Stars Kristine Lilly, front, and Julie Foudy

(WOMENSENEWS)–The announcement of two professional women’s soccer teams in Boston and New York rounds out a fleet of eight teams positioned to resuscitate women’s soccer in the United States by 2008.

Investors Thomas Hofstetter and Michael Stoller announced plans April 18 to launch women’s teams from New Jersey-New York and Boston, respectively. The New Jersey-based team will launch from fully operational club Sky Blue Soccer, and Boston Women’s Soccer formed to bring back the Boston Breakers.

"It’s exciting to us that we’ve added two incredible teams, two incredible sports areas," said Tonya Antonucci, CEO of the San Francisco-based Women’s Soccer Initiative, which is leading the rescue effort of U.S. women’s professional soccer.

Antonucci said the formation of the East Coast teams is a pivotal part of the revival effort by the initiative, established in 2004.

Antonucci said the Women’s Soccer Initiative has studied the financial weaknesses of the former league and is intent on ensuring longevity this time. "We’ve focused on tweaking and changing aspects of the business," said Antonucci, a former Yahoo! Sports executive and former college player at Stanford University.

The New York-New Jersey and Boston teams join others that have formed in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Dallas and Chicago over the last year. Another ownership group has signed a letter of intent to start a team, but its location has not yet been decided. The league’s April 2008 kickoff will follow the September 2007 Women’s World Cup in China, where the women’s national team–operated by the U.S. Soccer Federation–will compete.

The Women’s Soccer Initiative recruited individual investors to head the teams, many of whom have experience managing professional soccer teams and who own or have access to stadiums. This marks a key difference from the Women’s United Soccer Association, which ran the U.S. women’s professional soccer league from 2001 to 2003 and depended largely on corporate investors such as TimeWarner and Comcast to fund major expenses such as renovating stadiums.

In another change in business strategy, the league is teaming up with Major League Soccer–the professional men’s league–to share resources such as stadiums and office staff.

"Last time around, there was a prevailing thought through the women’s league that they wanted to do this on their own," said Peter Wilt, CEO of Chicago Professional Women’s Soccer, which runs the Chicago franchise. "They didn’t want any help from the men, and it’s maybe human nature to think that way. This time, there’s cooperation from both sides."

Former League Outspent

Tonya Antonucci

The former league began with a $40 million investment and spent $100 million in three years on expensive leases and rents for stadiums and players’ salaries.

Although the fan base remained strong throughout the five-year "golden era" of U.S. women’s soccer–ignited by the U.S. team’s victory at the 1999 Women’s World Cup–the league’s founders eventually acknowledged a $20 million shortfall.

The revised business strategy aims to avoid repeating that mistake by reining in expenses on areas such as stadium renovations, front office staff salaries and advertising allowances. Players’ salaries will be set somewhere around $25,000 per year, close to what players in the former league were making after a series of pay cuts.

The Women’s Soccer Initiative itself is a fairly bare-bones organization, funded since 2004 by grants totaling about $100,000 from the U.S. Soccer Federation, which operates all national teams, and the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which provides grants for soccer programs. Antonucci has been at the helm supported by volunteers including Julie Foudy, former U.S. women’s national team captain.

"We always believed that the product was good enough, and the fan base was passionate enough," said Foudy, who added that it had been heartbreaking to watch the league collapse five days before the 2003 World Cup. Foudy used her experience to advise Antonucci on the new business approach.

‘More Intelligent’ Approach

"They are doing things more intelligently," said Wilt, who has been putting together the pieces needed to launch the franchise in Chicago. Antonucci estimates each franchise will have annual operation costs of $1.5 million to $2.5 million, a sharp contrast to Major League Soccer, where the players’ salary cap alone is $2.5 million.

Wilt, who has 20 years of experience in professional soccer management, negotiated a lease with Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., where the men’s team Chicago Fire plays. He also partnered with local youth women’s soccer leagues that provide area youth leagues with a small piece of ownership in the Chicago team in exchange for the equivalent of 5,000 season tickets. Additionally, he is trying to work out a resource-sharing partnership with the Chicago Fire to tap some of their full-time staff.

Wilt will also manage the league’s next phase: marketing ahead of the first season, planned to run from April to August 2008.

"I believe that the sport can be marketed successfully to additional markets beyond the traditional girls’ youth soccer market, which has been the staple of the women’s national team," said Wilt. He plans to recruit young men and corporate audiences and make a strong appeal to the Hispanic community–which has a cultural affinity with soccer–by providing Latino music and food at events.

Antonucci also expects the revamped league to attract a new audience. She said the generation that followed soccer superstar Mia Hamm, who helped lead the U.S. Olympic Team to its 1999 gold medal, have moved on to be soccer moms themselves.

Wilt agreed. "There’s a new generation that’s come up since then that’s larger and more knowledgeable and more emotionally connected to the sport," he said.

Grassroots Marketing Effort

Antonucci expects that a key ingredient of the marketing campaign between now and next spring will be a series of local promotions that feature personal appearances by players. She also expects the teams and leagues to run local newspaper advertisements that emphasize the attractions of stadiums created solely for soccer, instead of harder-to-fill arenas that host everything from basketball to hockey.

"It’s a truer soccer experience," said Antonucci. "You aren’t in a large cavernous football stadium. You’re in a small- or medium-sized stadium designed for soccer."

Selling tickets for soccer-specific stadiums that seat 20,000 fans also is more cost-efficient than the Women’s United Soccer Association’s stadiums that seated up to 50,000.

Antonucci hopes the league will attract some established players such as Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain and Abby Wambach alongside fresher faces such as Aly Wagner and Shannon Boxx.

Alison Bowen is a New York-based reporter with Women’s eNews.

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