Going for the Gold

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

The numbers from the WUSA’s three seasons provide valuable guidance for the new league. For example, in 2003 women’s soccer averaged just 4,500 paid fans per game. “Having the actual attendance numbers brought expectations in line with our more modest approach to how the league can grow,” says Antonucci. The new league hopes to average about 5,000 fans per game in its first year.

That in turn will affect the league’s pitch to corporate sponsors. And pay, too: teams will have a salary cap, and the average salary will be lower than the $40,000 average paid by the WUSA. The league will also set a minimum salary.

As for television deals, WPS leadership recognizes that a strong, consistent TV presence is a top priority — perhaps a make-or-break factor in the long run. “We are working very, very hard to establish national television deals,” says Antonucci.

To gain additional revenue, teams in the new league may sell sponsors the right to emblazon their names on team jerseys, a standard practice in European soccer. Six teams in MLS already advertise sponsors on their jersey fronts. Antonucci says teams could even offer jersey fronts to local sponsors and jersey backs to national sponsors.

Assists from the Men

A positive case study — and an important resource — for WPS organizers is men’s pro soccer, MLS. Founded in 1996 with 10 teams, MLS has since expanded to 14 teams and plans to add 2 more. Last season, average attendance reached nearly 17,000 per game, and the league has national TV contracts with four networks.

In addition to improving its fan base and financial footing, MLS has been building smaller, soccer-specific stadiums, typically holding 20,000 to 30,000 fans. Several of the new women’s teams will play at those stadiums. “Stadium revenue has become a very important part of the economics of professional sports in the last 20 years,” notes Mark Abbott, president of MLS. “The financial success of a team often comes down to venue: naming rights, suites, concessions, and other events that are held at the stadium.” MLS teams that control those revenue streams “are profitable or close to profitable,” says Abbott, “and those that continue to rent third-party sites aren’t.” The New York Red Bulls, for example, play home games at Giants Stadium, which puts them third in line behind the NFL’s Giants and Jets for stadium revenue.

New stadiums will go a long way toward helping WPS keep its costs down. “We’re looking at smaller venues and hoping we outgrow them quickly rather than starting with larger venues and hoping that we fill them,” says general counsel Veenker.

MLS will not only share space with WPS teams in some cities but will also share its marketing division, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), with the new league. The division will sell sponsorships for WPS. Kathy Carter, executive vice president of SUM, says the early buzz about the women’s league in the corporate community has been good. “It seems that the owners have much more realistic expectations of what it takes to sell a ticket not once but 15 times,” she says. “A sponsor can look across the table at these potential partners and see that they realize the hard work that’s ahead of them.”

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