Author Topic: Women's Professional Soccer Survives to See Second Year  (Read 1258 times)

Offline David

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Women's Professional Soccer Survives to See Second Year
« on: April 22, 2010, 09:53:27 PM »
Women's Professional Soccer is in its second season. No small feat considering the economic climate in which the league debuted last spring.

Near-depression, severe recession, companies laying off workers, sponsors and consumers clinging to their money. That's no way to launch a new sports venture, not even one that has been years in the making before the world went south.

But WPS is still here, playing world-class games, soliciting sponsors, trying to connect with a fan base that has plenty of room to grow.

"It was not the ideal launch environment, but we've established ourselves," WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci said. "We have the world's best players all in one league and we are working hard to prove out the notion that we will be world-class, giving fans an affordable, family-friendly experience."

The eight-team league came online six years after its predecessor, the WUSA, washed away in a sea of financial losses in 2003, despite the prominence of U.S. team stars such as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain.

And the WPS has already endured a pretty big letdown of its own, losing its cornerstone Los Angeles Sol franchise after the ownership group pulled out after one season.

But the league expanded to Philadelphia and Atlanta (playing in a WPS-specific facility) and could be back in Southern California in 2011. In fact, WPS is aiming to have 12 teams in place for the 2012 season and potential markets include Denver, San Diego, Dallas and Vancouver.

The league has been aggressively utilizing social media, creating live-stream game broadcasts that can be watched on iPhones, collecting more than 20,000 fans on Facebook and building a Twitter following of nearly 250,000.

Obviously, it has not been all-smooth sailing. Attendance remains on the lower-end of the league's expectations. Television viewership on the Fox Soccer Channel is relatively sparse.

The exit of the L.A. ownership group after one season -- a season in which the Sol finished with the league's best regular-season record and reached the title game but also lost a reported $2 million -- could have been a death-blow. The Anschultz Entertainment Group, which owns the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer, had only committed to get the team started, not remain an owner for the long-term.

The Sol's dissolution presented a significant perception problem for the league. Antonucci knew it would be viewed as a sign that her league was already in trouble.

"We have been able to contain L.A. as an isolated incident," Antonucci said. "L.A. was a big market for us, it had our highest average attendance, but it was not a commentary on the viability of the league in the marketplace.

"We already have three separate investor groups who want to be committed to L.A. in 2011."

Antonucci said WPS has learned from the experience.

"I think one of the things we learned was that private individual owners might be more of a model for us," Antonucci said. "We have to take a really hard look at corporate ownership of our teams in the future. We are appreciative that (AEG) helped us get started and establish that LA has a lot of value to the league."

Rachel Buehler, a defender for the FC Gold Pride and member of the U.S. National team, said the league feels more settled this season.

"I think the energy was great last year, we were a new league and there was a level of excitement," Buehler said. "But this year, we know what to expect, things are more established, more organized."

Buehler said she and her teammates are at least a little more recognizable. The Gold Pride players were riding a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train, heading to an event in San Francisco in the weeks before the season began. One of the riders look at the team in its warm-up gear.

"He started talking to us and he said, 'I know who you are, I've heard of you.' He wasn't a soccer fan, but I think people are becoming a little more savvy about who we are, which is cool," Buehler said.

Buehler said she feels like the league is experiencing "humble momentum."

"All of the players realize the situation and we realize that ultimately the fans are coming to see us," Buehler said. "So this is all about the connections we make and people taking responsibility to do whatever we have to do to make the league a succcess."

Antonucci said season-ticket sales have increased 20 percent. The league averaged 4,600 fans a game last season ("in the wheelhouse of our expectations", Antonucci said.) and is aiming for a 10 percent increase. Local sponsorships among the six returning teams are up 150 percent. Corporate partners are back for a second season. Television ratings for the initial games of the season are up 15 percent of the same games last year.

WPS has widened its international scope with players coming in from 19 countries, compared to 12 last season. The league is working to build its players into mainstream stars with many of the best-known players from the previous national teams now in retirement. All of the current players in the U.S. national team are playing in the league.

Antonucci said the teams are being very money-conscious, finding ways to lower costs and generate revenues. Teams are also looking to improve the stadium experience for fans. In New Jersey, the team is selling cabanas near the field, intended for corporate use. The league is also fine-tuning the public appearances of its players. This is a start-up operation no more.

"It feels great that we did survive last year and we are still standing," Antonucci said. "I'm more excited than nervous about this year. I think you are more nervous when you have success and you have to keep it up. I'm not suggesting every goal will be achieved, but last year was so tough. We can only go up from here."