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WUSA exceeds expectations

More than halfway through its 1st season, the women's soccer league lags in TV ratings but attendance is better than expected.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 13, 2001


More than halfway through its 1st season, the women's soccer league lags in TV ratings but attendance is better than expected.

With stars, spectators and a media-savvy structure, the Women's United Soccer Association is getting a kick out of its inaugural season.

The stars, starting with Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, include every member of the 1999 women's U.S. World Cup champion team -- except for Michelle Akers, recovering from shoulder surgery. They played with one another for years, and many will again. But for now they wear different uniforms.

And it doesn't feel that strange, Boston midfielder Kristine Lilly said. "The thing people don't realize is that we already played against each other every day in practice. And we are very competitive."

The WUSA also has Dagny Mellgren and Hege Riise from Norway's 2000 Olympic champion team (Mellgren's goal beat the United States in the gold-medal match), and stars from China, Brazil and elsewhere. "I didn't think we'd get all the international stars we got," said chief operations officer Tony DiCicco, former coach of the U.S. women's national team. "That's kind of exceeded my expectations."

And the spectators are holding up their end. The WUSA is shooting for a break-even attendance average of 7,500. It started out with a bang (34,148 fans at the league's April 14 opener in Washington) and has settled down to an average of 8,731. By comparison, the average attendance for Major League Soccer -- the men's league, in its sixth season -- is 15,347.

It might be too soon for serious rivalries to have developed, although the (San Francisco) Bay Area CyberRays and New York Power, 2,900 miles apart, began disliking each other after a particularly physical exhibition game.

And rivalries or not, make no mistake: Fans are coming out to cheer for their team.

"I remember when Carolina played the (Washington) Freedom," said Kit Simeone, national consultant for grassroots marketing of the 1999 Women's World Cup and the eight-team WUSA. "At the beginning there were a lot of little kids all screaming, "Mia! Mia!' But as the game progressed they started yelling for the Courage. They understood that they have their own team to cheer for."

And WUSA players who, unlike World Cup stars, never had this kind of following, are immersing themselves in it.

"We're their idols," