be faced with this economic crisis," she said. "Having said that, for organizations that are agile enough and can analyze their strengths, there's actually great opportunities to come out of this better off than we went into it."

The bleak economy did not prevent Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) from beginning play last month with seven franchises. Commissioner Tonya Antonucci said the league's investors (all the teams are locally owned) considered delaying but were unanimous in deciding to play.

"Every time we addressed it, everyone was a go and believed it would cost us more to wait," she said.

"History will tell us whether we were right or not."

Other than the game on the field, WPS bears little resemblance to the failed WUSA, which burned through $100 million before folding in 2003.

The average WPS salary is $32,000 and Antonucci said the league's business plan, which includes a TV deal with Fox Soccer Channel, can be sustained with an average attendance of around 4,000. Through the first few weeks, the average is closer to 6,000.

Antonucci is looking forward to the day that gender no longer is a dividing line in pro sports and believes soccer, where women and men play exactly the same game, can help make that happen.

In the meantime, as with all businesses, new and old, large and small, she has bills to pay.

"Everyone is dealing with it," Antonucci said. "We have learned the lessons of how to contain costs and know we have to be creative in how we spend our dollars.

"We're setting our expectations modestly, but we're growing this thing to be around for a long time."