| A Grainey Day in the Americas
Toldeo, Ohio, Dec. 27, 2006
It’s been a little over three years since the demise of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the pro league of eight American clubs that ran from 2001 to 2003. Since that time, quiet but purposive strides have been made to re-establish the professional women’s circuit. The driving force behind such being Tonya Antonucci (former Stanford player and business executive in the IT sector) and the Women’s Soccer Initiative Incorporated (WSII), which she now heads on a full-time basis.
Recently, Antonucci updated World Football Pages on league’s progress including prospective cities, the business model and other salient issues.
Potential Franchise Markets
Antonucci is aiming to kick-off play in 2008 with a minimum eight teams. Of the leading candidates for charter franchises, some have concluded agreements while others are in discussions. The final lineup could look a lot like this:
Metropolitan New York City
Antonucci provided a second list of markets for which she described discussions as “not as far along” as the other nine but still with an opportunity to make the 2008 lineup, including:
A bigger playing field
Other markets on WSII’s radar include Cleveland, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area. There is some overlap of clubs with WUSA’s original lineup of Atlanta, Boston, Cary N.C., New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose and Washington D.C., and some new names. Antonucci emphasized that WSII is working very hard to have a national footprint, with franchises in the East, Midwest and West Coast, whereas WUSA was centered entirely on the two coasts.
Asked specifically about Canadian franchises, Antonucci explained, “We’re interested in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Good players have developed there, the sport is embraced there and we see it as part of a North American footprint [for WSII].
In regards to Vancouver, Antonucci
suggested, "We’ve been talking. There may be interest there to incorporate the market at launch or at an expansion stage.”
Avoiding NASL-style oblivion
WSII is using a different ownership paradigm than the defunct WUSA, which employed a single entity ownership model where investors owned shares in the league and managed franchises under strict salary cap guidelines.
Single entity, which is used in the men’s Major League Soccer, was designed to avoid rampant spending such as what happened during the men’s North American Soccer League’s 17 year run from 1968-1984. Led by the New York Cosmos, who splashed out millions on world class players like Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, the other franchises including smaller clubs like Tulsa Roughnecks and Calgary Boomers, tried to spend at the same salary levels while relying on much smaller revenue sources. It was a model that was unsustainable and eventually the league was forced into oblivion.
|A sporting chance
In WSII, there will be individual franchise investors and Antonucci felt strongly that there would be value in each owner defining revenue potential and expenses based on their particular market’s potential. For example, a group which runs a soccer-specific stadium should have more revenue streams from parking, concessions, etc. than a group that rents its field.
WSII is most interested in attracting ownership groups from MLS, the lesser United Soccer Leagues (USL), and groups that may own clubs and/or stadiums from other sports. Antonucco feels these owner groups will have the business acumen to construct a quality team based on their market reality, without the self-controlling and sometimes inhibiting model of league mandated budgets.
Antonucci also intends for WSII to avoid “stand alone women’s soccer franchises.” The most favorable opportunity for success allows WSII to grow steadily over time while creating synergies with soccer specific stadiums. She wants to work closely with USL and MLS. Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the marketing arm of MLS and US Soccer which also controls the men’s and women’s World Cup broadcast rights for the United States, will likely handle WSII’s sponsorship development efforts, including television contract negotiations.
The "aspiration connection"
When asked what WSII would replicate from WUSA's model, Antonucci felt that the former league’s on-field product was strong: “They had a unique proposition and became stronger year after year.”
Antonucci acknowledged that the players themselves will be a huge asset and crucial to WSII’s success. “The players are accessible – there is an aspiration connection with fans – they can reach them.”
A critical component of success in her mind is that WSII reach both the soccer family and non-soccer followers, through grass roots efforts. She wants the teams to get into communities early, create partnerships and work with local soccer clubs. Antonucci expressed a “special mesh with women’s athletics. It’s a different proposition of what they represent and the challenges they face and how they relate. Our athletes are approachable.”
Antonucci commented on the minimal press attention to date on the league’s progress. “Our efforts have been quiet. We want to be fair to our fan base. When we make a commitment publicly, we will have everything done so we meet fans’ expectations today," concluding, “We know how hungry the market is for the league to come back. We are excited to have it return.”
With solid leadership from the league’s CEO Tonya Antonucci, a clear business model, a willingness to work with men’s professional soccer entities, a growing base of experienced soccer/sports investors, WSII clearly seems ready for a successful launch in 2008. If the soccer community in North America can embrace the league while it also attempts to build a culture of fans for women’s professional sports, Antonucci’s hard work over the past few years will have paid off. Here’s hoping that sports writers will be covering WSII games in 2018.
© 2006 World Football Pages/Tim Grainey
Also from Tim:
The pending rebirth of professional women's soccer, Sep. 8, 2006