Amid Economic Uncertainty, Women's Pro Soccer League Gets Set to Launch

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

More than five years after the first attempt to enter the crowded U.S. sports market failed, backers of a women's professional soccer league believe they have formulated a plan for modest success.

They've pledged not to spend as indiscriminately as the Women's United Soccer Association, which sunk amid massive losses in just three seasons. They lowered attendance expectations, tightened player salaries and, after shunning Major League Soccer's assistance last time around, embraced a business relationship with the 13-year-old men's league.

But two years of meticulous planning did not prepare the seven-team circuit known as Women's Professional Soccer for the economic downturn that has impacted both second-tier leagues and venerable sports institutions alike.

WPS's Washington Freedom is having trouble selling sponsorships, and season ticket sales are below expectations. A proposed renovation at Maryland SoccerPlex, the Montgomery County complex that will serve as the Freedom's home stadium, was put on hold.

The economy "has tempered everybody's expectations," said Joseph Quinn, who, before becoming the Freedom's president and general manager, was chief financial officer for the investment firm run by team owner and Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks.

"It has been extremely difficult getting money out of the corporations either nationally or locally," Quinn added. "Indications are that things will loosen up as we get closer to opening day [March 29], but in trying to bring some closure, there is still some hesitance" from potential sponsors.

The recession prompted the Washington Redskins to lay off several staff members, the 22-year-old Arena Football League to suspend the 2009 season and the Richmond Renegades, a minor league hockey team, to suspend operations after this season -- all troubling signs for a start-up such as WPS.

"If you look at the marketplace -- for everyone, not just the women's league -- it is really strained right now," said David Carter, who runs the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "It's incredibly unfortunate [for WPS] because it looks as though they have corrected their business model, and you just hope they can take it for a credible spin. It's just bad timing."

WPS has one major national sponsor, Puma, and negotiations with other firms have "slowed down or stopped," Commissioner Tonya Antonucci said recently.

WPS officials, however, believe the league's business structure will help it weather the economic storm and allow it to meet modest goals. Players will earn an average of $32,000 on six-month contracts instead of the full-year pacts used in the WUSA. To supplement earnings during the offseason, players will be loaned to clubs overseas, coach youth teams aligned with WPS or work non-soccer jobs identified for them by team officials.

Conservative spending means less dependence on ticket sales. Quinn said the Freedom needs to draw 5,000 fans for each of its seven or eight regular season home games at Maryland SoccerPlex, which, despite not having the financial wherewithal to make permanent upgrades, has added temporary seating for 2,700 to increase capacity to about 6,000. Washington will also play as many as three doubleheaders with D.C. United at RFK Stadium, a venue the Freedom used for WUSA games but deemed too expensive to lease in the new league.

WPS teams playing in larger venues, such as the Chicago Red Stars at 20,000-seat Toyota Park and the Los Angeles Sol at 27,000-seat Home Depot Center, will have a higher attendance threshold to compensate for higher rents. Several sections of those stadiums will be blocked off to keep fans in the same area, similar to the approach used by MLS for its teams that played in NFL stadiums. The Freedom has sold about 700 season tickets, half of Quinn's expectations. Chicago is near 1,200 and hopes to reach 2,000, according to Red Stars President Peter Wilt.

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