By Shahnaz Mahmud
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.
Antonucci said soccer enthusiasm overall is rising in the United States, as indicated by Major League Soccer's growing number of stadiums since 1999. Counting amateur enthusiasts of all ages and professionals, she said the sport has 20 million U.S. participants.
The league will keep a close eye on the Atlanta Beat stadium to see if it provides a model for other teams to follow, Antonucci said.
Some other changes: The league is lengthening its season with 24 games, four more than in 2009. Match play this year began in April and continues through September. Last year the season began in late March and ended in August. The goal is to see if the later season draws more fans as they return home from summer vacations.
The league has also steadily been building its talent pool and recruiting more players from outside the United States. It now has 19 foreign players, up from 12 in 2009. Their homelands include Denmark, England, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Antonucci has a clear memory of the 1999 U.S. team that won the Women's World Cup, led by star forward Mia Hamm.
"It was like lightning in a bottle. They captured everyone's attention," said Antonucci, who looks forward to building that same kind of star power in the new league.
The defunct Women's United Soccer Association broke ground in 2001 as the first professional women's soccer league, with players earning an average of $40,000 a year at first.
Within two years, however, the pioneering league was suffering a shortage of sponsors, sagging attendance, revenue losses and no prospect of a TV contract for the coming season. Its startup investment of $40 million, planned to cover five years, was used up in its first season. By the start of the 2003 season, players were taking pay cuts, some of more than 30 percent.
Shahnaz Mahmud is a writer based in New York City.
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