The league’s scaled-back business plan has also helped assuage the fears of potential sponsors that remember the WUSA’s rapid rise and fall. “People in the corporate environment can look at this far more reasonable business plan and say, ‘This is achievable, and it makes sense to put our dollars behind this,’” says Carter.
The collaboration with MLS is a marked change from the WUSA’s go-it-alone approach. The men’s and women’s leagues “have owners in common, stadiums in common, and a commercial relationship at the national level,” says Antonucci. “Those are three things the WUSA didn’t have.”
A Crowded Field
Despite the cautious business plan and the strong platform provided by the growing momentum of MLS and soccer generally in the United States, challenges abound for the new women’s league.
For starters, the entertainment arena has only become more crowded since the WUSA folded in 2003. “They will be playing during a time of year with a lot of other things to do,” points out Rick Kozuback, CEO and president of Global Entertainment Corp., the parent company of the Central Hockey League, a double-A professional hockey league launched 17 years ago. (The WPS season is expected to run from April to August.) “They will compete with baseball, MLS, and football. They will be one more sport filling a crowded landscape.” And there’s little doubt that in this weak economy families are carefully controlling their discretionary spending.
On the other hand, SUM’s Carter says that so far companies are not shying away from spending money on sports sponsorships. Indeed, some in the business claim that sports are recession-proof. “People tend to look to entertainment in tough times,” says MLS’s Abbott.
Still, when it comes to paying even modest ticket prices — likely in the $10-to-$20 range — people feeling a financial pinch and the pain of high gas prices may opt to stay home.
Demographics should help. More than 3.2 million kids play on youth teams and another 4.5 million parents and other adults are involved with youth soccer as coaches, referees, and boosters. The U.S. Soccer Federation estimates that as many as 250,000 adults play at the amateur level. And with a growth rate of almost 200 percent since 1990, soccer is the most popular women’s collegiate sport. “There are a lot of demographic shifts going on in this country that augur well for soccer,” says Abbott. “There’s immigration, but there is also the maturation of the soccer generation.” People who started playing soccer as children at the start of the youth soccer boom in the 1970s now hold positions of corporate power. Today, those making decisions about large sponsorship deals or investments in the league could be former players, says Abbott.
But will those who play come out to watch? Participation doesn’t always translate into a league’s success, particularly in women’s sports. Of the five women’s professional leagues launched since 1996, only the Women’s National Basketball Association remains, in large part thanks to subsidies from the National Basketball Association. “[WPS is] really faced with the issue of how to promote an extremely popular participatory sport,” says Rodin, the sports-marketing executive. And with a slew of opportunities to watch soccer at the youth level, adults may not feel the need to attend a professional game.