Women's Professional Soccer couldn't have picked a worse time for the launch of a new league, but officials are confident that they can achieve success where WUSA, the previous attempt at women's pro soccer, failed.
While WUSA burned through $100 million in three years, the combined budgets of the seven WPS teams in Year 1 will be less than $20 million.
That means the average player salaries will be in the range of $30,000 to $40,000 for six-month contracts. WPS is working with teams on finding housing and transportation for the players — the league markets are among the most expensive to live in.
As of its final draft in mid-January, WPS had only signed one national sponsor, but it was a big one. Puma agreed to a five-year deal valued at $10 million. The German manufacturer played a big role in attracting Brazilian superstar Marta to the Los Angeles Sol. WPS also will benefit from a minimum guarantee from Soccer United Marketing, the soccer company that also holds marketing rights to MLS and U.S. Soccer among other marketing organizations.
"It has without question had an impact," Commissioner Tanya Antonucci said of the economic downturn. "Conversations we were having have slowed down or stopped. It's the reality all sports leagues are dealing with."
The women's soccer landscape has changed since WUSA's demise. Women's leagues are established in Germany (Bundesliga) and Sweden (Damallsvenskan) and a league has been launched in Australia (Westfield W-League).
WPS teams were locked in battles to sign several of the world's top forwards, notably Cristiane, Marta's partner on the Brazilian national team, and Lisa De Vanna, who had an outstanding 2008 season with AIK in Sweden and has been playing recently with Perth Glory in her native Australia.
In the case of the German national team, its stars are staying at home, first to defend the European Women's Championship to be hosted by Finland later this year and then to play in the 2011 Women's World Cup Germany will host.
Motivated by a desire to play on their respective national teams, two college stars have returned to Europe. Finn Sanna Talonen left Florida State to play for Orebro in Sweden, Oklahoma State's Yolanda Odenyo is returning to Sweden to play for Linkoping.
"The strength of other leagues legitimizes our mission to be the best," said Antonucci. "It's all a sign of the growth of the game."
Attendance goals for Year 1 are modest: 4,000 to 6,000 a game. Three teams – Los Angeles, FC Gold Pride (Bay Area) and Chicago – will share homes with MLS teams, though only AEG's Sol is owned by an MLS investor. Just as MLS teams have blocked off sections of the big NFL stadiums in which they play, the Sol and Chicago Red Stars will restrict seating at home games to one side of the soccer-only stadiums in which they will play.
Each team will play a 20-game regular-season schedule that begins March 29 when the Sol hosts Washington. WPS has adopted a unique playoff format. The regular-season champion will earn a bye into and host the championship game, while the next three teams play off.
"The table will have real meaning," says Antonucci.
(This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)