St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Women's soccer dream comes true

The WUSA culminates a decade of growth from virtually nothing to a new pro league.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


The WUSA culminates a decade of growth from virtually nothing to a new pro league.

Kristine Lilly looked around Torero Stadium in San Diego, site of the Women's United Soccer Association's first spring training, and couldn't help but smile.

Growing up in suburban Connecticut, Lilly was a soccer junkie from the beginning. She attended New York Cosmos games in the 1980s, played on just about every national team possible and starred at the University of North Carolina.

Never did Lilly aspire to be a professional, because there was no such thing for women when she was growing up.

But slowly, things changed. The U.S. national team won the first Women's World Cup in 1991. Then came a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. And finally the push over the top, the 1999 World Cup, which ended with Brandi Chastain's now famous penalty kick against China in the final at a jampacked Rose Bowl.

Riding that wave of popularity, WUSA announced in February 2000 it would launch the first Division I women's league in the United States. Fans get their first look at the league Saturday when the San Francisco Bay Area CyberRays visit the Washington Freedom. "The other day we had a picture taken with all the founding (World Cup) players," Lilly said. "I remember thinking, "Look at what we've done.' When we were kids we didn't have this opportunity. Now young girls have something to shoot for."

Investors in WUSA, most of whom are cable television executives, are banking on the public's recognition of World Cup players. A professional women's soccer league has been in the works for several years, but not until 1999 did investors truly got behind WUSA.

"This is something that we thought about launching since 1996," WUSA president Lee Berke said. "Certainly the 1999 World Cup was a catalyst. In the aftermath there have been (player) endorsements and victory tours. That convinced sponsors that the time is right.

"It helps that we have been able to attract the best players in the world. But we can't just rely on a spike after the World Cup. We're not the NFL right now. We have to build our base."

And the players have no problem being pioneers. Normally, most would be looking for a summer league team and a part-time job. Others would have stayed in college. And still others would have given up on the game completely.

Now it's a full-time job. The average salary is $40,000, but to steal a phrase from so many athletes in higher profile leagues, it's not about the money.

"This is a dream come true," Carolina Courage forward and former University of Florida player Danielle Fotopoulos said. "Sometimes I catch myself complaining about having to go to weight training or extra practice, but then I think, "Wait a minute, you're getting paid to play a game you love.' That was never possible before. This is a very exciting time."

WUSA plans to start slowly. Most of its eight teams will play in small venues. The hope is demand will cause the league to expand and move into larger stadiums.

"Our expectations are modest," Berke said. "We are hoping to have 7,000 fans in our stadiums for the first year. We are hoping for about a .7 rating (percentage of cable subscribers). What we don't want to be is one of those leagues that comes out of the gates real fast. We want to build our momentum slowly."

With a new league comes some pressure as well. At first fans might watch to see what the league is about. But the quality of play will sustain it for the long haul. Lilly is fully aware of that.

"There's always some sort of pressure," said Lilly, who will play for the Boston Breakers. "You want so badly to make this work. You've got to really work at it. You have to play at a high level, you have to sign the autographs, you have to make the appearances. You have to sell this league, and that's what we're doing."

Most of all, the players just want to play soccer. They didn't have a chance to wear a favorite woman soccer player's jersey when growing up. They'd like nothing more than to hear young players today say they want to be a professional soccer player when they grow up.

"I think every girl who's playing in the league right now grew up kicking the ball because they loved it," Philadelphia Charge midfielder Lorrie Fair said. "Kids now look and say, "Hey, I can make some money from this; I can make a living doing something I love.' "

Women's United Soccer Association

HISTORY: WUSA is the brainchild of John Hendricks, chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications, Inc., a cable television company. Hendricks petitioned U.S. Soccer to start the National Soccer Alliance in 1998. The league never got off the ground, but after the success of the U.S. national team at the 1999 Women's World Cup, Hendricks was back with a bigger group of investors. Most are from the cable television industry.

FINANCIAL BACKING: Hendricks has raised approximately $40-million for the league, which he said is enough to last five years.

SALARIES: The average is $40,000, but founding players (those on the U.S. national team) will earn about double that. The league will operate under a strict salary cap. Teams can't exceed $800,000 in salaries. The league pays all player contracts.

PLAYERS: Of the 20 members of the 1999 U.S. national team, 19 are playing in WUSA. Michelle Akers was forced to retire because of numerous knee injuries and chronic fatigue syndrome. National team players from world powers China, Brazil and the Netherlands also are on board.

SEASON: The regular season is 21 games and runs from April 14 through Aug. 12.

TV: Twenty-two games are scheduled on TNT and CNN/SI. -- Compiled by Rodney Page.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.