Reviving a women's pro football league in the United States during harsh economic times has been quite a challenge, but Women's Pro Soccer (WPS) is on course to meet goals for quality and stability.
The seven-team league reaches the midpoint of its inaugural season this week with elite talent from around the world, an average of about 5,400 fans a match and two expansion teams paying $1 million each to start in 2010.
"It's thrilling and exhausting at the same time," WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci said. "Anyone in any start up finds that surge and excitement. You get passionate about the sport."
After a collegiate career as a Stanford midfielder, long-time business executive Antonucci has picked up the pieces from the Women's United Soccer Association that folded in 2003, assembling sponsors and top players for WPS.
"There are committed owners who have a long-term vision for this," Antonucci said. "There is something here. It's about soccer becoming more relevant in the United States."
When the economy went sour six months before last March's debut, there was some worry. But there was more concern about what might happen with a delay. "We did pause," Antonucci said. "There was a timetable we had built into the thing. If we had waited it would have taken us further back. We were cautiously optimistic the affordability would get the non-soccer fans."
Washington, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and suburban New York and San Francisco field WPS teams in 2009. Philadelphia and Atlanta are set to join them next year.
Smaller venues and a budget for about half of the $40 million the WUSA spent on its first season were aimed at helping develop a long-term connection with supporters, building a base rather than making a splash.
"You have to keep giving value to the fans," Antonucci said. "We started from the beginning - Olympic athletes at family prices. We want teams to get out and play a role in the community." WPS attracted top global talent, with 38 players from ten nations beyond the base of USA talent, including three-time FIFA Women's Player of the Year Marta of Brazil, China's Han Duan, Japan's Homare Sawa and England's Kelly Smith.
"We're really proud of that," Antonucci said. "That was part of what we wanted to have when we started. We feel like we knocked it out of the park. You can make all the business connections you want, but if you can't deliver on the product..."
Germany's top talent could make the jump once the reigning FIFA Women's World Cup™ champions host the 2011 edition of the tournament. But there is already plenty of globalization in WPS. WPS already has a coach speaking in English to her Swedish team captain who translates into German to communicate the instructions to a Brazilian teammate.
"It's impressive and interesting at the same time, the hoops they jump through to get this thing going," Antonucci said. Next month marks ten years since the breakthrough 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup won by the host USA squad over China in a final decided on penalty kicks before 90,000 spectators at the Rose Bowl.
US stars from that title team will appear at WPS matches. "That was a seminal moment in women's sports," Antonucci said. "It's good to look back and look forward at what's ahead for women's team sports and where we are now."
WPS is cultivating attendance, attention and sponsorship slowly and in markets, wanting to build lasting partnerships as a sport league and avoid sympathy ploys as a women's league fighting for attention against male rivals. "This isn't about making people feel guilted into helping our sport," said Antonucci. "We're going to earn it."