NEW YORK – While the best men's soccer teams in the world do battle in this year's World Cup in Germany, there is a quiet but determined effort in the United States to relaunch the world's premier women's professional soccer league.
The Women's United Soccer Association launched in 2001, propelled by the U.S. Women's National Team's stirring victory in the 1999 Women's World Cup. That on-field performance not only featured the now-legendary play of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett, but it also is remembered as the game in which Brandy Chastain immortalized the sports bra.
More important for women's soccer, the victory earned in the United States before sold out stadiums, inspired thousands of girls to discover and play the game. The WUSA's backers, meanwhile, hoped the stars were alligned to finally grow a profitable professional women's sports league.
The WUSA's run, however, was short lived. The league suspended play in September 2003, citing financial reasons, and the retirement of star founders like Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett caused many to wonder whether professional women's soccer would ever return to the U.S.
Enter former Yahoo, Inc. executive Tonya Antonucci, who almost single-handedly is trying to rally investors around a bigger and better WUSA, now scheduled to blast back onto the soccer scene in 2008. Antonucci is counting on the hundreds of thousands of girls around the country now playing soccer to help fill the stands.
"Women's soccer has a strong audience base, it's appealing to the community," said Antonucci, who has spearheaded the creation of Women's Soccer Initiative, Inc. (WSII) to help steer the WUSA revival effort.
"We believe the fundamental mission is to relaunch the premier women's soccer league in the world with the best players around the world, competing and participating in the sport," Antonucci said. "We're excited that it can be major in that respect and for the fan's enjoyment, but we can be a little more realistic about the development of the business side of the sport."
Antonucci, who spent more than seven years heading up Yahoo! Sports, and was a teammate of Foudy's at Stanford University, said this time around the WUSA is focusing less on convincing corporate America to underwrite the sport and more on lining up sponsors who are invested in sport. To that end, Antonucci also is targeting team owners who either own or control their own facilities. Groups like Major League Soccer (MLS), meanwhile, have expressed interest in helping WUSA sell sponsorships.
Antonucci believes corporate sponsors are excited about a new and improved WUSA.
"They [investors, sponsors] like being associated with these female athletes, they're great ambassadors of these sports," she said. "The relaunch of this league is, for many ways, the final aspect of their legacy, so they want to get involved and help," Antonucci said of the veteran league players. "You'll see those folks doing what they can to really transition to these new crop of female players, many of whom are really established."
Famous faces like Hamm, Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and Carla Overbeck were known for their ability to connect with the kids who followed their exploits and pasted their posters on bedroom walls.
"They [WUSA founders] just understood they were pioneers and they were great, it was sad to see the WUSA cease operations and we'd love to see it back," said Dan Courtemanche, senior vice president of marketing and communications for MLS who worked as a consultant for WUSA.
MLS studies show that "when you touch the fan, whether it be a clinic or autograph signing, those fans — whether it be attend a game or watch a game on television — it expand through the roof. It's the real basic grassroots marketing," he added. "There wasn't a player in the WUSA who didn't understand that, from Mia Hamm to the last person on the bench."
Although some of those familiar faces may no longer be on the field, up-and-coming stars — many of whom already have made their national and international debuts — like Abby Wambach, Heather O'Reilly, Heather Mitts and Ally Wagner are ready to make their mark.
Wambach, 26, was the WUSA's co-leading scorer in 2003, along with Hamm, and scored the winning goal in the 2004 Olympics gold medal game against Brazil. O'Reilly, 21, scored one of the most important goals in U.S. women's soccer history in the semi-final game, driving home the winning goal off a Hamm assist to give the U.S. a win over Germany, 2-1, in overtime.
"These are players who did great things on the college soccer team and have been part of the soccer program for many years," Antonucci said. "It's about cultivating new names, about new personalities. And this sport is inspirational for young girls and boys … they want to see dedicated professionals at their best … they want to see the next Mia and Julie because then, they want to be the one after that."
League veterans like Christie Pearce Rampone, the 30-year-old defender from Point Pleasant, N.J., said a new WUSA holds great promise for the next generation of female players, particularly since so few roster spots open every year on the U.S. Women's National Team.
"I think it's huge, especially for young girls. Everyone wants to play at a professional level but it just gives them the drive and the dream of actually attaining it," Rampone said. "The league gives them the hope, makes their dream just a little big bigger."
If she's not playing on the field in the new WUSA, Rampone said she wants to help the league in a different capacity: to send a message to the next generation, which includes her 8-month old daughter.
"I definitely think it's important for our youth to see, even if you're done, you're retired, you're still invested in the games. ...You want to see it played at the highest level it can be," she said. "Knowing that I wanted to have a child, I wasn't ready to give up soccer yet. I think she's only made it that much better for me now … and showing her, too, you can do whatever you want after you have a child.
Filling the Seats
Roger Le Grove Rogers, editor of Women's Soccer World, pointed out that the amateur Women's Premier Soccer League and the United Soccer League's W-League — the USL's highest level of women's soccer in the U.S. and Canada — have attracted a lot of players and financial backers in the last few years; that may help the WUSA.
The WUSA's influence also can be seen in the growth of women's professional soccer — in terms of competition, pay and other aspects — around the world.
"I think something close to WUSA would be even more popular now, because of the fact that soccer's popularity for girls and women just keeps growing. It's incredible now," said Rogers, who managed the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team for it's first appearance in international competition in 1985, and continued as manager and head of delegation through the team's first-place victory in the First FIFA Women's World Championship in China in 1991.
"This is really where the U.S. has helped the game, and WUSA helped," he added.
"All the best players in the world played in the WUSA. For men's soccer, we can't even imagine that," Courtemanche added. "That's what the WUSA was, you had the best players in the world, because it was the only women's professional soccer league in the world" that paid a decent wage.
A big part of a successful WUSA, however, will be determined by how successful it is in filling seats. With the skyrocketing popularity of soccer in the past decade, observers of the sport say it won't be for lack of interest in the sport if the WUSA can't succeed.
"We are terribly excited about the propose relaunch. We were very disappointed when the WUSA did not survive," said John Burrill, executive director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association, the second largest state youth association in the United States. "We think the women's professional league is a wonderful addition to the sports scene. It offers terrific role models for young girls and for young boys … they're girls who have gone through the program, have succeeded at the highest level and now have a place to play."
Burrill said soccer clubs like his can help the effort by buying blocks of tickets to sell to club players and their families. The kids benefit by watching professional players on the field, and the WUSA benefits from filling the stands, he added.
"Certainly if the new women's league can target the youth market, the youth soccer market is huge in this country … target specifically a lot of the young girls' teams and get those people energizes and enthused about the sport, they're going to be able to get people in the seats," Burrill said. "When you get people in the seats, that generates interest, that generates press, it's going to snowball."