Women's Professional Soccer League Returns

The Women's Professional Soccer league is back, with its first game Sunday in Los Angeles, boasting Brazilian superstar Marta and American Abby Wambach, a former World Cup player. The league's commissioner, Tonya Antonucci, talks to host Jacki Lyden about challenges ahead.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is not a story about a company laying off workers or a franchise declaring bankruptcy or a nonprofit going under. This is a resurrection.

Women's soccer is going pro again. The inaugural game of the new Women's Professional Soccer League, or WPS, is today in Los Angeles.

Remember 10 years ago the excitement of the U.S. team winning the Women's World Cup? Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain became rock stars to legions of young girls, including one at a soccer tournament in suburban Maryland this weekend.

Ms. EMILY COTT(ph): I'm planning for my career to be playing for a Women's Soccer League.

LYDEN: And now, Emily Cott might actually have a chance. A post-World Cup league ran for a few years earlier this decade but quickly failed. That presents a challenge for the new league's commissioner, Tonya Antonucci.

Ms. TONYA ANTONUCCI (Commissioner, Women's Professional Soccer League): WUSA, the previous league, put the best product in the world, world class athletes, on the field, and it was at a wonderful time, coming off the 1999 Women's World Cup in this country, a lot of excitement and awareness of women's soccer and the sport.

A lot has changed since then, and the participation in soccer around the country has risen dramatically. And coming off of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, there's a lot of awareness of our U.S. athletes winning the gold. The momentum from that has brought us to this point, and we're very excited after many years to launch this league.

LYDEN: Now, we promised a moment ago that this wasn't a story about a business failing, but you couldn't have known when you signed up five years ago about what tough times we'd be in. It seems like an awful time to try to start something new like this.

Ms. ANTONUCCI: It's definitely a challenge, and we didn't pick this time, for sure. We've been in the plans for about three and a half years, the infrastructure of being solidified.

The good news for us is that we have very committed owners, the right ownership group. We have the right cash position. We're not leveraged and borrowing to make this happen, and we've really improved the business model.

This time around, our teams will be playing in smaller stadiums that are more affordable to open. We've set more realistic and modest expectations about how this popularity of the league can grow and how we have something sustainable for the future.

So we brought costs in line with the business, and we're going to be really disciplined about the - managing the budget and the financials. And it's a grassroots model. Our entrepreneurial owners have ties to the communities, and they're working with the youth and adult clubs and tournaments and teams and associations to really make a connection with fans and really grow one fan at a time.

LYDEN: One of those fans should be Lexi Kramer(ph). The 10-year-old was playing yesterday at the SoccerPlex in Boyds, Maryland. That's also the home of the Washington Freedom, one of seven teams in the new league.

Lexi would love to be a pro soccer player, but she didn't know that was an option until we told her about the WPS.

Ms. LEXI KRAMER: I really hope to make soccer my job because it's something that I love. But if you can do something you love and make money, it would be better, just like someone who loves to cook, and they become a chef.

LYDEN: In fact, no girl that we talked to on Lexi's club team from Pennsylvania was even aware of the new league, and these are dedicated players, nor did the few girls we caught up with in the parking lot. Part of the new league's pitch: players who can become role models for kids like Lexi.

Ms. KRAMER: Well, I don't have a specific role model in women's soccer, but I just want to become someone's role model because if I go in soccer, and I get very skilled, I could, like, lead someone else to finding a sport that they love.

Ms. ANTONUCCI: For many young girls, this is an aspirational opportunity for them to sort of have their dreams amplified now, that they can now dream about professional soccer.

LYDEN: Commissioner Tony Antonucci touts the league's big-name stars from around the world: Brazil's Marta and Christiane and American World Cup legends Abby Wambach and Brandi Chastain. A 40-year-old mom, Chastain will play for the San Francisco Bay Area team called the FC Gold Pride. She also played for the old league. This time around, she says, there's a bigger audience for soccer, and the WPS knows them better.

Ms. BRANDI CHASTAIN (Professional Soccer Player): My generation has grown up with soccer. And so, I think they're looking for places to view it. So having this league on the Fox Soccer Channel will be incredibly helpful.

You know, I think a lot of women and mothers are very busy. I understand that because I juggle my life, my family's life, you know, my nonprofit and working, playing soccer, and so there's a lot of balls to keep in the air. And so sometimes, you know, the things that you would think are luxuries don't get to the top of the list at times.

So we're going to create an environment with the FC Gold Pride. They understand how important time is to a family, and they're going to make it worth their while.

LYDEN: Today's first game of the Women's Professional Soccer League has just kicked off. The Los Angeles Sol is on the field against the Washington Freedom.

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