AN APPRECIATION

The WUSA

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The WUSA came into existence in early 2001 with a splashy opening match on cable television, one which attracted more than 33,000 people.

Some people in the audience knew that the WUSA came about only after a first attempt at a Division I women's professional soccer league, the National Soccer Alliance, collapsed.

Whatever problems there may have existed in the formation in the first league obviously were not solved with the WUSA.

And from up close, there were many.

The most important problem was that the league was not able to harness the collective value of the 1999 World Cup team, the group of players which caught the attention of the American populace and media. It was a job which was going to be impossible, from a structural perspective.

First of all, the legendary Michelle Akers retired before a single game was played. That hurt the WUSA's potential drawing power in Florida, where a team had been envisioned. The franchise eventually had to be moved from Orlando to Chapel Hill, N.C.

Second, the rest of the 19 members of the team were redubbed as League Founding Players. They made more money than anyone else in the league while keeping an equity stake in the league's success. They were also introduced last in the pre-game ceremony, even if they had not attained the captaincy of their team.

Third, as the league evolved, it became obvious that the league's drawing card, forward Mia Hamm, was becoming increasing reluctant to ensure the league's survival down the road. She shunned many interviews, kept to herself in a hotel apartment in downtown Washington rather than live the bohemian lifestyle of some of her teammates who gravitated to host families and shared apartments, and cowed under intense scrutiny the first year when the Freedom slipped to the bottom of the table.

"An Unable Mia," said The Washington Times in the middle of the 2002 season as a photograph was shown of a lot of RFK faithful dressed as empty orange seats.

Fourth, the financial plan was a house of cards. Just two of eight of the top sponsorship opportunities were sold (for the record, they were to Hyundai and to Johnson & Johnson). Sure, the advertising boards were filled every match, but they were for local sponsors and suppliers.

And finally, the television plan was a disaster. Even though the group of owners in this single-entity league were cable television operators, they could not develop a cohesive, long-term plan of targeted league exposure.

The WUSA was able to make a big show of the fact that all 87 matches its first year were shown on television, but nobody mentioned the caveats. To get all of its matches on TV the first year, the Washington Freedom put a small number of its games on a local TV station in Frederick, Md. This overexposure came at the expense of home gates; attendance dropped precipitously that first year after the inaugural match, especially if soccer fans could find their home team on TV rather than make an actual trip to the stadium.

Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of Time-Warner, whose fortunes have been tarnished thanks a billion-dollar merger with America Online. Time-Warner's Turner Network Television had been the carrier of Saturday matches, but received astronomically low ratings.

The league eventually moved matches to the low-power PAX network, and were shown at exactly the same time as the Major League Soccer matches on ESPN. Not a smart thing to do to grow the soccer culture in the United States.

And despite the presence of Time-Warner, Cox, Discovery Channel, and Comcast as part of the ownership, there was no attempt made at selling the league by these three entities. Indeed, the weekly WUSA highlight show was shown on the very low-penetration Discovery Kids channel.

That only reinforced the notion that the league's target market was 9-to-13-year-old girls. That perception was self-fulfilling when league advertisements showed throngs of children in the stands instead of their parents or other adults.

In other words, the disconnect between "Tweens" and the people with disposable income, especially in a bad economy, was never bridged by the WUSA front office or most of its teams.

There were certainly attempts by WUSA franchises to attract adult fans, especially in Washington, Carolina, and San Jose. But the wholesome, clean-cut image of the league made it, and soccer, "uncool" for older female teenagers, college students, and young adults.

The dissolution of the WUSA in 2003 has broken some dreams, but there is hope. Plans laid late in 2003 call for the league to play a reduced schedule and to possibly have games taped for broadcast in a series, like Pro Beach Hockey and Major League Lacrosse.

But other plans need to be made for the next attempt at a Division I women's soccer league in order for it to lay the groundwork for a new generation of fans.

1. Sponsorship. The books must be balanced before a single game is played. All sponsorships need to be sold by competent marketers rather than people in the league offices who get nothing after hob-nobbing with CEOs at meetings.

2. Marketing. The league cannot be marketed only to children with a baby-soft wholesome inspirational message. It has to be about all soccer fans.

3. Structure. There not only needs to be an investor for every team, there also needs to be a soccer-specific stadium for each team. The investment requires sponsorship as well as construction costs. There also cannot be a gaping hole in the league between the two coasts when it comes to the teams that play in the next WUSA.

4. Partnerships. It is said that a WMLS is highly unlikely, but it may be an idea worth visiting. Have a parallel structure where training facilities are shared, but if the Dallas MLS team plays at New York, the New York WMLS team plays at Dallas. And have a number of doubleheaders as well.

Only then will the enterprise have a chance at making in the cold, cruel world of real market forces.

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