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Women's Professional Soccer's goal: Survival

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It was a Monday morning that players of the Women's United Soccer Association would never forget, as the three-year league that provided their livelihood collapsed in a heap of debt.

That day, Sept. 15, 2003, marked the end of the first attempt at a serious professional women's soccer league in the United States. It was an inglorious conclusion to a concept that started with bold ideas following one Women's World Cup but died before the beginning of the next one.

The second coming – Women's Professional Soccer – begins on Sunday in Los Angeles with smaller expectations and greater fiscal prudence. The new league is well aware that there won't be a third chance.

For the women's pro game, it is a case of now or never and the odds appear to be stacked against it. WUSA floundered in an era of booming industry, so even with a more realistic business model, WPS will need smarts, innovation and a healthy slice of luck to smooth its early passage.

Here we take a look at the critical challenges that face WPS and what the league can do to establish itself in a tough sports market.

What is success for WPS?

First of all – survival. In three short years, WUSA racked up tens of millions of dollars in debt and doomed itself to failure with an over-inflated sense of its own worth. Organizers seemed bewildered that the huge crowds that flocked to the 1999 Women's World Cup in America failed to resurface for domestic action on a regular basis, creating a huge shortfall in predicted revenues.

WPS claims to have enough backing to be sustainable for several years and has budgeted cautiously under the stewardship of commissioner Tonya Antonucci.

"The key this time around is that the league works and is here to stay," U.S. national team striker Heather O'Reilly said. "Everyone is very excited about it, but we can't afford for it to fail again."

WPS has several crucial tasks.

It needs to establish itself as clearly the best women's league in the world with all of the game's leading international stars, and the on-field product must be good enough to keep the television stations, sponsors and crowds interested. Also, it must not allow itself to be swept away by the tough U.S. sports market and follow countless other failed enterprises into oblivion.

How to achieve it

Signing Marta, the best female player on the planet, was a major coup, but this is a league that won't be built on the star power of the spectacular Brazilian or the players on the Olympic gold medal-winning United States team.

Growth has to be steady and sustainable and be implemented from the grass roots level upwards. Local business and a core of support within teams' own market are key factors.

WPS is looking to promote itself as a family-friendly sports league, with affordable ticket packages aimed at generating a young fan base. Innovations such as the in-game use of a Twitter feed aim to foster interaction between players and supporters in a unique fashion.

"The state of the economy has forced us to look at different ways to get people interested in us," Antonucci said. "Our job is to show people that these women are great athletes putting on a great show and, on top of that, we will look to enhance their experience as viewers and spectators."

Why it can work

WPS' average crowd target of between 4,000 and 6,000 fans per game is not beyond reason if solid marketing and infrastructure is in place. Aligning itself closely with Major League Soccer and promoting the use of small, soccer-specific stadiums is another factor that will drastically reduce costs and increase viability.

The positive vibes of the U.S. women's national team's gold medal in Beijing still linger. Moreover, Marta will help provide some "wow" factor.

Why it may not

With sponsorship funds and public disposable income drying up rapidly, there has arguably never been a more difficult financial environment in which to start a fresh sports league.

As MLS has found to its cost, the American soccer fan already has plenty of options from which to choose, with top-level action from Europe's best leagues easily available on television. If initial WPS ratings flop, it will be tough to maintain the interest of the television companies that are so vital to shining some spotlight on the product.

Outlook

If WPS can go where WUSA couldn't and get past Year 3, then it has a legitimate chance of surviving, if not thriving. The ownership groups for the new league are in it for the long haul and accept that growth could be a slow process.

It is hard to see WPS ever becoming mainstream. However, if it maintains a sensible and careful approach, there is no reason why it cannot carve out its own niche.