| A Grainey Day in the Americas
Toldeo, Ohio, Sep. 18, 2006
September of 2003 was a memorable month for Canadian soccer fans. Canada's senior women's team made history by reaching the World Cup Semi-finals in the US, after not having won a match in two previous World Cup appearances. Another significant though less pleasing event also took place at that time - the folding of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA).
In its three year run WUSA contributed greatly to the growth of female soccer by professionalizing the sport for the first time, creating entertaining events for the spectators, presenting a first class product on the field and attracting top international players. A handful of Canadians benefited from playing in the WUSA including Charmaine Hooper, Christine Latham and Karina LeBlanc. WUSA’s failing was in fiscal management as it burned through $100 million in three seasons. Costs raged out of control despite a single entity ownership structure in which players were contracted to the league which owners held stock in, preventing spending wars between individual clubs. Attendance was decent from year-one to year-three ($5,000-7,000 a game) but television coverage was miniscule..
Old world-New world disparity
Since 2003 some WUSA players have put their working and personal lives on hold, waiting for its return. They have tried to stay game fit by playing in national team games, amateur leagues such as the United Soccer Leagues' (USL) W–League or WPSL, or in European leagues. Former WUSA Atlanta Beat players Nancy and Julie Augustyniak powered FC Indiana in tiny Goshen, Indiana to the WPSL and US Open Cup Championships in 2005, after playing in Germany and Sweden in 2004. Though acknowledging the cultural benefit of living in Europe, soccer wise Nancy felt that it wasn’t the best experience. “The biggest difference between WUSA and a team in Sweden or Germany, was that the last place team [in WUSA] could beat the first place [European] team any day.” She noted that playing in the WUSA was “the best three years of my life”.
WSII to flourish where WUSA failed
During the past few years, there has been growing momentum around a relaunch of professional women’s soccer. Laura Fedrigo, Executive Director of the W–League’s Atlanta Silverbacks and founder of the Detroit Jaguars/Hawks of the same league, told WFP: “Some people believe it shouldn’t happen because it didn’t happen. [WUSA’s failure] doesn’t reflect a lack of interest in women’s soccer.”
The driving force behind this rebirth is Tonya Antonucci, a former player at Stanford and business executive in the Information Technology sector. Antonucci heads the Women’s Soccer Initiative Incorporated (WSII) and has quietly been building a business case and cultivating investors and sponsors. Antonucci suggested, “The business side of WUSA was not productive, so behind the scenes there is a great effort to have sustainability. [WSII] studied all the lessons learned on the business side and talked to investors and the sponsor community to assess what they want to see.”
WSII is taking a different tack from WUSA’s single entity approach. Franchises would be owned by groups in metropolitan markets of at least two million people. Antonucci has also said that her preference is to bring in ownership groups who have or plan to have a soccer specific stadium. As Major League Soccer (MLS) has shown, soccer specific stadiums allow a franchise to control dates, revenue from parking and concessions, and create additional revenue streams from other events (concerts, lacrosse). Antonucci has reached out to the USL’s W–League as well as MLS for support. Both Antonucci and MLS Commissioner Don Garber talked to WFP about their discussions, the former acknowledging that “MLS had been successful in the soccer business and together we could achieve efficiencies.” Garber said, “We’re trying everything we can to help.” That assistance could range from joint marketing and promotions through individual MLS cities coming into WSII.
The flagship eight
After originally targeting a 2007 launch Antonucci is now looking at starting in 2008. She promises that WSII will present a strong league with a West, East and Central imprint in order to build the brand at the national level. WUSA played in eight markets; Atlanta, Boston, Cary N.C., New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose and Washington DC. Likewise, WSII wants no fewer than eight markets for competitive reasons. Antonucci has been 'mum' about naming prospective cities but individual bidders have been more willing to talk. Multiple sources have identified seven leading candidates: Atlanta, Cary, Chicago, Los Angeles, Rochester, San Diego and Washington DC. Other cities mentioned as possibilities for an eighth spot include Denver, San Francisco and Vancouver.
