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Dec 30, 2006

WUSA revival looking more like reality

Contrary to popular belief, when Tonya Antonucci took over as CEO of the Women's Soccer Initiative Inc. in November 2004, she was not asked to walk on water. She was asked to raise the dead, however, especially as her appointed task was to resurrect the WUSA. A little more than two years, not to mention thousands of frequent-flier miles later, Antonucci is closer than ever to making that dream a reality.

Not that you'll see the Stanford grad shouting this news from the rooftops, at least not yet. Antonucci has gotten this far by playing things so close to the vest that a guest shot on the "World Series of Poker" isn't out of the question. But some recent developments are allowing her to at least make some whispers about WSII's progress, and they are all pointing to what was unthinkable two years ago: The WUSA just might make it back.

The league has opted for a franchise model, as opposed to a single entity structure, and to that end, three investors have signed on the dotted line to be owners of a WUSA team. Antonucci is also optimistic that she'll soon get enough additional signatures to relaunch the league in spring 2008 with a minimum of eight teams.

"We feel like this phase of the project -- the capitalization phase -- is coming to a close very soon," Antonucci said. "We hope to have an announcement by the end of this year to assure marketers, sponsors and fans that the investors have signed on."

Just who those investors are Antonucci wouldn't say, although she did mention that "we have some owners in common with MLS." (When asked what Anschutz Entertainment Group's plans for a revamped WUSA were, a spokesman for the mega MLS backer had no comment.) What the former Yahoo executive did identify were the 11 markets where the league likely will set up shop. They are: Los Angeles; St. Louis; Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; New York/New Jersey; Rochester, N.Y.; Atlanta; San Diego; and Cary, N.C.

Even though much work remains to be done, that's heady stuff for an organization whose rebirth has faced the steepest of odds. So what has changed since the league shut its doors in fall 2003? In short, soccer-specific stadiums and what Antonucci calls the "soccer network effect" that relies heavily on shared infrastructure with existing sports teams.

It's an approach that is a far cry from the WUSA's start in 2001, when the league opted to do everything itself and shunned any outside help from MLS. As a result, the WUSA found itself learning many of the same hard lessons MLS did, especially with regard to stadiums. The league's teams were playing in venues whose only common link was their inability to generate revenues for their tenants. There were cavernous buildings like RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., as well as university-owned venues like San Jose State's Spartan Stadium in which the lease agreements were horribly one-sided.

"A major part of the challenge that the WUSA faced was that the original five investors were putting a lot of money into capital improvements in stadiums that they didn't own or control," Antonucci said. "That scenario has really evolved."

That evolution has been driven by the fact that MLS owners, as well as some of their brethren in the USL, are building soccer-specific stadiums at an impressive pace. And with those venues come the staff needed to run game-day operations as well as sell tickets and sponsorships. For that reason, Antonucci has been targeting the owners in both leagues to own franchises outright or to form partnerships with investors in which the existing staff of the venue owner can be leveraged.

That tactic extends to the league level, as well. Rather than develop its entire marketing strategy in-house, WSII is in negotiations with Soccer United Marketing to run the league's marketing efforts nationwide.

"It's no longer the complete stand-alone model that was so difficult for previous WUSA owners to really make economic sense of," Antonucci adds.

The concern, of course, is that a stadium owner will exact the same kinds of economic concessions that doomed the original WUSA in the first place. On this front, Antonucci feels that the owners of soccer-specific stadiums, eager to fill their venues with additional content, will be more inclined to share revenues. It's where economies of scale meet economies of motivation.

"If you've got a staff and they're sitting idle, and the stadium is dark, versus you've got a staff that could put on an event, then you've got a chance to not only get some money from the content coming in but you can generate revenues that you can share coming out of that," Antonucci said.

But perhaps an even bigger question surrounding the league's revival is gauging the extent to which fans -- and with them, sponsors -- will come back. It is Antonucci's belief that the fans will return in numbers similar to the league's first incarnation, although not everyone is convinced. Boris Jerkunica, owner of the Atlanta Silverbacks men's and women's teams in the USL, as well as the developer of the RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium, is the kind of investor Antonucci covets. But at this stage, he remains skeptical that the attendance numbers will be the same.

"Our worry is that [the attendance] is not going to be as high, due to the women's national team not being as popular," Jerkunica said. "There is also a lack of household stars. The average person knows Mia Hamm. I don't think the average person knows anyone on the national team now."

If the attendance back in November at the Gold Cup is any indication, Jerkunica might have a point. The final match against Canada -- which the U.S. won in overtime 2-1 -- saw only 6,749 fans in attendance at the Home Depot Center. Although some will point to the event's proximity to the Thanksgiving weekend as a reason for the low numbers, this was by no means an exception. The USWNT failed to crack the 10,000-fan barrier for any of its home matches in 2006.

But Antonucci clearly is counting on the timing of the league's rebirth to help generate momentum as well as create a new generation of stars. When the first ball is dropped, the 2007 Women's World Cup will still be fresh in the minds of most women's soccer fans, and the run-up to the 2008 Olympics should give the fledgling league additional publicity as it attempts to find its feet. It's also worth remembering that it was profligate spending that doomed the WUSA and that reducing those expenses is where Antonucci hopes to make the biggest impact.

In the meantime, the biggest challenge for Antonucci is getting the remaining investors signed up and getting them to move in concert with one another.

"We don't want to be in a situation where we got the business model right the second time around but we created an operation challenge for ourselves by not preparing early enough in 2008," Antonucci said. "Every market is moving independently. We need all of them together on the same time line so that we can go to the next phase, which is actually standing up the league and standing up the teams. It's herding sheep."

If Antonucci can get those remaining investors on board, then her reputation as a miracle worker should be secure.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.