Years ago, Tonya Antonucci used talent, hard work and determination to become an outstanding soccer player, first at Mariner High School and later at Stanford University.
Today, those same traits have lifted her to the top — quite literally — of professional women’s soccer in the United States.
The 39-year-old Antonucci, who grew up in Mukilteo and is a 1986 Mariner graduate, in September was named commissioner of Women’s Professional Soccer, which will debut in April of 2009 with at least seven teams.
The new job “is kind of a perfect storm opportunity for me,” Antonucci said in a recent interview. “And I’m thrilled by it. I’ve put a lot of heart and passion and effort into it, and it feels good to be a part of that.”
It was, she added, “very much a leap of faith, but I love challenges. And I look at this as a huge challenge.”
The new league follows the Women’s United Soccer Association, which arrived with great fanfare in early 2000 — just months after the U.S. women won the World Cup — but then disbanded in 2003 due to lagging attendance and TV ratings. Yet some people still believed a women’s pro soccer league could succeed, and one of them was Antonucci’s former Stanford teammate and longtime U.S. national team star Julie Foudy.
It was Foudy who cornered Antonucci at a reunion of Stanford soccer players and suggested she get involved. And it just happened that Antonucci, who’d worked at Seattle-based Starwave (a software company founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen) and later at Web giant Yahoo!, was looking for a career change.
“Tonya was the perfect person for this,” Foudy said in a league interview last month. “She comes from soccer, she loves soccer. … And she had a fresh perspective, which is what the league needed.
“Literally and single-handedly, she has been able to resurrect this league. She’s had a very small team of people around her, but she’s been the one that has spearheaded this all,” Foudy said.
As Antonucci prepared to go forward with WPS, she found it helpful to look back at the WUSA’s demise. What happened with the former league was, she said, both a setback and a lesson.
“From a product standpoint, with the quality of the soccer they put on the field, they did great,” Antonucci explained. “The game-day experience was wonderful for the fans and for the athletes. It was the highest level (of women’s soccer) in the world.
“But unfortunately the owners and management had an exuberance about how big the business should be and how fast it would grow. The costs were not in line with actual revenues.” In a nutshell, she said, league officials “shot too high.”
This time around, “the expectations have to be more modest,” Antonucci said. “We’re taking a more conservative approach. … We want to be smart about how to put the best product on the field, but we also want to try to manage those costs more conservatively.”
The league already has teams in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Washington, Boston and New Jersey/New York. Antonucci would like to see an eighth team for the inaugural season, with others to follow in the ensuing years.
After 10 years, she went on, “I see probably 12 to 16 teams. I see very mature franchises. I see our teams filling a number of these soccer-specific stadiums. I see a robust national and international television presence. And I see us on the map when people think of professional sports leagues in this country.”
WPS games may attract 5,000-7,000 fans at the outset, “but if we do our jobs right, I see us filling 20,000-seat stadiums in 10 years,” she said.
“Will we be the NFL, the NBA? No. But we’ll have an audience, a fan base, and it’ll be sizeable. And we’ll be the best league in the world for women’s soccer.”
There may be many reasons to wish success for a women’s pro soccer league, but an obvious one is for the girls and young women playing the game in this country.
“It’s socially important, certainly,” Antonucci acknowledged. “For all those young girls and young women, we’re creating heroes. But this is also the sports and entertainment business. This is not a cause, this is not a charity. This is a value proposition for sports fans that we really can entertain people.”
Antonucci has one other vision, and this touches on a more personal level. She would love to see a WPS team in the Pacific Northwest, “and especially in the Seattle area,” she said. “Soccer is so strong there, and there are some great, great players that have come out of that area.”
With a new Seattle team in Major League Soccer set to start in 2009, “I think the Seattle area will support and want a women’s soccer team, too,” Antonucci said. She’s had initial talks with Seattle’s MLS owners, “and I plan to continue talking to them to see if we can make it attractive to add a women’s team to what they’re doing.”
Having a team in Seattle “makes all the sense in the world,” she said. “And for me it would be like icing on the cake to see a franchise there.”