Putting Her Best Foot Forward
Two weeks after she left her job running Yahoo Sports in October 2004, Tonya Antonucci attended a Stanford University soccer alumni party at Lake Tahoe.
After a few drinks, Julie Foudy, the former U.S. women's national team captain, asked her old friend and teammate if she was interested in heading up the relaunch of a professional women's soccer league in the U.S.
Antonucci didn't waste any time thinking about it-having been involved in the game as a player, coach, fan, and businessperson, she desperately wanted to see a women's league succeed on the professional level. The previous year, the Women's United Soccer Association had folded after failing to meet ratings and attendance expectations and running out of money, and Foudy was part of an informal group looking to revive it.
"I said yes that night," says the 39-year-old Antonucci, who in the late '80s had been a star midfielder on the Stanford team and was later named to the 1991 U.S. Women's National Team (B team).
In doing so, Antonucci embarked on a several-year journey that even she acknowledges represents a major uphill battle. A professional women's soccer league has never succeeded in the U.S., and even the men's leagues have never captured the national consciousness (and dollars) the way sports like baseball, football, basketball, and hockey have. At the time of its launch in 2001, the W.U.S.A. was riding the considerable momentum of the U.S. team's championship at the 1999 Women's World Cup, capped by the iconic image of Brandi Chastain exulting in her sports bra, and still it didn't last more than three years.
But this time, Antonucci and her group of at least seven major investors, who each plan to spend $2 million to $2.5 million a year to run their teams, are banking on lower costs, modest expectations, and loads of grassroots promotion to lead to long-term viability and success. Whereas the W.U.S.A. burned through its initial $40 million budget by the end of its first season and utilized splashy (and costly) advertising campaigns, the new league, which is scheduled to launch in April 2009 and is temporarily being called Women's Soccer L.L.C., has set a yearly operating budget of between $18 million and $20 million and is focused on having quieter local efforts drum up interest in the league.
"If you have an ad on Fox Sports World that costs a lot of money, I don't think you get one more 10-year-old girl in the stadium because of that ad," says Tom Hofstetter, owner of the league's planned New Jersey franchise. "But if you get one of our players to come to a [local girls'] practice and she says, 'Come and see me play next weekend,' you get a player, her family, and a team in."
Antonucci compares the process of convincing investors and advertisers to back her new league to the battles she faced in the '90s trying to get people to invest in and spend on new media. After working on her M.B.A. from Santa Clara University-while helping coach the women's soccer team there-she took a position as a project manager at Starwave, the Paul Allen-backed internet-content company. From there, she worked on a precursor to Espn.com before landing at Yahoo, where she helped launch its immensely popular fantasy sports area. She eventually became general manager of Yahoo's partnership with soccer's governing global body, the F�d�ration Internationale de Football Association, running the official global websites for both the men's and women's World Cups.
Starting the women's soccer league "has been similar to convincing traditional media, traditional rights holders, and consumers that the internet back in the mid-'90s and the turn of the century was the place to be," Antonucci says.
With Antonucci's range of experience in the soccer and business worlds, she seems like a good bet to pull it off, despite the considerable challenges.
Jeff Mallett, Yahoo's former president and chief operating officer, was impressed enough by her skills to invest in the new league and to take a seat on its board of directors. Mallett says Antonucci has great business instincts as well as the ability to work with a wide range of people, from athletes to billionaire investors.
"When no one's looking and it's a conference room and real people around the table and doing real work, there's not a question of who's in charge in the room," Mallett says.
For her part, Antonucci is keenly aware of what's at stake with her new league.
"We get one more chance. Otherwise, it will be a very long time before any successor of mine can come in and convince a new investor group this is a new opportunity," Antonucci says.Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.