Give & Go: WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci

Before WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci steps down from her role, had a chance to talk with her about the state of the league.
With the second regular season of Women's Professional Soccer behind us and the prospect of a new champion still hanging in the balance, the biggest news coming out of WPS headquarters is the announcement that commissioner Tonya Antonucci will be stepping down after the conclusion of the WPS championship on Sept. 26.

Antonucci, who was appointed to the role of WPS commissioner in September 2007, said, “For the league overall, it’s a time of transition from early stage growth, now that several of the key building blocks are in place.”

Taking her place will be WPS general counsel Anne-Marie Eileraas. Eileraas' new role will be CEO, Women's Professional Soccer, where she will head the business organizational aspect of the league, working directly with the WPS Board.

Eileraas' opportunity wouldn't have been possible if not for Antonucci's efforts. After the folding of WUSA in 2003, Antonucci, a former Stanford soccer player and Yahoo! executive, laid the groundword for WPS, including writing and designing the league's franchise business model, securing the league's first founding partner in PUMA and negotiating a multi-year TV deal with Fox Soccer Channel, among others. was able to get a hold of Antonucci and ask her about her time leading up to WPS inaugural season, the current state of the league and what to expect in the future. Here's what she had to say. Upon setting the groundwork of what would become Women's Professional Soccer, what went through your mind -- how you thought it would work, etc. -- especially after seeing WUSA fail?

Tonya Antonucci: Our initial research was around key revenue data including national and local sponsorships and attendance, league corporate structure (franchise model vs. single entity), right-sized facilities, and overall finances, in terms of operational efficiencies, costs and revenues. There was also a particular focus on costs and investment associated with putting the world’s best talent on the field in WPS. In the early stage of the Women’s Soccer Initiative, we broke it down, learned the lessons of WUSA, and realized that if we pared down costs across the board and were efficient with resources and capital, it could be a small but growing business if you average anywhere from 4,000-6,000 fans, which is about what WUSA averaged in its final year. What did you take from WUSA and implement in the early stages of WPS? What failures from WUSA did you recognize and change for WPS?

TA: We learned from historical WUSA data and extensive executive, player and sponsor interviews, as well as from interaction with potential WPS owners, that we needed to construct a franchise-based locally-focused model, by having owners on the ground rooted in their soccer communities with links to local businesses and communities in those markets. We wanted team owners to have an entrepreneurial spirit and run like small independent businesses unlike WUSA where it was top-heavy and centrally-owned and run as one bigger business with many parts.

Certainly a league office was important to this model, but with WPS’ league office set initially at about 30% the size of WUSA’s league office, the focus was scoped more narrowly on key operational matters, national and regional television, and national sponsorships, PR, marketing and new media to support growth and awareness of the league. The localized component allows teams to have flexibility, within minimum standards, in their planning, spending, grassroots marketing and ticket sales, staffing and other areas.

We have said all along that we wanted a bottom-up grassroots approach rather than a top-down approach and this has given us the flexibility and ability to adapt as we’ve needed over the past two years. The reality of this model also means that full budget and personnel responsibility sits with the local team owners to build awareness that drives ticket sales, and to engage with local sponsors, partners and clubs in ways that activate promotions and elevate the players as stars to watch in their local market. This foundation has led to the latest strategic evolution by the WPS owners to eliminate national marketing and eliminate or reduce other central league resources and push those responsibilities down to the team level as part of on-going cost adjustments to the model. Before the inaugural year, what were some of your goals that you set out for in WPS?

TA: Our primary goal was to have the world’s best soccer league for women and a world class product out there on the field by attracting the best players. We accomplished that in just a short amount of time and the soccer has been terrific. It’s one of the things I am most proud of.

We also wanted to average 4-6,000 fans and we had 4,600 in our inaugural season. Our goal was also to be efficient with our resources, which we’ve done through a series of three triggered league office budget cuts to stay in line with actual revenues, and to grow the league slowly and responsibly from the ground up.

