Women's Professional Soccer, Washington Freedom kick off a new season

Abby Wambach:
Abby Wambach: "I [still] think we're in a good place as a whole in terms of a league." (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

As the second season of Women's Professional Soccer is set to kick off on Saturday with the Washington Freedom hosting the Boston Breakers at Maryland SoccerPlex, the league is fighting off any perception that it lacks the viability to survive in the long term.

In January the Los Angeles Sol -- one of the league's marquee franchises, which finished first in the regular season in 2009 -- was disbanded after negotiations to sell the club fell through. The loss of its highest-profile team was a blow to the young league, especially in public perception, and mostly overshadowed the addition of two expansion teams for this season.

Despite the disappointment of losing the Los Angeles club, league officials have emphasized that WPS is showing positive signs of growth in many aspects of its operation.

"The loss of Los Angeles was really an isolated situation that was not a comment on the viability of that market or fan support," WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci said. "With respect to Los Angeles, I point to one of the great strengths of the franchise sports model: Teams come and go, franchises come and go in pro sports. It's tough to lose one early on, but the beauty of the franchise model is it does not impact in a material way the eight other markets for 2010."

Antonucci pointed to several positive trends in league support -- including season-ticket sales, advertising revenue and interest in bringing back the Los Angeles franchise, possibly as soon as 2011. Antonucci said the league believes franchises are on their "own path to break even and [into] profitability," and that it is "projecting toward a five-year break-even point."

Players, coaches and league officials emphasized that the league has continued to advance and there are signs of growth at several levels.

Franchises in Atlanta and Philadelphia joined the league for 2010. Four of the eight clubs have jersey sponsors -- the Freedom is in discussions regarding a similar sponsorship, team officials said -- and the league increased its talent pool this year, adding several foreign-based players. Most importantly, ticket sales and sponsorship revenue are also increasing.

"If you look at the trends with respect to ticket sales, up 20 percent from year to year, local sponsorships up 150 percent year over year, we're trending in the right direction and have a lot of positives particularly coming out of last year," Antonucci said. "We think the damage is done. . . . The metrics are trending in the right direction despite the loss of a team."

Freedom forward Abby Wambach, a member of the Washington franchise during its initial run in the now-defunct Women's United Soccer Association, spoke to the changes she has seen as the league looks to increase its presence.

Wambach pointed to the Freedom's new scoreboard and "Jumbotron" in Boyds -- with sponsors' signs surrounding it -- as one indication of the club's growth, emphasizing its Webcast capabilities that will increase the team's visibility, and said she does not feel the disbanding of Los Angeles will hinder the perception of WPS.

The star forward said she believes the league is stronger, both off the field and also as a product on it, and said that it is finding newer ways to increase its profile in hopes of finding more sponsors and increasing revenue.

"It's an interesting task because it's not common," Wambach said. "Being in a minor league compared to the NFL and Major League Baseball, you have to be really creative in the ways that you get your money, in the ways you get sponsorship dollars, the ways you market yourself. With everything that is going on with teams probably losing more money than they expected -- which I think was expected -- I [still] think we're in a good place as a whole in terms of a league."

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