WUSA operating on a more sound business model
Ever since Tonya Antonucci took over the effort to revive the WUSA, caution has been the byword. That fact has been reflected in the slow trickle of information to fans and press, as well as in the revamped business plan that aims to address the unrealistic expectations that killed the first incarnation of the league. With the announcement that the new league will delay its launch until the spring of 2009, it appears that the lesson in caution has now been adopted by the WUSA's owners.
But is this decision a sign of business savvy, or does it indicate an inability on the part of investors to execute Antonucci's plan? Although the potential exists for the latter, the former sentiment appears to be carrying the day.
"At first blush, I think it does send up a red flag to push that launch date back," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC's Marshall School of Business. "But I think at this point for the WUSA, they really do need to measure twice and cut once as the saying goes, because they are not going to get a third chance if they don't have their strategy in place and if for any reason at all they lack buy-in from the people who are financing the league."
According to Antonucci, who on Sept. 4 was named commissioner of the nascent league, the decision to wait stemmed from two issues. The first centered on what she called "operational readiness," in that some teams would not have enough pieces in place to meet to launch in spring 2008. She added that more than half of the teams would have been able to meet such a timeframe, but in a seven-team league, even having one organization lagging behind in terms of hiring staff and selling sponsorships would have been one too many.
"You can't go into [the launch] with short-term goals," Antonucci said. "And you can't go into it sacrificing doing the right thing because we had impatience and pressure to get out there sooner rather than later."
The other -- and somewhat unexpected -- obstacle was the timing of the 2008 Olympics, which will take place next August. Originally it was thought that launching the league in between this year's World Cup and next year's Olympics would do much to kick-start awareness for the venture. But closer inspection revealed that the timing of the games would have wreaked havoc on the league's schedule.
According to Antonucci, international players, both American and otherwise, would have been released to their national teams some time in July. This fact left the league with three options: Shutting down during the Olympics and starting back up in September, when competition with other sports would increase; playing on without the league's stars; or playing a condensed schedule that would mean cramming 21 games into 13 weeks.
"None of those options, despite the [U.S.] federation's help in trying to figure that out, were very attractive to the ownership group," Antonucci said.
Although the delay is decidedly unattractive to fans, the extent of any negative impact it might cause is unclear at the moment. At minimum it would appear that the postponement will create doubt in the minds of supporters and sponsors that the league is really back to stay, but there is uncertainty there as well.
Peter Wilt, president and CEO of the league's Chicago franchise stated that in old WUSA markets, "there is a credibility issue because they have a fan base that has been paying close attention to this issue, and it's been pushed off before."
Wilt's concerns are shared by Joe Cummings, the president and general manager of Boston Women's Soccer LLC, although he has not seen any signs of a fan backlash.
"It's only been [a few days], but the response from the soccer community has been absolutely incredible," Cummings said. "Our response has been 100 percent, 'Great, you made the right decision.'"
That response is due in part to the fact that there have been some positive developments that point to the league's long-term survival. Foremost among them is that the league now has actual investors who have put up what Wilt describes as "a sizable six-figure commitment." These funds will now be used to stand up the league office, and begin an 18-month marketing plan to raise the league's profile. It also sends a message to potential investors that the current owners are in for the long haul.
"I think that any time you can demonstrate that you have skins in the game, the greater the likelihood is that others will want to join you in the pursuit," Carter said. "You're much more inclined to roll up your sleeves and make it work if you have your own money on the line."
Antonucci indicated that the delay may allow the league to add additional teams to the seven it already has with San Diego, San Jose, Rochester, N.Y., Philadelphia, Kansas City, Virginia Beach, V.A., and Vancouver all in various stages of negotiation. Antonucci was quick to add that no delineation is being made between which teams might join in 2009 and which will aim for 2010. She also stated that previous WUSA markets such as Atlanta and Cary, N.C., were not on the league's "active list", with the biggest obstacle in both cities being the lack of a lead investor.
Another positive development is the deal that the league reached with Soccer United Marketing, which has signed on to sell corporate sponsorships and handle the league's licensing agreements. Given the success SUM has had in marketing MLS, the Mexican national team and various other international events in North America, having the company by the league's side should give the new venture some added credibility and serve to calm the nerves of potential sponsors.
"I think it has to provide a level of comfort to corporate America," said Carter about the partnership. "SUM understands the soccer world; they understand these marketing partnerships, and if you are going to outsource a critical part of your business, and you're in the soccer business, then SUM is the way to go."
What's left now is what Wilt described as the "damn hard work" of building up the organizations in the various cities. That same description could be applied to Antonucci's efforts over nearly three years, yet she's looking forward to the challenge ahead.
"It did take a long time to get here," Antonucci said. "And yes, that can be frustrating for fans. It can be frustrating for players. Now let's make the most of it."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.