Will Women’s Professional Soccer survive?

Well, OK, perhaps the bigger question is does anyone care?

But for what it’s worth, here’s the story that comes from one of our sister papers in Northern California, the San Jose Mercury News, written by Staff Writers Elliott Almond and Matt Schwab:

SAN JOSE — A year of financial hardship ended optimistically for Women’s Professional Soccer, a league trying to survive a marketplace often unkind to female athletes.

i-9b903fab84ab4a5363af217d14f87fe6-20080117_wps_medium.jpgThe fledging enterprise received a boost last weekend with a near-sellout crowd of 5,228 for its title match won by FC Gold Pride at Pioneer Stadium in Hayward.

Now comes the heavy lifting.

Launched in 2009 during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, WPS saw attendance plummet by 18 percent this year, teams in Los Angeles and St. Louis fold and the departure of league founder Tonya Antonucci as commissioner.

“The second year is traditionally the sophomore slump for all sports leagues — we’ve experienced ours,” said Antonucci, who attributed the attendance decline to the World Cup in South Africa and midseason schedule changes because of St. Louis folding.

WPS limps into its third season with cost-cutting initiatives and a new chief executive determined to outlast a terrible economy and build stability.

It’s a confounding undertaking 38 years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that opened the door for women’s participation in sports. In an era when thousands of girls across the country are playing sports, the question of equity has given way to market forces.

“It is going to take a few years for us to be established as a household name and to get loyal fans, but we might not have enough time,” said Gold Pride’s Ali Riley, the league’s rookie of the year from Stanford.

Sky Blue FC president and CEO Thomas Hofstetter said his team lost $2.9 million last year and expects to lose $2 million more this year. The Gold Pride lost close to $3 million in 2009 but expects losses to be less this year.

Owners hope to break even next year because of recent cost-cutting measures–more than $2 million of which came from the San Francisco-based league office alone. The league’s seven owners are shifting emphasis away from a central hierarchy to focus locally. They hope to attract small investors to form community-run teams by borrowing the successful model of the Green Bay Packers. Officials also are talking to the U.S. Soccer Federation, the national governing body for the sport, about getting subsidized.

“We’re doing this because we believe in it,” said Nancy NeSmith of Los Altos, who owns the Gold Pride with husband Brian. “Everybody is basically making sacrifices, taking pay cuts and just readjusting what we thought (would) be successful.”

The Gold Pride cut its goal for average attendance from 5,000 fans a game to 3,000 this year after moving from Buck Shaw Stadium to the East Bay. The Pride averaged 3,056 a game–a drop of about 20 percent from last year–playing at Castro Valley High and 5,400-seat Pioneer Stadium. (The overall league average was 3,628 per game.)

Despite running away with the title a year after finishing last, the Pride drew more than 3,000 only three times in eight matches at its new home at Cal State East Bay, including a record 4,003 at its regular-season finale this month.

Antonucci, a former Stanford soccer player, remains optimistic her baby will make it without her. She said it was the right time to leave as the league office downsized. In any case, Antonucci departs with three main sponsors signed: Citi, the Coast Guard and MedImmune, a Maryland biotechnology firm. WPS also expects to have an expansion team in Buffalo next season.

The players, whose salaries average $32,000, also are forming a union, It is a development welcomed by Anne-Marie Eileraas, the league’s new chief executive.

“It’s a sign the league is maturing,” she said.

But at a time the sport needs an infusion of support, not even women who have grown up playing soccer seem devoted to it. When Boston Breakers coach Tony DiCicco asks elite players if they’d like to play in WPS, “they raise their hand,” he said. “… How many of you have been to a (WPS) game’? And not many raise their hands.”

The scenario doesn’t surprise Andrea Canales, executive editor of Goal.com.

“Mia Hamm inspired a whole generation to come out and play soccer; not watch soccer,” she said.

Hamm, once America’s top player, became a familiar name with Nike commercials and the wildly successful 1999 Women’s World Cup.

Many believed women’s soccer would explode after the ’99 Cup final at the Rose Bowl drew 90,185. The success led to the 2001 launch of the Women’s United Soccer Association, which disbanded after three seasons and losses of about $100 million.

While the public gets excited for special events such as the Women’s World Cup, it hasn’t translated to long-term commitments.

Riley and Pride teammate Kelley O’Hara enjoyed overflow crowds at Stanford last year when the Cardinal advanced to the College Cup final. The Portland women’s soccer team is one of the most popular on campus, male or female. Connecticut and Tennessee women’s basketball programs have rabid followings.

But the passion hasn’t carried over to pro sports where the WNBA and LPGA haven’t gained traction beyond a niche following. In 14 seasons the WNBA has averaged about 8,000 fans and survives with considerable backing of the NBA.

Now women’s soccer hopes to prove convention wrong. The coming years could prove crucial with an opportunity to showcase the league’s stars at the Women’s World Cup in Germany next summer and the 2012 Olympics in London.

“The product stands alone in terms of its quality,” Antonucci said of the world’s premier women’s league.

But as she leaves the startup, the former Yahoo! executive understands the reality: Sustaining a women’s pro league remains a struggle under the best of circumstances

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