In our inaugural season, we attracted two expansion cities and two new ownership groups. Investors were excited to be part of WPS and still are as we are optimistic about adding an eighth team for 2011. Obviously, the league and owners had some setbacks, specifically with Los Angeles and the surprise in-season loss of St. Louis, and the economy left us short of where we wanted to be in the sponsorship arena, but that improved from year one to year two, both at the local level, in terms of six team front jersey partnerships, as well as adding Citi as a national founding partner for 2010. One additional national partnership is close to announcement soon. With low attendance numbers in the two seasons, and lack of appropriate coverage for the world's best women soccer players, do you think the United States is still a place where soccer, and women's soccer in general, can thrive?

TA: First of all, last year’s attendance numbers were right in line with our modest expectations launching in a tough economy. Would we have liked to be above 5,000? Sure, but we had decent numbers around 4,600 per game and also saw some sell-outs in our smaller venues like St. Louis and New Jersey towards the end of the season. LA opened the inaugural season with close to 15,000 fans. It takes many years to build a fan base, it’s not going to happen overnight.

I think it was disappointing to see attendance go down this year when our season ticket base numbers were going up. There was some novelty factor of the first season, and all sports leagues face a sophomore year drop. We also took a hit during the 2010 World Cup – more than we expected – and extending our season to 12 home games per team means that we will end up drawing about the same number of total fans during the season but a lower per game average as a result of the increased game dates.

In terms of media coverage, it has been disappointing to see the lack of mainstream coverage for the league. That surprised us a bit. There are a lot of reasons for that. The folding of WUSA certainly left some in the media with less goodwill towards women’s soccer. And the massive changes in the flow of advertising dollars and layoffs in the media business as a result of tough economic conditions create even fewer column inches for WPS -- it is no surprise that the priority or bias in that kind of scenario will be toward the established male sports. So it takes even more effort and creativity to tell the stories of these great athletes. But we’ve also made strides in our coverage, particularly in new media, and with our 250,000 fans following WPS on Twitter.

You have to start from the ground up. Last year there was not a single blog that regularly covered WPS; this year there are four or five outlets with regular insider coverage that will give you the latest WPS news on any given day. With the folding of teams in Los Angeles and St. Louis, a lot of panic about the league's survival broke out nationwide. Can you elaborate on those situations for the fans, and how you dealt with them in the wake of each situation?

TA: Los Angeles was a case where we looked like we had a buyer and they pulled out last minute. In hindsight, maybe we should have continued to have conversations with multiple groups at the table in parallel, or, moved up the deadline for the investor to fully commit, but it didn’t seem like that was necessary at the time given the circumstances and deep pockets of the potential ownership group. As the clock started ticking towards the 2010 season and the potential investor pulled out there was no other option left.

In St. Louis, we were all shocked how that developed, including our entire board and league office, even some of the staff in St. Louis. The ownership operational funds were there at the beginning of the season, and there were no signs of a problem. We worked diligently on it throughout May to find a solution to keep the team afloat and not disrupt the 2010 overall schedule, but we simply couldn’t spend the money to prop up a team that had no funds left. That’s part of being in a franchise model. In each case, we dealt with the issue head on and kept moving.

I think it’s worth pointing out -- and this doesn’t make it any more palatable -- but all of the major sports leagues had turnover in their franchises during their early years of existence. Pick any one of them. We happened to have two teams pull out in within the span of one fiscal year, so hopefully this next phase of the league has more stability at the team level. How do you feel about the remaining seven owners in place league wide? Do you feel there is still capability of growth in WPS, and when and where -- if at all -- can we expect expansion?

