Long Shot

San Francisco-based Women's Professional Soccer takes its shot on a treacherous field.

After striking the ball past Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong, Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt in what was likely the world's most-watched striptease until Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" five years later. The United States' victory in the 1999 Women's World Cup was viewed as a transcendent moment for women's sports, and quickly led to the formation of the Women's United Soccer Association.

The next ones getting stripped would be WUSA's investors. The league bled through the $40 million earmarked to last five years in its rookie season alone. After three years and losses of $100 million, it was abruptly disbanded in September 2003. It's an inauspicious act to follow — but the San Francisco-based Women's Professional Soccer league is poised to do just that.

You can't argue with league commissioner Tonya Antonucci's math: The best way to not lose $100 million is to not spend $100 million. Antonucci preaches that fiscal restraint will keep her league from rapidly bankrupting itself in the manner of its predecessor. To her credit, she appears to be applying that credo from the top down: Her sparsely decorated Brannan Street office is roughly the size of a Volkswagen bus. "Investors will lose money for several years, but they'll lose less money than under the WUSA model," she says. "In 10 years' time, we believe our business has a path to profitability."

Although the league's offices are based in the city, San Francisco won't have its own team. The nearest club will play in Santa Clara (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Jersey, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. will also have teams).

A Nov. 19 press conference to announce the Santa Clara team's name and colors turned out to be a poignant affair. Chastain — who, at 40, may yet suit up for the team — wept as she introduced a montage of highlights from her colleagues and the game's younger generation, which triggered a chain reaction of joyous tears. "Our future," said a moist-eyed Chastain while scanning the room, "is clearly golden." More emotions poured out when a cheering troupe of ponytailed adolescent girls with painted faces ran into the room as the team's name was revealed: FC Gold Pride. Clearly, this was a day many thought would never come.

Left unmentioned — but not unacknowledged — were the daunting odds facing the WPS leading up to and beyond its April 2009 kickoff. The graveyard of American sports is well stocked with failed soccer leagues. But Antonucci's expectations, like her demeanor and choice of decor, are measured and conservative. For instance, since the average WUSA club sold only 4,500 tickets per contest by 2003, Antonucci says her business plan is reverse-engineered to be profitable with a similar number of fans heading through the turnstiles. Women's Professional Soccer also has a TV deal with the Fox Soccer Channel, but she implies few, if any, dollars exchanged hands and declined to go into details. Fox gets programming, the league gets exposure, and the two will share the ad revenue in an undisclosed split.

The new league also has another thing going for it: world-class players willing to perform for bargain-basement prices. Antonucci says WPS athletes will earn less than WUSA players made — a league average of $37,235 in 2003. The Gold Pride's likely starting goalkeeper, Nicole Barnhart — a standout at Stanford and a 2008 Olympic gold medalist — said she'd been told not to talk financials with the press. But when asked if she expected to earn $45,000 or $50,000, she smiled and said, "Most likely, no."

Antonucci sees this as a plus: In these troubled economic times, she says, strapped fans will be attracted to these "girls next door who are the best in the world at what they do. Our athletes are not multimillionaires."

This seems to be a digression into fantasy. It's hard to imagine that San Francisco Giants fans flocked to starts from once-in-a-lifetime pitcher Tim Lincecum just because he only made a shade over the league minimum or seemed like an approachable guy. And, incidentally, you could attend a Giants game for less than the $20 that figures to be the average ticket price for a Gold Pride home match. Finally, bad economic times have always been the death knell of second-tier sports leagues; those living on low ground are the first to drown in a flood.

 
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