WPS faces an uphill struggle to establish itself

April 26, 2009
DavisBy Steve Davis, ESPNsoccernet
(Archive)

I had a discussion recently about women's professional soccer with a devoted soccer mom. Good lady. Dotes on her kids and loves the sport.

She seemed genuinely hurt and a maybe a little offended when I mentioned, with some sympathy, that I fear for the survival chances of the new women's pro league.

Icon SMI / Robin AlamVeteran U.S. national team star Kristine Lilly, left, has returned from a hiatus to play for Boston.

"Can't my little girls have their athletic heroes, too?" she asked. "Isn't that OK?"

With all the compassion I could muster, I said: "Yes. Of course it is. But that's not what we're talking about here."

What we're talking about is real-world economics and market factors. There's a harsh reality when it comes to upstart professional leagues in any sport in the United States: It's a brutal slog.

Yes, in a perfect world, all the little Saturday morning superstars -- young girls as well as boys -- would have identifiable role models. But the world isn't perfect. It's not even nearly perfect. And when it comes to professional sports, the pinch of fiscal reality will always trump benevolent intent.

Determined advocates have resurrected the women's pro game; Women's Professional Soccer kicked off in March.

WPS officials have a rational plan and reasonable expectations, two critical bedrocks in this enterprise. Other elements are working in WPS' favor. For instance, professional upstarts are no longer beholden to big media to spread the word. If newspapers don't write about WPS, it won't sting as it would 10 years ago, given the industry's diminished influence.

Instead, WPS officials hope social networking and fan blogs can help spread the word at minimal expense. Just before the inaugural match, WPS officials reached its Facebook target of 14,000 registered fans.

Plus, there is tremendous benefit in drawing upon lessons from the Women's United Soccer Association collapse. WUSA suspended operations in 2003 having lost reportedly between $80 million and $100 million in three seasons. The WUSA demise can provide a useful road map for upcoming WPS trouble spots, and the new group seems attuned to proper course corrections. The WPS attendance goal of 4,000 to 6,000 on average is a smart start.

All of this provides passionately committed CEO Tonya Antonucci and the seven-team league a fighting chance. Antonucci knows the challenges are vast, but she believes in the product and in the courses charted.

"It's going to be an uphill climb, but what we've said is that we're comfortable with it being an uphill climb," Antonucci said of WPS' carefully measured ambition. "There are going to be moments of brilliance, but there will also be learning moments in the first year as we 'birth our baby.'"

Attainable goals are critical, but I still have concerns. The bottom line here is a double whammy. First, launching any professional sports operation is problematic. No one can doubt American football's popularity here, right? And yet the landscape is littered with corpses of failed football startups. XFL, anyone?

The USFL debuted in 1983 and did manage to paddle out beyond the channel. But it was soon beached, foundering beneath the weight of massive losses. Baseball's domestic popularity is undeniable. And yet a poll just showed that 60 percent of baseball fans weren't interested in the recent World Baseball Classic, which underscores the difficulty in building awareness or interest in events with little history or brand equity.

Now marry all that with professional soccer's historic struggles domestically, and with women's leagues' struggles specifically. Even if WPS gains traction, any number of gremlins could undercut the effort: players' union pressures, rampant competition for entertainment dollars, unforeseen expenses, etc. Those are just the known unknowns. What about the unknown unknowns?

The sharpest sword today, of course, is the staggering economy. Luring ticket buyers is tougher. Corporate penny-pinching could dry up sponsor dollars. And market maladies could destabilize ownership or recalibrate tolerance for losses.

There are very highly placed officials in the domestic soccer establishment who share the same concerns -- although it does them no good to be on record about it. Suffice it to say, they want WPS to succeed but recognize the perilously slim margins.

Not everyone shares that pessimism, however. Hank Steinbrecher, the former U.S. Soccer secretary general and someone who has manned the front end of ambitious soccer startups for two decades, says Antonucci's leadership and soccer's niche status will go far. He's also bullish on the conservative business plan, noting how the WUSA balance sheets "got out whack pretty quickly."

"They [WPS officials] just have a much better grip on what it really takes, on what the real revenue streams are. And more than any other league, a basic, grass-roots approach can support it," said Steinbrecher, who is now an independent business consultant as well as a Chicago Red Stars season ticket holder.

So all is not doom and gloom. Indeed, WPS officials understand the tremendous value of cost containment. With people such as Peter Wilt involved, the league is well supplied in connections, energy and smarts. And a certain hubris that helped hasten the WUSA ruin seems safely, mercifully buried.

Still, unpleasant realities will always be there to nip at the product. For instance, carefully managing startup costs was an early, high-priority target. Antonucci admits that's already been a challenge, which isn't surprising. Ask anybody who has opened a business, anything from a hamburger joint to a car repair shop, and I'll wager a Marta bobble-head that they quickly exceeded startup cost projections.

The WPS plan was always to partner where possible with MLS clubs, efforts that can certainly reduce WPS overhead in some areas. It makes sense fiscally.

But MLS worker bees, dedicated soccer soldiers toiling long hours for little pay in most cases, have their hands full. Doing everything possible to put a little more air in the MLS ball, they simply can't be fully engaged in WPS efforts. That's hardly ideal, considering the tremendous pressure to get it right this time in women's pro soccer.

While it may seem to make sense on the surface to partner up in MLS markets, you have to ask this question: Aren't the MLS and WPS entities then competing for the same customers? MLS clubs return time and again to the same core of soccer supporters, squeezing and squeezing to gin up interest in the next league match, SuperLiga contest, Champions League match, exhibition, national team game, and so on.

Can existing clubs truly afford to further cannibalize their audiences, stacking another 10 or so games onto the crowded pro soccer docket in Chicago; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and other markets?

There could also be future friction in securing premium dates. Those ideal Saturday night slots are already tight in some MLS cities, where officials have increasingly turned to music and festivals to subsidize their soccer holdings.

We'll know more about it all in early August as the first WPS regular season winds down. "Right now, we aren't seeing any indicators that we can't meet our modest expectations," Antonucci said.

Let's hope it stays that way.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.