WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci (right) with No. 1 draft pick Amy Rodriguez. (Bill Barrett/ISIPhotos.com)
When the United States' women's soccer team won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the focus immediately turned to Women's Professional Soccer.
Specifically, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo was asked what the Olympic success could do to boost WPS, which was scheduled to start the following spring in seven cities across the country.
"There are a lot of girls who have that dream to play," Solo said, "and I hope that we can help fulfill them."
Months later, WPS conducted two drafts that had many first-time professionals realizing their dream. It's now on them to keep paying it forward.
As WPS works tirelessly to establish itself in the American sports landscape, it's doing so with an eye focused on the future. That means embracing the millions of girls who play soccer at all levels across the United States--getting them familiar with the new league, helping with their skills, and giving them a professional soccer dream to shoot for down the road.
"All of our teams are going out into their markets and doing grassroots outreach and promotions to help turn players into spectators," Tonya Antonucci said. "It's the most important thing we are doing in this league along with assembling world class soccer talent so we can have the best product out on the field."
Antonucci is the commissioner of WPS, which launched its seven-franchise league in 2009 with plans to expand in 2010. She has been overseeing all aspects of the WPS launch, and that includes marketing the league toward young soccer players and finding a way to make the relationship give-and-take for both sides.
The list is potentially endless. WPS has big plans in place to reach out to the community, including:
- Affiliations with youth clubs. Teams like the Washington Freedom already have this with a complete club system in place. Major League Soccer, the equivalent men's league, has seen success doing a similar setup. It allows pro franchises to have a significant presence in younger circuits while allowing younger players the chance to train under the umbrella of a pro franchise.
- A strong camp structure. Not only will each team have youth camps in their community, but WPS itself has formed a partnership with UK International Soccer Camps to have WPS Camps across the country in up to 22 markets that don't have WPS teams. "We think youth camps not only help reach out to fans and grow the sport, but can also drive some revenue for the league and raise the WPS brand profile" Antonucci said. On the flip side, young players can receive top-quality instruction from the world's best players.
- WPS will have close contact and potential partnerships with United States Youth Soccer, NSCAA and AYSO, three organizations highly influential in the sport.
- And, of course, old-fashioned marketing. WPS made appearances at several big youth soccer tournaments leading up to the inaugural season, just to get the word out about their product.
Unlike its predecessor, the now-defunct WUSA, the WPS has individually owned franchises, which encourages teams to see the benefits--financially and otherwise--in reaching out to their communities.
In women's soccer, that community is significant.
"It's the biggest team sport for women in the country," said Rob Penner, director of communications for WPS. "The numbers have grown incredibly over the last two decades."
The goal now, is to make them fans. And that means giving them incentive to watching the world's best.
"There's no question that the demographic we want to reach out to are those young soccer fans and the young girls that play," Penner said. "It's very important for this league."