We haven't seen the last of the WUSA
Broken-hearted young girls can quit their gnashing of teeth and hold off on breaking open piggy banks. The out-of-business Women's United Soccer Association doesn't need their prayers or coins -- not yet, anyway.
If you believe for a minute we've seen the last of women's professional soccer in this country, chances are you missed out on Magic Johnson's second and third comebacks. Or the hiccups in Michael Jordan's career. Or the string of retirement parties for Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes and just about every fighter who ever laced up a glove.
You can count on a comeback by the WUSA -- or whatever folks decide to call it. If Mia, Brandi and the soccer gals aren't up and kicking next season, then count on them to be the following year, for sure. A decision could come within a month or so after the current Women's World Cup plays out on U.S. soil.
When the WUSA announced last week it was suspending operations, the average sports fan -- if he or she even paid attention -- assumed it meant the league was history, right there with the WFL, USFL and XFL, not to mention the NASL and MISL. But really, league officials should have given its young fans cover and thrown out more fitting words and phrases, like regrouping or reorganizing, or simply wiping the slate clean.
You could argue the league's folding, on the eve of the World Cup, was nothing more than a ploy to create a sense of urgency and rally prospective sponsors. If so, it appears to have worked. After a committee to keep the WUSA afloat organized held its first conference call Tuesday, it appears the original financial backers are still involved and additional corporate sponsors are receptive to signing on.
"I don't think there is any question that it will return," said committee member Donna Lopiano, president of the Women's Sports Foundation. "What is happening now is what you see with any good athlete. OK, I lost the game. Does that mean I stop playing? No, it means I look at what the heck I did wrong and how I fix it. And how long it'll take me to fix this baby and let me get in this game again.
"It wouldn't surprise me if we saw something next season. It is an Olympic year [and some athletes have commitments to their national team], so that is something everybody is going to look at. But as a student of business plans, I feel good about the approach. Nobody is panicking. Nobody has got their head in the clouds or under ground."
Of course, it'd be silly to ignore the bottom line. Rather than a serious grass-roots effort, the league built its hopes around TV dollars that never panned out. The league rating on the PAX network averaged a paltry 0.1 last season and the WUSA didn't have a contract for this coming year, meaning it would probably have to pay as much as $200,000 a game to be seen on a cable channel.
Fueled by the euphoria of the U.S. women's victory in the World Cup, the WUSA averaged 8,200 fans a game in 2001, but attendance fell to 6,700 this past season. And according to reports, the league lost close to $100 million over its three seasons.
Where did it all go wrong?
Some blame a lack of media coverage, saying the women's league didn't get its due. That argument is a bit lame, considering the WUSA's lead financial investors were media and communications giants like Cox Enterprises, Comcast and Time Warner.
Lopiano is among those suggesting the original business model was simply flawed. She says the league was rushed into place without an adequate grass-roots marketing scheme and the financial risk was spread among too few investors.
The most egregious mistake may have been thinking a start-up league could expect to see significant TV revenues. According to Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports and a WUSA consultant, the cost base was skewed because he found some franchises couldn't cover player salaries even if they sold out their stadium and added on-site sponsorship monies.
Pilson remains bullish on women's soccer, though he's bewildered that it hasn't fared better as a spectator sport. "Unfortunately, up to this point it hasn't been seen by enough people," he said. "And I think the public is voting. In terms of the competitive world of TV, there just hasn't been enough support from the public. And if you look at attendance at WUSA games, you can say there hasn't been enough public support at the games themselves."
The league will come back, and deservedly so. Young players need role models and a higher league to aspire to. And since corporate America obviously sells a fair bit of goods to the female population, it only makes sense for the apparel and shoe companies -- did somebody say Nike or the Gap? -- to fork over some seed money.
But when the soccer league comes around next time, it also behooves the WUSA or whatever to cultivate a grass-roots fan base, along with working to put people in the stands and in front of their TV sets.