[WPS] Six years after Tonya Antonucci began her crusade to relaunch women's pro soccer, she is stepping away. At the close of a tumultuous second season that saw two teams fold and attendance drop by 23 percent, she is leaving her post as commissioner of Women's Professional Soccer. She spoke with Soccer America about her decision to leave and about the league's future.
Antonucci, who played soccer at Stanford and later worked at Yahoo! as an executive during its early years, says the decision to leave WPS was hers.
"It really began during the course of the restructuring process," she said. "I've always enjoyed startup phases, from the Yahoo! days to WPS. It being six years, four years before the launch of the league and two years operational, I had been thinking about what might be a good time to transition for me and the league. It felt like it was the right time. The owners wanted me to stay involved. But I felt it was the right time for the new strategic direction as well."
Antonucci's departure follows the move of WPS owners to downsize the league office, based in San Francisco.
What was already a lean operation with 9-10 employees is now "really, really lean and mean with a few folks," Antonucci says, after the latest cuts at the league office, the third round of cuts since the league's launch in 2009.
Many of the clubs made cuts of their own as the local sponsorship revenues they were banking on never came in, and attendance dipped in Year 2. All of the returning clubs but Boston experienced a drop in attendance.
The financial struggles teams have had meant they needed to dip into revenues from national sponsorships that went to paying for the league office and use them to either pay for local marketing efforts or cover losses.
"By reducing and shifting things to the teams," says Antonucci, "it goes more than making sure there is no capital call [team owners contributing to pay for league operations]. It creates a revenue stream for the teams. If the teams are healthier and it helps the league with sustainability, then these are the actions for stabilization that need to be made."
Many responsibilities the league office handled will be dealt with at the team level, and some others have been dropped.
"Right now, it is about stabilization," insists Antonucci, who will remain on the WPS board as a non-voting director.
Antonucci says the 2010 season began on a positive note as season-ticket sales exceeded those in 2009, but the signs of trouble were clear as walkup ticket sales dropped.
Factors that went into the sharp decline:
-- The novelty factor that drew fans in Year 1 had worn off;
-- Marketing budgets had been cut by many teams to reduce losses;
-- The World Cup overshadowed the women's league and cut into media coverage;
-- The collapse of the St. Louis Athletica in midseason meant the schedule had to be redone.
Going forward, Antonucci says WPS must address the length of the season. The schedule was increased from 20 to 24 games, but it meant promotional dollars and efforts had to be spread over more games.
Antonucci expects WPS will have eight teams in 2011.
"It's looking positive that we will have Buffalo next season," she said referring to the W-League champion Buffalo Flash.
The league is also looking at expansion in markets such as Dallas -- a huge girls soccer hotbed -- and Orange County (Calif.), though that wouldn't probably be before 2012.
One of the first priorities is to add a second team on the West Coast to partner with FC Gold Pride, based in the Bay Area.
Antonucci says the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany is a huge opportunity for WPS to get a boost as U.S. Soccer and corporate sponsors will provide support for promoting the women's game.
"I would fully expect we will take a break of some kind during Women's World Cup," she says. "It's just a matter of how long it will be."
Upward of 20 percent of the full-time pros in WPS could be headed to Germany next summer. Besides the USA, which should qualify, just about every national team that is expected to participate in the world championship will have some WPS representation.
The four European teams that qualified this week featured 11 starters from WPS clubs.