The seven teams in the newly launched Women's Professional Soccer league are about two months into their inaugural season, playing in front of crowds that average about 5,400 and in front of viewers tuning into the Fox Soccer Channel. The league's initial success is just part of the reason for high hopes that this league will thrive, according to Commissioner Tonya Antonucci, who spoke to the annual convention of the Association for Women in Sports Media in Philadelphia on Saturday.
Antonucci suggested that the league's strategy -- controlling costs, marketing to a broader array of fans, and having more realistic goals than the WUSA did before it folded -- will help the league survive.
She also suggested that the way the league was built -- by attracting the best players in the world (including the three-time FIFA player of the year, Marta), is a contrast with men's MLS, and that fans will recognize that. In other words, Antonucci doesn't see the WPS competing with the MLS for fans. (The MLS, which has been around longer, draws an average 14K per game.)
"We almost take gender out of the equation in what our brand stands for," she told the group. She said the league has no plans to use "sex appeal" as a selling point for athletes, either. "You embrace who these women want to be," she said.
Antonucci also suggested that because men's soccer in the U.S. competes against another type of "football" -- the NFL, women's soccer has the chance to grow as a spectator sport at a much faster pace than the MLS has. The WPS is operating on the assumption that participants will turn into spectators. Because soccer is so popular as a sport for girls (and boys), there will be ready-made fan base as these players grow older.
If only it were true.
If only it were true that gender can ever be taken "out of the equation" in regard to sports. And if only it were true that girls who play soccer will turn into women who are willing to spend the time (and money) to consume it in large numbers. And that men ("soccer dads") will turn into enduring spectators of a women's professional league.
But research tells us differently. Popular spectator sports in western culture have always been all about gender performance. In other words, gender can't be removed from any sports equation. That's one reason (among several) that soccer will struggle in the U.S. to ever have a sustained, high-numbers following -- it's a gender-neutral sport, and, thus, is less appealing to fans (logically, this quality gives it more appeal as a participatory sport.)
Thus, it is doubtful that the WPS will thrive after its initial splash (and that hasn't been much) -- it will do well to survive more than a few years. I don't say that to be negative as much as to recognize the realities for women's team sports in the U.S.
The naive hopefulness of Antonucci and other backers of the WPS shouldn't be discouraged, however. We need her and women's sports advocates to keep pushing the envelope. But we have to recognize that women's sports as an institution will not thrive until our ideas about sport and gender undergo a fundamental shift -- only then can gender really be out of the equation.