Going for the Gold

Can a savvy finance strategy propel Women's Professional Soccer to post-Olympic glory?

Nine years ago, Brandi Chastain whipped off her jersey before 90,000 screaming fans at the Rose Bowl — not to mention tens of millions of television viewers worldwide — in celebration of the U.S. women’s World Cup soccer championship. In the wake of that giddy summer of 1999, when World Cup games filled stadiums around the country and the U.S. team appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, People, and Sports Illustrated in the same week, a group of enthusiasts launched a professional women’s soccer league. With $40 million in funding and a feel-good vibe driven by friendly, accessible players — some of whom, like Chastain and Mia Hamm, had become household names — the league was poised to take off.

After just three seasons, the league folded, done in by high costs, low attendance, and pitiful TV ratings. Like so many other start-ups launched on the eve of the new millennium, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) burned through huge sums ($100 million) without making a dime.

Will the second time be the charm? Short on hype but long on experience, and with a special appreciation for the financial realities of professional sports, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) will launch a seven-team U.S. league in cities from Boston to Los Angeles next April.

The new league’s leaders insist that this time will be different. They have studied both the failure of the WUSA and the success of other fledgling pro leagues. They have also learned from the success of the men’s U.S. pro league, Major League Soccer (MLS). With a carefully vetted business plan focused on cost control, WPS’s organizers are determined to prove that the moment for women’s soccer as a viable business has finally arrived.

The league will have to prove it, however, with a different cast of players. Famous footballers like Chastain, Hamm, and Michelle Akers are long gone, replaced by equally talented but far less known players like Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and Natasha Kai. Can these newcomers, so obscure that a 2007 Nike ad hailed them as “the greatest team you’ve never heard of,” entice people to spend their ever-more-precious dollars on women’s soccer?

WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci thinks so: “The fans are hungry to follow their new heroes and embrace the best league in the world,” she says.

Missing the Net

Ask knowledgeable sports executives what went wrong with the WUSA and the same answer comes up again and again: the league spent too much money too fast. Its expectations for attendance and sponsorship were unrealistic, and the resulting cost structure proved unsustainable. “Operating budgets vastly exceeded actual revenues,” says the 40-year-old Antonucci, who previously was a director at Yahoo Sports.

Many factors contributed to the cost overruns, which reportedly reached as much as $20 million per year. For one, salaries were high; top players initially made close to $100,000, steep for a brand-new league. Also, the league’s TV deal was flawed. “A lot of people didn’t know where to find the games on television,” says Sue Rodin, managing director at marketing agency LeadDog Marketing Group and the agent of soccer star Carla Overbeck. As a result, ratings were abysmal. The games, which aired nationally on the Pax cable channel in 2003, averaged a 0.1 rating during the league’s last season, which means only about 100,000 households watched.

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