Women's soccer is in the spotlight this month as the World Cup concludes in Germany. Closely watching is the U.S. Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league, which hopes to benefit from the buzz. But with only six weeks left in the WPS season, the league will have to hustle to capture audience attention and boost its flagging attendance.
First profiled in CFO three years ago as it prepared to launch, WPS is still struggling to find its financial footing, says CEO Anne-Marie Eileeras. Last year, in its second season, the league increased its revenue by more than 50%, but teams saw average attendance fall 23%, from 4,600 to 3,600 per game. Meanwhile, player costs have become unsustainable, exceeding ticket revenue by 2 to 1.
The league hopes to capitalize on World Cup hype by converting ESPN viewers to WPS attendees. To do that, it is promoting itself through one of the least-expensive forms of advertising — social media. WPS, which has 232,000 Twitter followers, was one of the first major sports leagues to encourage its players to tweet during games. The league's social-media strategy dovetails with its cost-cutting efforts; WPS shored up its numbers over the past year by largely eliminating its national marketing budget, migrating away from print advertising in favor of the free advertising at its fingertips.
The results have generated much-needed mainstream-media coverage, Eileeras says. "You see the returns now in print, because [what happens in] social media gets covered in newspapers." That's thanks in part to goalkeeper Hope Solo's talent for creating 140-character controversies, like the time she accused Boston Breakers fans of racism, or another tweet in which she criticized referees for what she deemed favoritism. Solo's outbursts were not exactly what WPS intended as part of its marketing efforts, but the media eye on Twitter could serve the league's goal of drawing people to games, Eileeras says.
The league is also modifying its business model. Last year, WPS significantly cut overhead, in part by closing its corporate offices and allowing its leaders to work remotely. It also brought sponsorship sales in-house. Over the next few years, WPS hopes to shift toward a more-centralized franchise model, potentially assigning registration costs, risk management, and other functions to the league instead of to individual teams. WPS also continues to encourage its teams to build their own stadiums, so they can benefit from parking and concessions revenues. A U.S. win in the World Cup wouldn't hurt, either.