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SBJ/20100913/This Weeks Issue
Antonucci stepping down at WPS
Published September 13, 2010
After guiding Women’s Professional Soccer through four years of planning and two full seasons, Tonya Antonucci will step down as league commissioner later this month.
Antonucci, who will retain a nonvoting chair on the seven-seat WPS board of directors, said the decision to leave the league is her own. Her last day will be Sept. 26.
“My intention was to focus on the startup phase of the business, and when the league was in a more regular phase, I would likely move on,” Antonucci said. “After six years of carrying it, I’m ready for something new.”
A former executive at Yahoo! Sports and standout soccer player at Stanford University, Antonucci began laying the groundwork for the WPS in 2004, a year after the demise of the Women’s United Soccer Association.
Antonucci drafted a WPS business model with franchises valued at $2 million to $2.5 million, and a yearly operating budget of $20 million to $25 million, roughly half that of the WUSA. She wooed team ownership groups in nine cities, secured a sponsorship deal with Puma and negotiated a national television deal with Fox Soccer Channel as well as a regional deal with Comcast. After three years of planning the league she was named commissioner in 2007, and oversaw the league’s launch on March 29, 2009, in Los Angeles.
“Tonya single-handedly brought women’s professional soccer back to life in this country,” said Joe Cummings, CEO and executive director of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
But Antonucci faced a series of challenges in her two-year stint as commissioner. The league hoped to attract six primary league sponsors for 2009 but ran into recession-stripped marketing budgets and found only three league sponsors. Sources close to the league said clubs lost between $1 million and $2 million in 2009, which was 50 percent higher than Antonucci’s initial projected losses.
The WPS expanded its season from 20 to 24 games in 2010, and despite a 17 percent growth in season-ticket sales, average attendance dropped 18 percent from 4,600 spectators per game to 3,800.
The Los Angeles Sol folded in January, and the St. Louis Athletica abruptly shut its doors midway through the 2010 season after its London-based primary investor pulled out. The league also was forced to trim its budget, as it dismantled its marketing division in July and parted ways with Chief Operating Officer Mary Harvey last month.
WPS Board Chairman and Atlanta Beat owner T. Fitz Johnson said the league’s general counsel, Anne-Marie Eileraas, will fill Antonucci’s position, and that the board has no plans to hire a new commissioner. Johnson said team owners would take charge of trimming costs while marketing their clubs locally.
“The first-year losses far exceeded what folks thought they’d be,” Johnson said. “We’ve done more work this year and we’re still not there. I don’t think you can lay the blame squarely on [Antonucci’s] shoulders.”