Wish upon the Stars
Finally, WPS also faces a more intangible challenge: finding star power. The glow of the 1999 World Cup team has long faded, and today’s top players are relatively obscure; the best-known include prolific scorer Wambach and goalkeeper Solo, whose angry outburst about being benched during the 2007 World Cup made headlines around the soccer world.
“Even though there’s a really talented squad out there on the Women’s National Team, the name recognition is not as vibrant,” admits Rodin. “From a marketing point of view, it’s going to be a bigger challenge.”
“Stars are crucial to your success,” agrees Antonucci. “But every league goes through star players retiring. You don’t close up shop or not start a business because a star retires.”
With the Summer Olympics set to kick off in Beijing in August and the U.S. National Team expected to medal, bright new stars may soon be born. The league is already devising a plan to allocate National Team members to WPS teams.
And thus the stage is set for next April, when the whistles will blow for the first matches of women’s professional soccer’s second chance. “It will be hard at first,” says MLS’s Abbott. “But if they take a very measured approach, a build-to-last approach, I think they will prosper.”
Here’s hoping they don’t lose their shirts.
Kate O’Sullivan is a senior writer at CFO.
Learning from Lacrosse
Sports leagues launch and fold with surprising regularity, often proving that staying power involves a combination of tenacity and savvy execution. Major League Lacrosse (MLL), which launched in 2001, the same year as the defunct Women’s United Soccer Association, is now in its eighth season. Realistic growth projections and careful spending have helped the niche league stick around. “We didn’t burn through cash at a rapid rate,” says commissioner David Gross. Doing otherwise, he says, would have scared off “not only the existing ownership group but also other potential investors.”
Grassroots marketing was also critical to the new league’s success, says Gross. “If we had tried to do a major media buy, we wouldn’t have made a dent in the marketplace,” he says. “Instead, we focused on trying to grow the sport of lacrosse.” Offering as many platforms as possible to sponsors — including signage at games, ads on the league’s Website, advertising during television broadcasts, and spots on the league’s Web radio show — has also proved key to MLL’s durability.
What advice does Gross have for the new Women’s Professional Soccer league? “They’ve got to create a budget that is truly in line with their revenue expectations,” he says. “The salaries they pay the players have got to be in line. They have to explain that to the players and really get their emotional, mental, and physical buy-in to the league.” But Gross stresses that MLL itself is still a work in progress: “A young league isn’t really in a position to be giving anyone advice. We’re still learning ourselves.” — K.O’S.
Keys to the Game
$15 — Estimated ticket price
4,500 — Average attendance per game (WUSA’s actual paid attendance in 2003)
$67,500 — Estimated ticket revenue per game
21 — Scheduled number of games (per team)
$1.9 million–$2.8 million — Estimated total annual budget per team, including players’ salaries
$500,000–$1 million — Estimated cost of a multiplatform sponsorship package
Sources: WPS and CFO estimates