WUSA's new incarnation ready for takeoff

February 28, 2008
DolichBy Lindsey Dolich

What's red, gold and Hamm all over? The new Women's Professional Soccer logo. Taking a cue from the NBA, WPS put its ponytailed Jerry West -- otherwise known as golden girl Mia Hamm -- into action.

Back on Jan. 17, 2008, the Women's Soccer Initiative Inc. shed its cumbersome title. In WSII's place, founders unveiled Women's Professional Soccer -- with a Web site (womensprosoccer.com), YouTube video and blog … but no players. Yet.

Other / Courtesy of the WPSThe WPS logo is modeled after legendary U.S. star Mia Hamm.

Touted as "the premier women's soccer league in the world," WPS expects big names like Marta and Birgit Prinz to join Abby Wambach, Kristine Lilly & Co. And the queen of soccer herself, in silhouette, will be watching over the new generation -- in perfect striking form, no less.

When the WUSA folded in 2003, it left behind a legion of fans and passionate players, some who have stuck with year-round training regimens in hopes of a resurrection. A modern-day corporate Lazarus, WPS is a completely different entity with a new business plan, a whip-smart commish and the backing of MLS.

"We have the benefit of partnering with SUM [Soccer United Marketing, the corporate marketing arm of MLS] to get corporate America involved with us and building our brand WPS," said Tonya Antonucci, a former Yahoo Inc. sports exec and player for Stanford in her college days. "In the early 2000s, MLS was just getting off the ground; they have learned a tremendous amount about the business which they are willing to share with us. Now, the MLS fan base and attendance is growing at a rapid pace, all while raising the profile of soccer -- and we'll cater to that soccer fan's appetite for entertainment and true competition on the field."

"[WPS] isn't built on the euphoria of 1999. Now we have budgets in which we can point to actual sponsorship numbers or ticket numbers based on 2001 to 2003," added Joe Cummings, president of the Boston Breakers. "I think we're headed in a very different direction than we were in 2001. We have a lot of really sports-minded people this time. The ownership groups are really focused on the growth of the sport."

The eureka moment, when the WPS staff stumbled upon Hamm as the emblem, is the only aspect of spontaneity remaining from the days of WUSA's expedited launch. And the epiphany was the product of long hours spent poring over hundreds of photographs. "When we saw one of Mia, we said, 'That's the one,'" Cummings said.

And now, after quite a few hiccups, the launch date for WPS has been tentatively set for the April 4 weekend in 2009, following the Olympic Games this fall. The regular season will run roughly 20 games -- with an All-Star match in the mix -- wrapping up at the end of August with the inaugural championship game.

WPS has successfully seeded seven markets to roll out new teams, and hopes to add one more from the West Coast for the 2009 launch. Teams in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, New Jersey and St. Louis, along with the former Boston Breakers and Washington Freedom of the WUSA, will open up the pitch with the league operating under a new franchise model. An easy mulligan? Not quite. "We'll invest and grow one fan at a time," said Antonucci.

WPS execs did their homework in a three-year-long course that could be titled: "Sports Business 101: Building a Viable Professional Sports League From Ground Up." Antonucci and her associates met with Adam Silver of the NBA, along with commissioners and sports executives from the WNBA, MLL, NHL, AFL and USL for advice on starting fresh. WPS also sought out pioneers Marla Messing, former '99 Women's World Cup event president, and Billie Jean King of the Women's Sports Foundation. WPS is a work in progress -- it hasn't even settled on a tagline, but the sports-savvy group earns high marks for its grassroots approach.

As for Antonucci, not many can lay claim to the dual titles of founder and commissioner of a professional sports organization. "The benefits of being the first commissioner, after playing a part in creating the vision of WPS as a founder, are huge. It's about bringing forth and sustaining the vision of who we are for the fans, going into the crucial launch mode."

GettyImages / Guang NiuWill the WPS be able to lure Brazilian star Marta to U.S. shores?

The commish isn't the only one working double time. Cummings is a one-man team who has worked with the New England Revolution and the Boston Breakers of the WUSA on the business side. He also brings serious coaching credentials to the table. Cummings' passion for the women's game is infectious: "The first couple of [Boston Breakers] training sessions I went to I said, 'Oh my goodness!' They did some things on the field that I never saw being done before on any level. People don't realize. These are absolutely stunning professional athletes."

If you thought the WPS sounded familiar, it does. There's also the WPSL (Women's Premier Soccer League) and the W-League. These leagues have both been around for close to two decades, and are largely responsible for the foundation of elite women's soccer, outside the U.S. national teams. Here is where WPS separates itself from the WUSA: It will draw talent from two leagues that combine for 80 teams. "There's 1,600 women already playing in the United States," Cummings said. "You are only talking about 112 players we'll have out of those 1,600 players. Every single club in the WPS is going to have some sort of relationship with a WPSL team or W-League team." As for the Martas and Prinzes, it won't be as easy to draw those players into a new league based in the U.S., especially when many of them already have contracts overseas.

But there's another international player attracting attention right now. Despite a unique word-of-mouth and viral marketing strategy, WPS got a huge boost when NBA star Steve Nash decided to lay down his own currency as a business investment. With a rich soccer background to his name and a desire to create opportunity for his twin daughters, Nash is the perfect fit for WPS: He brings crossover appeal and star power. "I think what's going to happen is you will have other athletes in sports saying, 'Wait a minute, here's a professional basketball player that has indicated he has an interest not just as a fan but as a financial interest,'" said Cummings.

To the lukewarm skeptics, Antonucci said, "Think of it as entertainment by really physically fit, really competitive women with a ton of old-school heart and sports courage who could probably outrun you and still look great doing it."

But to the die-hard sports fan with multiple fantasy teams, who wears his loyalty like a badge of honor, Cummings has one final point: "Baseball may fancy itself world champions, or football or hockey or basketball or whatever, but unless there's a world championship or Olympics, you can't say you're seeing the best players in the world every single weekend. We can say that."

Sounds like WPS has found its tagline.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.