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Antonucci: 'Right now, it's about stabilization'
by Paul Kennedy, September 17th, 2010 1:58AM

TAGS:  soccer business, wps


[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.

  1. David Sirias
    commented on: September 17, 2010 at 12:53 p.m.
    Like I've said many times before, the WPS clubs in MLS cities need to work much more closely with their male counterparts--marketing, strategy, cross pollination etc. Many of the MLS ultras have little kids or will have them one day and WPS is a great fan friendly venue to rear the next generation. Second, get rid of the lines and logos on the field. It disrespects the game and the fans innately sense it even if they cannot articulate it. And most importantly, play pretty soccer. OMG, despite talent, these teams play boring and dull. Mostly the fault of inferior coaches I imagine. Virtually every game sees BOTH teams pack it in except for a GP. Guess you had the most success this year? The Columbian U-19 in Germany this past summer was WAY more entertaining than any team in WPS except GP.
  1. Tom Haig
    commented on: September 17, 2010 at 2:15 p.m.
    The WPS trying to compete for the sports dollar in LA, Boston, SF etc. is absurd. They need to go to college sports markets that have few sports options in the summer. Eugene, Austin, Madison, Athens... you get the picture. They'll do quite well there, but they'll never get on the front page of the Dallas Morning News.
  1. David Sirias
    commented on: September 17, 2010 at 3:01 p.m.
    T Haig's points are well taken. The Gold Pride are in a good location near the tri-valley area in the East Bay which is a girls soccer factory. They can stay Get rid of the EB logo at though. Atlanta seems to have committed ownership and a nice facility. They can stay. Chicago needs to work with the Fire more closely. They play in the same house. They should stay if its done right. The others? Move them to smaller towns if their markets just don't produce in the next few years.

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