Matthew Ford, the Executive Vice President of the USL’s Rochester Raging Rhinos, confirmed Rochester’s interest in the league a few weeks ago: “We are heavily involved in discussions with those people who are the catalyst for bringing back WUSA. Certainly our intent is to be a host city for one of those teams when it is relaunched. We certainly have the venue (the new 13,000 soccer specific Paetec Park) the resources, we have the success with the men’s sides and by starting a W–League team this year, we’re laying the foundation for what we hope will become a full professional women’s team here in Rochester. There’s a lot of economies of scale from running two professional clubs out of one organization and certainly having a women’s team is something this stadium needs, this city would respond to and we’re very encouraged by the discussions which have taken place. We continue to work towards being a part of that relaunch in ’08”.
|LICKING LIPS IN
get a WSII franchise,
they will kick some
All in favour of Canadian content
When asked about Canadian players’ role in the new league, Antonucci felt strongly that “bringing in Canadian players would make for a stronger league.” Fedrigo felt that there were some issues that would have to be resolved, such as health care compatibility and whether Canadians would be classified as international or domestic players, but was confident that they would be resolved successfully. On the issue of quotas, Canada defender Sasha Andrews weighed in: “I think it would be better if the WSII allowed more international players (than WUSA’s three) and not too many rules about how many international players per team you can have. If you want the best league in the world, you’ve got to have the best players. They can’t all be from America. Canada is so close. They should allow Canadians an opportunity and not count us as immigrants.”
Canadian franchises would provide more slots for Canadian players, assisting the development of the national team program and bringing a different perspective to the US-based league. When asked about the possibility of WSII launching with one or more Canadian franchises, Antonucci was definitely open to the possibility, confirming that she had had a few discussions with prospective Canadian investors. Former CSA President Andy Sharpe’s vision is of a Canadian division in a new league, involving Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. Although it’s an admirable long-term goal, it may be a bit aggressive at the present time, since US Soccer’s Foundation has contributed to the start-up costs for an American league.
Toronto/Vancouver prime targets
Logically, two candidates are prime in Antonucci’s thinking. Toronto Lynx were impressive in their inaugural campaign in the W–League in 2005, making the playoffs and averaging 2,193 per game, second in a league in which the 34 teams averaged only 618 fans a game. The league attendance leader is Vancouver Whitecaps, who have put together a dynamic team comprising a core of national team players such as Amber Allen, Kara Lang, Erin McLeod and many others. They were W–League champions in 2004 and again in 2006. In 2005, they attracted 3,697 per game and reached 6,000 on one occasion. Vancouver's metropolitan area meets the WSII population criteria.
National team midfielder Brittany Timko, a long time Whitecap, said it best: “I know the support we get in Vancouver, playing with the Whitecaps this year, is just phenomenal and we’re building a new stadium downtown. It really is a soccer city so we’d love to have a team in Vancouver. I guarantee you that if we were given the chance in Vancouver, it would be successful.” Timko felt that the higher caliber players of a pro league would bring even larger crowds to the future stadium.
Bob Lenarduzzi, the Director of Soccer Operations for the Vancouver Whitecaps, said that his team, “has participated in a number of calls (regarding the new league) and that the USL is aware that they are keeping abreast of developments with WSII.” He said that they are interested to see where WSII goes, while still maintaining the Whitecaps commitment to operating a top shelf USL team. Lenarduzzi stated that he wanted to make sure that the structure of a new league facilitates the development of the Whitecaps and the growth of soccer in general.
In summary, the good news is that there seem to be definitive plans to start a professional women’s league in 2008, where top Canadian players can compete against the best in the world. There is a strong argument that one or more Canadian franchises would help the nascent league. Toronto will have a new stadium and MLS franchise as a foundation beginning in 2007. Vancouver provides the vibrancy of a proven soccer market that has embraced the women’s game. If the league does go forward in 2008, Canadian soccer fans can look forward to watching some of their favorite players. The big question is, will they have to go south of the border to do it?
© 2006 World Football Pages/Tim Grainey
Photo: Timko © 2006 Scott Bales