Tonya Antonucci: I see a lot of growth with the league
ESPNSoccernet's Lindsey Dolich sat down with WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci and WPS director of marketing Rachel Epstein to talk all things Olympics, Women's Professional Soccer and the sweet taste of gold.
ESPNsoccernet: What were your impressions of the U.S. women's national team, and the Olympic final?
Antonucci: It was such a nail-biter of a game, wasn't it? Oh, the back-and-forth, and just the total team play. It was total team soccer on our part, and the Brazilians, they did their thing, just great individual flair, and they certainly got behind us at times. And then we'd strike back and get our chances. I think it was a really enjoyable final -- two great teams pitted against each other. Just such a great sort of vindication for the team, after losing to Norway -- and all the stuff with Hope [Solo] in the past, just to get beyond all that, to put the questions to rest.
ESPNsoccernet: You saw absolute frustration on Marta's face. She was basically praying to the heavens after the last shot she took. You think Brazil got a little bit unlucky because it had the clear edge shooting on frame?
Antonucci: They had more shots on frame, didn't they? And it was interesting -- normally you see a higher success rate, a percentage, from Brazil once they get behind the defense and actually finish. I think they struggled with the final pass. In the final third, I don't think they were the team they wanted to be. Having said that, Brazil certainly had some brilliant individual play and some brilliant passing. At the end of the day, they weren't the better team on the field. You've got to produce the goals, right? Marta, Christiane, Danielle -- they're just great players. Obviously they've done some stunning stuff, but you've got to produce the goals.
ESPNsoccernet: The U.S. struggles to show the kind of creative possession exhibited by teams like Brazil and Japan -- do you think the possession game will become a staple in American soccer in the next five years?
Antonucci: I think we will. I think certainly as it relates to WPS -- I can't speak for the national team program --but what Pia [Sundhage] is doing is bringing more creativity, confidence and passion to what the team does offensively, so I think that that's being infused. In terms of what WPS can and will do, is develop players and develop the game.
Having the best international stars in our league, I think you'll see the Brazilians and to some extent the Japanese as well, that style of play, that individual flair, be pervasive through WPS. It's going to be really exciting. We're going to draw in even more fans to women's soccer as a result of watching that style of play. I think it's inspiring to the players, and having them in our league will only further encourage -- as Brandi [Chastain] put it -- the relationship an individual Brazilian player has with the ball.
ESPNsoccernet: Do you think the lack of a professional league is affecting the U.S. women's performance?
Antonucci: I think you're right to draw the conclusion that a professional league in this country will develop players, and will give lots of opportunities for the level of our play domestically to rise. We saw Abby Wambach and Shannon Boxx making the national team because of WUSA. You also saw many amazing international players who came here, played in the WUSA, then went back to their national teams -- and those national teams got a lot better.
The professional league gives our players more opportunities week in and week out to get higher level of game play. The national team, when it's in residency and occasionally playing friendlies -- it is not the same environment as a league, where you are playing against the world's best players.
ESPNsoccernet: What kind of role will former stars like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain have for WPS?
Antonucci: Well, as you may have heard it on air-- we've heard this off the air -- Brandi's interested in playing. She's obviously got multiple talents. Clearly broadcasting is one of them. We'll see what happens with Brandi. But I think Julie clearly has gone into her broadcast realm, and her husband, Ian [Sawyers], is coaching New Jersey. I'm sure she'll lend some insight to that program.
With Mia, we've talked to Mia, who is so supportive of the league and wants to help. As you know, she's our Jerry West in our logo to optimize and legitimize what WPS stands for. So I think Mia Hamm is the ultimate new soccer mom. She and Julie, and Brandy, and now Lilly, too, among others -- they're a new generation of soccer moms. There's a lot Mia can do to get involved with us off the field, to get behind supporting this. We're going to continue to work with her to make sure that happens.
ESPNsoccernet: U.S. national team head coach Pia Sundhage will not be able to coach in the WPS, correct? What will her role be?
Antonucci: That's not accurate to the extent that she is the U.S. national team coach. She can't [coach in the WPS] when she's on a one-year contract [with the U.S. Soccer Federation]. If she's the national team coach, we'll welcome some of her authority and expertise. We have a number of international coaches in our league.
ESPNsoccernet: Talk about the league's marketing strategy. How's the viral marketing approach working out, and what kind of public response has WPS received the past few months?
