How many challenges face Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), the new seven-team U.S. league that debuts its five-month season on Sunday? Let's start with a hat trick. First off, the American sports landscape is as crowded as ever, so it's hard for any new entity, no matter what the sport, to carve out its place. Second, soccer in the U.S. has waged an epic losing struggle for market share as a spectator sport. The male pro counterpart, the 13-year old Major League Soccer, is growing steadily, but as a niche player. Third, women's pro leagues such as the WNBA have really struggled to sustain themselves. In fact, soccer tried a women's league earlier this decade, and it shut down. (See pictures of women's World Cup soccer.)
And oh yeah, there's that little recession everyone's been talking about.
So what exactly are these soccer execs thinking, kicking off a new women's league during a near-depression? To be fair, WPS announced this current launch date back in August of 2007, when the economy was relatively rosy. "That's life," says Kristine Lilly, a two-time Olympic champ who plays striker for the Boston Breakers (the WPS will also have teams in the Bay Area, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and St. Louis. A Philadelphia franchise will start next season). "When we made plans to start this league, we didn't think the economy was going to be in the state that it's in. So you roll with it." (Read a Q&A with Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber.)
To fight the downturn and counter the previous failure, WPS has promised to learn from the mistakes that its predecessor, the WUSA, committed earlier this decade. Riding a euphoria that followed the U.S. victory in the 1999 World Cup (Brandi Chastain, shirt off), the WUSA's spending habits fit those overreaching times. "The churn rate in women's soccer 1.0 was dot.com-like," says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. The league, which folded in 2003, budgeted $40 million to finance its first five years of operation. It consumed $100 million in the first three.
WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci has promised to keep costs in check. WPS players will earn an average of $32,000 for a seven-month contract, which frees the players to suit up overseas, or hold down another job, in the off-season to supplement their income. The average salary of WUSA players was around $40,000 a year; stars like Mia Hamm were paid as much as $93,000.
Borrowing a trick from MLS, the teams will also play in cozier venues. "For fans it's a more intimate, authentic soccer experience when you're closer to the field, instead of in cavernous environment," says Antonucci. "Plus, it doesn't cost as much to operate and staff a smaller facility." For example, in the WUSA the Washington Freedom played in RFK Stadium, the former home of the Washington Redskins and their 50,000 crazed fans. Now, the Freedom will play at a 5,200-seat soccer complex in Maryland.
Just as important, WPS plans to market the league beyond the ponytail posse, its core fan base of tween and pre-tween girls. "The WUSA was more aspirational for young girls," says Antonucci, a former Yahoo! executive and Stanford soccer player who has worked on the league's relaunch for more than four years. "What we're doing is socially important, but it has to be broader than that." In Boston, for example, the players have headed out to city bars to play pool with twenty-somethings and connect with young adult fans. On Sunday the Chicago Red Stars will host a viewing party for the inaugural game at a Windy City soccer pub, and when the team isn't playing in the Fox Soccer Channel's WPS game of the week, the players will hit the bar for viewing parties of those games too.
The league is using a tool beyond beer to connect with its fans: Twitter. During Sunday's inaugural game between the Freedom and the Los Angeles Sol (the Tinsletown team features Brazilian phenom Marta, the top female player in the world), one reserve player from each team will blast their 140-character-or-less observations over the web. Antonucci isn't sure if the league's coaches will sanction player "tweets" during every game. "The question is how far do you push the medium without disrupting the integrity of the game," she says. "We're a major league. We don't want to become a sideshow." (See the top 10 female sports heroes.)
However, the league will clearly promote the technology while it's red hot. "I don't think there's any question we will integrate Twitter pre-game, half-time and post-game," says Antonucci. "We want to be known as a league that innovates and stays current with communication mediums. It's a way that our fans can get closer to the experience, closer to the athletes, and it's a low-cost way to do that, which is very important for a new league watching its bottom-line very closely."
Of course, WPS still needs to do some Twitter tutoring. "I saw that on one of the morning shows, and I was like 'what are they talking about?'" says Lilly, 37, who first joined the U.S. national team in 1987. "Is that texting? I'm too old to know these things." (Read about celebrities who meet their Twitter fans.)
WPS can't tweet its way past the economy, which has hurts sports sponsorships. The LPGA, for instance, has had to drop a couple of tournaments because sponsors did. Though Antonucci says WPS is negotiating with consumer products companies, to date the league has only signed two national sponsors: Puma and Hint, a bottled water brand. It had expected five by now.
The league has modest expectations Antonucci is shooting for an average attendance between 4,000 and 6,000 fans per game. But WPS is also launching within a crowded sports calendar: March Madness, the NBA stretch run, NHL playoffs, the start of baseball, and the upcoming Masters golf tournament are grabbing fans attention. Soccer is busy, too with MLS in full swing and the U.S. men's team in World Cup qualifying. Somehow, the WPS has to break through. "The league really has to catch fire early," says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
Value may be the sweet spot for WPS. Women's soccer is a cheap ticket the average price is in $15-to-$19 range, and some deals let fans grab a seat for as little as $10. "We're an attractive and affordable alternative," says Antonucci. "Whereas in a good economy, we might have been perceived as, well, a lower priority among sports fans. We might actually have some sports fans sample us who wouldn't have otherwise."
Lilly makes a simple pitch for the women's pitch. "It's not going to make or break you, and it's probably cheaper than going to have coffee with someone," she says. "Be a critic after you've come see a game, don't make a judgment beforehand. If you attend a game, you'll see people working their asses off." No doubt these classy pros will take their shots. But is hard work enough to score big in the face of a brutal downturn?