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Mar 20, 2005

Antonucci lays the groundwork

At first glance, Tonya Antonucci seems an unlikely candidate to lead the relaunch of the WUSA. She speaks with none of the evangelical zeal and bravado that defined the league's birth. Nor is she prone to grandiose claims of its imminent resurrection. What she does project is a quiet confidence and the ruthless practicality of an actuary, one who is more prone to say "Show me the numbers" than "Show me the money." In short, she may be just what the women's game needs to survive.

Named CEO of the non-profit Women's Soccer Initiative Inc. last November, Antonucci enters the job as something of an outsider. Following her playing days at Stanford University, Antonucci served as an assistant coach at both Stanford and Santa Clara, before embarking on a decade long career in sports business, most recently as General Manager of Yahoo's FIFA World Cup web site. But Antonucci feels helped rather than hindered by her lack of connection to the old WUSA. "I come in with a much more business-based rationale to this," says Antonucci. "That lack of emotional attachment is really a breath of fresh air to the process."

As Antonucci sits down in a San Francisco café, her mood is as bright as the sunshine filtering in from outside. She has just secured $100,000 in funding from both the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. Soccer Foundation. It is hoped that this seed money - combined with some private equity financing already in place - will see through the Stanford grad's goal of laying the groundwork needed to revive the WUSA.

Not that Antonucci has any illusions about the difficulty of her task. The former Yahoo executive is attempting to resuscitate a league that was awash in red ink when it suspended operations in the fall of 2003, and has lain dormant ever since. And like a star player recovering from an injury, there is immense pressure to quickly return the league to playing status. But like a good coach, Antonucci refuses to be distracted by what she considers to be short term concerns. "It's important that we bring back women's soccer as soon as it's viable," says Antonucci. "Having said that, one of our charters is to not set artificial deadlines in the marketplace about when this relaunch has to happen. It's better to say 'What is the best long term model for our investors and sponsors?' It takes some discipline, but from a business perspective it's the best thing to do."

As a result, Antonucci has been intentionally flying under the radar since taking over WSII. In addition to sifting through the wreckage of what was once the premier women's league in the world, Antonucci has spent her time talking to sponsors and prospective owners, as well as investing in market research and identification.

What has emerged is a sales pitch markedly different from the league's first incarnation. Gone is what U.S. men's national team coach Bruce Arena called "a Title IX mentality" that saw investors and sponsors view the WUSA as a cause instead of an investment with expected returns. "If you want to be serious sport and make a serious play in the U.S., you can't be going after the cause-related market," says Antonucci. "That kind of thinking is not sustainable. If you talk to [investors] only about the social importance of their investment, eventually people are going to get tired of losing money."

When sponsors of the WUSA realized that there was no return on investment, the league was in trouble, despite attracting crowds that were in line with original projections. "It wasn't the fans who walked away from the league," adds Antonucci. "It was the sponsors."

So is there a way to bring those sponsors back? According to Antonucci, there is. The demographics of soccer dads and daughters that made the league attractive to advertisers back in 2003 remain, although Antonucci added that WSII is by no means limiting its search to that segment.

As for investors, the pitch has changed as well. After blowing through $100 million in just three years, cost containment is the mantra now being preached. That includes limits on front office personnel, operations, travel, as well as salaries "across the board." WSII is also looking to woo owners of other sports franchises in an attempt to leverage shared infrastructure in terms of front office staff and facilities.

According to Antonucci, the message has been met with a warm response from the investor community. She adds "I'm encouraged by the quality of investor and the type of investor who are saying 'We are very interested and we'd like to run this like a business. Not because we believe our money should go towards charitable efforts, but because we believe that this is sustainable and we can eventually have a nice business.'"

This due diligence represents the first of three phases. The first phase will be completed when the tipping point of investors and sponsors signing on the dotted line is achieved. The second phase will involve the development of a marketing strategy and setting a launch date. The final phase will involve the launch itself.

While all of this sounds good on paper, there are still plenty of pitfalls. The retirements of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Joy Fawcett represent a considerable loss in star power, one that is likely to continue as more of the game's pioneers reach the end of their careers. There is also the risk that by remaining outside of the public eye, too much momentum will be lost. Then there is the hard work of getting investors and sponsors to sign on the dotted line.

All of these obstacles can be overcome according to Antonucci. Players like Aly Wagner, Heather O'Reilly, and Abby Wambach are poised to fill the vacuum created by the retirements of the league's founders. Marketing vehicles, like last summers poorly attended festivals, only serve as a resource drain that set unrealistic expectations and won't be used going forward. As for getting investors and sponsors alike to ante up, Antonucci states "There were revenues when we exited. Can we come up with a cost structure to match that and still deliver to the fans an exciting product on the field with the best players in the world? We think we can."

Perhaps there is a little bit of the evangelist in Antonucci after all.

Jeff Carlisle is a freelance writer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com