If there’s a tougher business in America than selling women’s pro soccer, I don’t know what it is.
One national league failed and the current league has no margin of error with only six teams playing this season. Last season’s champ from the San Francisco Bay Area folded, shrinking the league’s domain to the East Coast, from Boston to Boca Raton.
“Six is the minimum,” said Fitz Johnson, owner of the Atlanta Beat, which started its second season in the Women’s Professional Soccer league earlier this month.
Johnson said he is fighting against what he called “owner fatigue.”
“Business people do not got into business to lose money,” he said. “I’m not in this to make a lot of money. But it has to make economic sense.”
Johnson, 47, invested $2.5 million to bring pro women’s soccer back to Atlanta after selling his defense contracting business to Lockheed Martin. His two girls played soccer growing up, and he wants to help provide role models for others.
“We know the effect sports can have on young women,” Johnson said.
But at the pro level, a sport needs to survive financially. For that to happen, the league will have to make changes to its business model this year or its prospects are in doubt, Johnson said candidly.
Losses have declined from an average of $2.5 million per team two years ago to $1.7 million last season, he said.
But there’s still a way to go to reach the break-even point. For example, the league averaged about 4,000 fans per game last season, he said. That needs to climb to about 5,000 fans to eliminate the red ink. (The Beat’s next game is 6 p.m. Sunday at Kennesaw State.)
“It’s a much tougher sell than I ever imagined. You really have to work hard to put buns in the seats,” Johnson said.
One of the key challenges for women’s soccer comes from the way the sports business has developed in the U.S. Participatory sports and spectator sports are completely different economic games. Millions of young kids play soccer, but that doesn’t mean they’ll watch it being played in person or on TV. By contrast, tens of millions of people watch tackle football, but they don’t play it.
To better deal with that contradiction, the league is changing its financial game plan, said Johnson, who is chairman of the WPS board. The changes include:
– Cutting expenses. The league no longer has a brick-and-mortar office. Instead, it has a “virtual office,” Johnson said, with league officials working out of their homes. (Something tells me that’s not too common in pro sports.)
– League and Atlanta Beat staff have been cut significantly. Johnson, for example, now doubles as general manager for the team.
– There is no salary structure for players this year, meaning last year’s $33,000 average is likely to fall considerably. But, the players have organized a union and are attempting to negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement with the league.
“We’re not the NFL. Our books are going to be wide open,” Johnson said, hoping for a realistic approach that will help standardize labor costs among the teams.
“We have to work together to make the league go,” he said.
- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat
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