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Jun 26, 2009

Antonucci: The overall league is healthy

ESPNSoccernet caught up with Women's Professional Soccer commissioner Tonya Antonucci to talk about how the league is coming together so far and to look ahead to the rest of the season and next year.

ESPNsoccernet: What are your thoughts on the first half of the WPS season?

Antonucci: In terms of a first-half look-in -- I'll start with quality of play. I think we feel like we've really knocked this out of the park.

We've had a lot of close games, which is great for fans and has kept the standings churning a bit -- not withstanding L.A., which has a very comfortable lead at the top.

We've had only five scoreless ties thus far, so we think -- you know we'd always love to see more goals and the players produce more goals, but having only five scoreless ties we think is a good result.

ESPNsoccernet: Are sponsor deals and TV ratings where you want them to be?

TA: I'll talk about TV first. I think we're generally happy about our Fox Soccer Channel ratings thus far. They've been growing and trending upward. We're averaging just shy, really close to a .1 rating. You could call it a .1 with rounding up rating in terms of our weekly average of viewers. That's very close to 50,000 viewers. We'd love to cross the 50,000 mark. We had one game with almost 60,000 viewers. That's a good result thus far.

Sponsorship -- we've worked very hard on it. It's been tough with marketing budgets contracting. It's affected every sports league and multiple businesses that rely on sponsorship dollars. Our short-term goals have not been met. Having said that, we have a long-term outlook for the whole league and in terms of our dollars from our sponsorship. We have tried to diversify a few revenue streams this year to make up for it and our outlook is quite positive for later this season and next season. I think the industry as a whole has seen a corner being turned and marketing budgets are opening up. We have some very interested partners who would come in to sponsor the back half of our season and the postseason. The challenge for us in part two is just establishing a value of a new property. People need to see it to believe it, right? When you're launching something, you have to get it to that point and it's very tangible and real and then conversations start.

We've got some very interested partners, so we're cautiously optimistic about the second half of the season and going into next season. Partnerships for 2010 are active and in discussion and I think that's a very positive sign. I'll say that we are still actively shopping the space below our numbers at the national level, so a jersey sponsor for the season and we could be close to announcing something very soon.

Not the way we wanted to start, but in this economy not a surprise and we're seeing some positive signs as we move into the second half.

ESPNsoccernet: The 4,000-6,000 attendance average is something that's been talked about. Overall the average for league attendance has been in that range, but we've seen some games come in lower than that. How big of a problem is it for the league and the teams to have attendance numbers under 4,000 and what are some teams doing to try to boost attendance?

TA: Part of the challenge is that weekday crowds are a struggle. Some of those lower attendance games which are not in our wheelhouse of expectations are weekday games. That is a struggle that we recognize and we need to deal with for 2010. I think that we've learned some lessons on scheduling. We play in stadiums, some of which are shared with MLS and other programming. Scheduling is always going to be a complicated process. We aren't always going to get our first choices or even our second choices and that's some of the cards that will be dealt this year and future years. But I think we've learned some lessons about the scheduling that will help bring larger concentrated crowds out in the future and future seasons. That, mixed with good grassroots marketing and season-ticket sales efforts, will help us improve our numbers. The good news is that we are in the wheelhouse of our overall league expectations as teams kind of make spot adjustments. The overall league is healthy in terms of where we wanted to set our expectations.

ESPNsoccernet: With the Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence fully on board for 2010, how will those teams get their rosters and what will the expansion draft be like? Also, will we see a 10th team next season?

TA: There's still a possibility for a 10th team. We're talking to some groups. Some of the cities include -- now we never rule out anything -- but our active conversations are Dallas, Denver, San Diego, Vancouver and potentially Seattle. But we want to do it properly -- right mix of investors, stadium and viable market, community support and infrastructure. We won't rush, but there is a possibility of a tenth team for 2010. New teams are coming into the league for about $1 million. That's kind of the framework that I can tell fans. It's a good trend obviously to be at our midway point having added two teams.

How are they going to get their players? We're actually going to have a Board of Governors call [this week] to ratify an expansion draft mechanism that we've been working on for months. Fans should know that a lot of hard work has been put into this and the two expansion teams have been participating in those discussions so that we have a fair approach for those teams and the fans that are going to follow them. Certainly, we as a league have an objective that the teams that come in don't have to wallow for years and years at the bottom of the table because they weren't able to acquire top talented players. We want to find a mix, and believe we've got a plan that will give access to some players on our existing teams in their initial expansion draft which would happen at the conclusion of the season. It would also give them some preferential treatment in our international player rights allocation and, further, some preferential treatment in our general draft in January 2010. We have probably gone, I would say, a little further than other leagues go in terms of treatment of expansion teams but we've struck a balance not to -- we certainly don't want to go so far as to materially impact the teams that are existing and who came in and were inaugural teams.

ESPNsoccernet: After the Freedom-Athletica game on May 3 -- the disciplinary committee did not issue any suspensions -- but you suspended Abby Wambach and Kia McNeill. Can you explain how that happened and how you made that decision?

TA: I think it's very rare that a commissioner should step in and it was not something I took lightly. I don't plan to do that very often, but I did feel that the refereeing and our disciplinary committee were either not equipped to or did not take the necessary steps to judge on what was some dangerous, reckless play -- which, in my opinion, if left as is could have sent a message sort of in and of itself that the kind of play could be tolerated. It was a tough decision for me personally, I'll tell you, because I think Abby Wambach is an amazingly talented player. She's a great person, wonderful role model and hero for our players and has done nothing but support this league and the importance of this league so she has been probably one of our greatest ambassadors. So that was a hard decision for me personally in that sense, but I felt like it was the right thing to do ultimately to protect Abby and to protect other players. Again, I think it's something that should be done rarely out of the commissioner's office. I will go on to say that I feel our disciplinary process has only gotten better, more focused and our conversations with U.S. Soccer have been improving since that time and have continue to improve such that I feel like I can be less involved in that sense.

ESPNsoccernet: Because of Euro 2009, which begins Aug. 23, at least eight players -- Kelly Smith [England] and Sonia Bompastor and Camille Abily [France] to name a few -- will have to miss the final on Aug. 22 and possibly all of the playoffs to be with their national teams. Would an 18-game schedule have been an option -- with the final taking place two weeks earlier in August? And what is the plan for the World Cup in 2011 [which runs June 26 to July 17]?

TA: I think we'll take these learnings into 2011 and make adjustments as we can. It's tough to have teams play fewer games because the teams that are affected are going to balk. That's something that can be looked at, but I think overall, to your point, I think we want to look at what kind of adjustments can we make earlier in the season and the beginning of the season.

ESPNsoccernet: Looking at the postseason -- What kind of individual awards will be handed out?

TA: I'm happy to announce that the most valuable player from our league will be receiving the Michelle Akers trophy. We're thrilled that she has agreed to be honored as the name-bearer of the trophy. She is, in many circles and in this commissioner's opinion, the best player that's ever played the game.

Jacqueline Purdy covers women's soccer for ESPN.com. She also is an editor for ESPNRadio.com. She can be reached by e-mail at jacquelinepurdy@gmail.com and friended on ESPN's fan profiles.

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