Jennifer O'Sullivan to lead WPS
In 1999, Major League Soccer's fourth season, the league recruited an executive from a nontraditional American football background to take over as commissioner. Don Garber, who had been working with the NFL's overseas operations, has been with MLS for 12 years, overseeing the league as it has stabilized and then expanded.
Heading into Women's Professional Soccer's fourth season, the league has recruited its own executive from a nontraditional American football background to take over as CEO. The league announced the hiring of Jennifer O'Sullivan, the vice president of legal and labor affairs for the Arena Football League, on Monday.
Having experience with a struggling league -- the AFL canceled its 2009 season and has rebuilt itself since then -- might be helpful for WPS, which is trying to harness the momentum of the 2011 Women's World Cup to gain some stability after losing several teams in its first three years.
"Pulling somebody in with a background in a challenging sports environment was attractive," Philadelphia Independence owner David Halstead said.
Like Garber, O'Sullivan will need to jump quickly into some of the unique issues of running an American soccer league. A WPS spokesperson said O'Sullivan would not be available for interviews until she's up to speed.
Atlanta owner T. Fitz Johnson, chairman of the WPS Board of Governors, doesn't think that process will take long.
"She's a bright, bright young lady," Johnson said.
One similarity between O'Sullivan's old and new jobs is working with league owners. Johnson sees her AFL experience as a good fit.
"She did a lot of work with the ownership groups in the Arena Football League," Johnson said. "That's one thing that's difficult as a CEO, is reporting to teams. She understands that. It's an important quality to get folks organized and be sure we're all on the same page -- to be able to handle pretty high-level guys, pretty successful folks, to get them all going in the right direction."
O'Sullivan met most of the league's owners at the WPS championship game Aug. 27, and she spoke with magicJack owner Dan Borislow by telephone, Johnson said.
Halstead said the league's owners may all have different needs but had "common characteristics" they wanted to see in a new CEO.
"We were looking for someone who had been in a sports industry before, and Jennifer has," Halstead said. "We wanted someone who had a background that would give them a line of thinking that's very methodical. She's a lawyer by trade, so I think we got that. Jennifer has good communication skills, and she won't hesitate to cultivate and build relationships with [the] U.S. Soccer Federation, Fox Soccer Channel, major sponsors and the media. Her personality lends itself to doing those things."
Though O'Sullivan's predecessor, Anne-Marie Eileraas, has departed for a job as a lawyer for a technology firm, Johnson said she has been helping her successor through the transition.
"Anne-Marie loves this league," Johnson said. "She'll do anything that'll help us be successful."
And the original WPS top executive, founder and commissioner Tonya Antonucci, applauded the hire.
"With this hire, the WPS ownership groups are placing a strategic emphasis on player agreements in hiring a professional league-experienced labor attorney who can navigate a re-introduction of league-wide compensation structures at new levels," Antonucci said by email. "Having said that, her experiences in marketing and sponsorship will certainly be tapped to aggressively grow audience share and shape the next stage of television and media rights, expand the WPS footprint and competition level through strategic geographic expansion best positioned to prove and sustain the evolving WPS model."
One aspect of WPS that will change immediately is the league's base of operations. For the past year, WPS has gone without office space and has had executives in different locations. Eileraas was based in San Francisco, far away from any of the league's six teams. O'Sullivan will be based in New York, at least for the moment, within driving distance or a train ride of four teams.
That location fits well with a league that seems likely to put off expansion to the West Coast for another year. Halstead said WPS may expand on the East Coast for 2012, with a couple of West Coast teams coming in as a group in 2013.
Expansion is just one of the immediate issues O'Sullivan must address. Others include:
• Formulating the league's schedule in 2012, when the Olympics will take top national-team players for several weeks.
• Retaining and adding national sponsors. Johnson said WPS hopes to have a couple of announcements coming up soon. "Our popularity right now is as high as it's been," he said.
• Working with the players' union on a collective bargaining agreement.
"We have some work to do, that's for sure," Johnson said. "But all of us are fully invested in doing that."