Athletics/Sports

Atlanta Women's Soccer Gets Stadium to Call Home

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The year-old Women's Professional Soccer scores today when the Atlanta Beat unveils the first soccer-specific stadium for the league. The commissioner says the stadium demonstrates the new league's franchise business approach.

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Amanda Cinalli of the Atlanta Beat goes up for a header.(WOMENSENEWS)--Today the Atlanta Beat will unveil the first stadium built specifically for a Women's Professional Soccer team. Later tonight the team will play its home opener against New Jersey-New York's Sky Blue FC.

The 8,300-seat stadium is a private-public partnership between the Beat's owner and chairman T. Fitz Johnson and Kennesaw State University. It will reside on the school's campus in Kennesaw, just north of Atlanta. The stadium's opening and the first game will be televised on Fox Soccer Channel.

The stadium offers an indication of the second-generation business style of the league, which launched in 2009, a year after the U.S. National Women's Soccer team won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing and six years after the collapse of its predecessor, the Atlanta-based Women's United Soccer Association.

Tonya Antonucci is the new league's commissioner. She is a former executive with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo, Inc., a global Internet service provider, where she launched the Web portals Yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Fantasy Sports. In contrast to the corporate structure of the former league--with investors taking stakes in the central league and then securing operating rights for specific clubs--the new one operates through independently owned and operated team franchises.

This marks a key difference from men's Major League Soccer, which uses a corporate model similar to the one tried by the Women's United Soccer Association.

But Women's Professional Soccer has taken lessons from Major League Soccer where stadium ownership is concerned--watching their success with it.

"When you own and control a stadium, obviously the economics become much better for an owner," Antonucci said.

Johnson, the Atlanta Beat's owner, has suites in his new stadium to make available to corporate partners and individual investors to help raise financial support for the team.

"These are just a few of the examples that make the business of women's pro sports more economically viable. So we'll be watching that from a league perspective," said Antonucci.

Layers of Partnerships

The commissioner said another game changer is to create several layers of partnerships with Major League Soccer, such as the agreement to let Soccer United Marketing, the main commercial arm of the men's league, act as exclusive agent for the women's league's corporate sponsorships. While the former women's league ran some joint publicity events, such as doubleheaders with clubs, there was no cross ownership or a joint venture of this sort.

Under the franchise-based model, the league schedules matches, oversees competitions and provides a national marketing and public-relations role, such as striking this year's TV deals in Canada, Scandinavia and the Middle East with hopes to secure others in Brazil and Japan. It has also arranged major sponsorships with Puma, the German-based global sports manufacturer of shoes, apparel and accessories, and Citi, the global financial services company with headquarters in New York.

Antonucci said it had been tough to launch in "the worst economy since the Great Depression" but said she expects the league--which pays its players an average salary of $32,000 for a seven month contract--to do well this year.

Between the last two seasons--2009 and 2010--she said corporate sponsorships had more than doubled and season ticket sales were up by an average of 17 percent in mid-March 2010 compared to a year earlier.

In 2009, the league launched with seven teams. Two of them--the Boston Breakers and Washington Freedom--carried forward names from the Women's United Soccer Association. The Boston Breakers were a new organization while the Washington Freedom maintained their former identity, including some affiliated youth teams and a team in the W-League, an open league that is the second highest-level of women's soccer in the United States.

In 2010 the league added two teams, the Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence, and lost one, The Los Angeles Sol, due to what Antonucci referred to as ownership problems.

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