FIFA.com continues its series dedicated to important personalities in the women's game with a look at Women's Professional Soccer [WPS], the world-class league that was launched in March in the USA. In an exclusive mid-season interview, WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci shares her perspective on both the quality on the pitch and business topics related to the growth and long-term success of the league. With skilled athletes, affordable tickets, innovative marketing and devoted partners, WPS is confident that it is connecting with fans and optimistic that it will continue to thrive.
FIFA.com: With about half of the inaugural season left to play, which teams or players have proven to be a welcome surprise? What new fan favourites are emerging?
Tonya Antonucci: I think given the short time the teams had to play and prepare together, we've seen great action and talent on the field. They have come together quicker than most people would have expected. And aside from Los Angeles' hold on the top spot, we are seeing great parity in this league - anyone can win on any given day. As for players, I have been impressed with how the international players have really taken ownership of this league in many ways. We have seen some great individual performances by them.
England international Kelly Smith has been a huge playmaker for Boston. French international Camille Abily leads the league in scoring and her countrywoman Sonia Bompastor just won WPS Player of the Month for May. When you consider these great players along with the outstanding performances by our Japanese, Chinese, Swedish and Brazilian stars, all told from 11 different countries, I am certain more fan favourites will emerge in the second half of the season.
What impact will the addition of the Philadelphia Independence, a WPS expansion team for 2010, have on the league?
We are incredibly pleased to have Philadelphia as our eighth franchise, with Atlanta expected to join as the ninth for 2010 as well. It is great to have new investors coming on board during our inaugural season as we grow our league and fan base. It will be important to bring in new international talent with the additional teams, while also having an expansion draft after the 2009 season that provides these teams with the talent necessary to be competitive next year.
I have been impressed with how the international players have really taken ownership of this league in many ways. We have seen some great individual performances by them.
*Can you tell us more about WPS Camps and the role that this initiative shall play as an additional source of revenue for the league? *
WPS Camps are important for the league as a way to reach fans that are not in WPS markets and to grow the WPS brand across the country. It is a revenue driver, but it is also a brand builder and we will have our players make appearances at the camps so that young players are learning about playing in the pros from the pros themselves. We are excited that WPS Camps will be in over 20 markets this year across the US.
*WPS attendance figures have been strong. What has been the league-wide trend with regard to average ticket price since the beginning of the season? *
Through the first half of the regular season we were at about 5,300 [fans per game], which is right where we expected, between 4,000-6,000 fans, when we did our estimates. Our ticket price average is about [USD] $16 for an individual ticket and a family of four can certainly attend a game, including food, drink and parking, for under $100. WPS provides a world-class product at affordable and accessible prices, so ticket packs are certainly part of that.
*What are the figures for supporter participation in league-driven social networking initiatives and what do they tell us about the growth of the WPS' fan base? *
We have made a point to embrace the social networking tools of today. Our goal at the start of the season was 10,000 Facebook fans and we are now well over 13,000. We allowed Twitter in our inaugural match and it has continued during this season with players and team officials embracing its immediacy in terms of connecting to fans. We have a good following on our fan sites as well. We are a grassroots league and the numbers are out there in terms of participation in the game, but we know there are still a lot more young players and fans we need to reach to spread the message of our league and the great product we have.
*Given the challenging economic landscape, have any league sponsors asked for any refinements to their agreed-upon rights or obligations? *
All of our league deals have activated as the partners have hoped for and we are optimistic that we will have a few more national sponsors over the course of the second half of this season and into the playoffs. The quality on the pitch, on television, our new web platform and the passionate fan base have excited and enticed marketing partners to consider being part of WPS. We also are confident that building relationships for 2010 is an important part of the sponsorship process.
*What business lessons would you say some of the teams, and the league itself, have learned thus far? *
I think it is too early to answer that question, as we are halfway through the season. We have certainly been mindful of the economy in all the decisions we have made. Teams have found creative ways to market and be efficient with their investments. We know that we need to have the word out there at ground level with youth teams and leagues and the best way to reach that audience is by word of mouth and first-hand accounts of our product.
*Next month marks the ten-year anniversary of the US' victory in the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup. In what ways have WPS and its supporters been celebrating this milestone? *
We are doing a variety of things. The league has worked with US Soccer to bring some of the legends from the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup to our WPS games between June 10th and July 10th. On our website, womensprosoccer.com, we will run a series of features from players in the league about their memories of '99. We will also be doing a tour of the 1999 World Cup trophy to the venues and a short video with interviews from our WPS players that were part of the tournament, as well as former greats such as Sun Wen. That was a special moment and we hope that people come support WPS in order for soccer to continue to grow and thrive like it did during that summer of 1999.