Epstein: I think it's catching momentum now. This Olympics platform was sort of the first thing we could harness and leverage. I think the Olympics put the stake in the ground for where we are going in terms of interactivity with our fans and the connection with our players. Leslie [Osborne] and Cat [Whitehill] are on the site. [WPS's social networking site: http://fans.womensprosoccer.com/] Coming out of the Olympics, there will be the allocation of the women's national team, and we will certainly use that as a platform to continue to create those touch points for fans. The players are excited too. There's a lot of possibility there.
ESPNsoccernet: Now that the Olympics have concluded and the post-Olympic tour announced, can WPS start moving on the rollout?
Antonucci: We're aiming high. Our hope is to potentially leverage the beginning of the post-Olympic tour and take advantage of the fan presence. We're doing something on the site, sort of a marketing-driven event involving the "WPS Top Town Challenge." If there are cameras at the allocation, we could get some coverage. Even if there aren't cameras, there are some [TV] relationships we can start to put in place. Obviously the win is huge, a lot of momentum coming off that. And we certainly want to make sure the athletes, as they go through their tour, they're able to talk about where they're playing.
ESPNsoccernet: Will the players be ranked in the draft? (The WPS draft takes place the week of Sept. 15.)
Antonucci: This allocation is sort of a dispersal draft; it's a version of a draft. The information, the inputs, players' preferences and the top markets, where they prefer to be. Then there's another list of criteria from our general managers and coaches -- who they like on their teams. Then from the league's perspective, what we think the fans will want; what is the best in terms of success for the league -- for competitive parity to start. Also from a marketing standpoint: where these players have played in the WUSA, where their home towns are, where they played college ball, what are good combinations of players, personalities, etc.? So all of those three main inputs go into the boardroom. And certainly, we're listening to fans, which is part of the "Top Town" challenge. We're also looking at what's happening in the media.
ESPNsoccernet: Any updates on the eighth expansion team?
Antonucci: It'll be possibly San Diego. ... There is a letter of intent signed from San Diego so we're going through due process of diligence, and final fundraising, and things of that nature. That is in the works, but it's not definitive. The same for the Bay Area. When we allocate the players we want to have all of our teams set.
ESPNsoccernet: You have reached out to the players to talk about WPS. Will we be able to get a sneak peek of some of these international players who've shown interest?
Antonucci: Yes. Some of our GMs and coaches, and we have our international player consultant Lauren Gregg, who previously worked for WUSA and was a former national team coach for the United States, have had conversations with players to understand their interest level. Of course talking to their federations and their teams as well as per the right processes. But to see who's interested in coming and kind of what the parameters are of what they feel -- what they're making, or what their situation is now.
I can tell you we have a list of about 60 international players right now. That was pre-Olympics, so it might even grow a little bit more, considering some of the breakout performances. For the most part, we're going to get a chance to put a good offer in front of these players, and hopefully they'll find it compelling to come here.
ESPNsoccernet: Do you think the Brazilian team as a whole will be more interested in joining WPS because the coach and players have expressed frustration about the lack of homegrown support, homegrown leagues? (Brazil coach Jorge Borcellos was just announced as head coach for WPS's St. Louis team.)
Antonucci: I'm sure it's very frustrating for the Brazilian players to not have, particularly in the context of how much support their men's team gets, to not feel that support within their country. We hope that they can turn to us. Maybe some day there will come a time when Brazil does, as a country, create a league, and fans want to come out and pay to watch women's pro soccer.
ESPNsoccernet: Will Abby Wambach's leg injury affect her draft priority?
Antonucci: Abby's a tremendous player. She's a real asset for her team. I don't think her injury impacts her ability to be allocated. I think we're all expecting that her injury is healed in time for the WPS season. I think that's what she's expecting. And she's an incredible player who will make a big impact on WPS. We're just hoping that her recovery goes even faster.
ESPNsoccernet: For the big question, where do you see the league five years from now?
Antonucci: Well, I see a lot of growth in the league. As many know, from a business perspective, we've tried very hard to manage expectations, have a conservative model, to grow steadily, so I think in five years we will have surpassed the 12-team mark and we may very well be up more in the 14-team range as a possibility, but not a requirement.
I think that any players who were tied up in long-term contracts, you'll see more and more international players coming into our league over the course of those five years. We will be in the sports landscape in a major way in this country. We will continue to rise with the soccer tide. It's going to be hard work, for sure, but we will have an awareness with media. We'll do something good for women's sports in that regard.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.