TA: There is positive momentum toward a 2011 expansion team in Buffalo/Western New York, which is a very good sign for continued growth of the league. Existing WPS teams continued to cut costs and be more efficient, essentially from the end of the 2009 season until present day. “Right-sizing” the business to where the opportunities and revenue actuals currently exist is an important mantra. We saw teams be creative with their stadium needs and I think the fact that six of our seven teams had some sort of jersey sponsor this year showed improvement from last year.

Every owner has brought new ideas to the table and the league has been there to provide a platform to share these ideas. They are all becoming more experienced in the sport, as operators and owners. Their decision to have the teams take over some of the league functions and to eliminate national marketing has bolstered the locally-focused franchise model even more and made WPS attractive to some new potential owners in cities like Dallas and Orange County, CA. among others, where we continue to be optimistic about potential expansion teams. What do you think is the best position for next season, one in which WPS will be going head-to-head with the FIFA Women's World Cup -- a stoppage or to play through? Why?

TA: The board is leaning towards taking some sort of break during the Women’s World Cup but we won’t know for another few weeks about the specifics of the season. Personally I think taking a break of some sort is the obvious right way to go. With the U.S. women’s national team and 19 other countries with national team players in WPS, the World Cup will largely be comprised of athletes who also play in WPS as professionals. Is there enough interest going forward for potential national sponsors and more mainstream coverage?

TA: Absolutely, we have a hard-to-reach fan base of young girls age 8-18 and their families, and we fully expect more national sponsors on-board in the coming years who want to reach this demographic as well as our fan-base of fitness-minded women and mothers. Our athletes are tremendous stars and what we hope is that mainstream media will catch on to some of these individual athletes and their stories more than they have thus far. It’s still going to be a struggle to get regular coverage of our games in mainstream media -- we recognize that, it could be years away -- but our individual athletes deserve all the ink that they get for the hard work they put in and the talent and charisma they display on and off the field every day. Why choose now, in this transition stage, as you stated in your resignation statement, to step away from the commissioner's role in WPS?

TA: It was a personal decision based on a timing that felt right, now that the league is up and operational and is poised for evolving strategic direction from the board. I have been fully dedicated to this effort for six years, which includes two years as an operational league in 2009 and 2010. Given my background in start-ups, I was determined to pull together many pieces to get this up and running: owners, players, sponsors, a new media internet platform, and national and regional TV. All while at the same time being pulled in numerous directions such as managing the board’s process and leading seven distinct ownership perspectives on crafting the early framework of the business, as well as overseeing partnerships, handling public communications as the face of the league, pitching on-going sponsorship sales efforts and packages with SUM, driving television promotion and national marketing efforts and digital, managing the league budget and its necessary cuts, working closely with the expansion committee, overseeing discipline appeals, etc . . .

I think it’s time for me to move on to new challenges and opportunities and time for someone else to work with the board on the strategic direction they have set for 2011. Anne-Marie is a solid, experienced executive for that. What more can Anne-Marie Eileraas bring to the league as your replacement?

TA: She is well-seasoned as a lawyer and executive with experience in start-ups, is a trusted voice for the board after being on-boarded since January 2010, and particularly with her legal background understands the importance of setting the right precedents and league framework to continuing building upon our current infrastructure.

What she might lack in sports experience, she makes up for in understanding corporate governance during the launch phase of any small business. So I think she’s a great steward to keep this moving forward. Finally, a question many are asking: Will WPS survive beyond year three, four and five (assuming there is still stability for the five-year plan)? And how?

TA: I certainly believe it can, and sincerely hope it does. I know the players want it and are committed to being partners in that effort. The owners want to fund for long-term stability and have put millions into the league thus far. They have made it clear that they wanted a leaner league office for the 2011 season and we did that. They have said they want more control and I helped them oversee this transition to Anne-Marie in the new CEO role so that the board can oversee the strategic direction.

Now, more than ever, the owners are responsible for keeping this going and building it into a long-lasting and sustainable league. And it goes back to the idea that we started with in the first place: the best way to do that is to put the world’s best product on the field, and build one fan at a time from the bottom up.

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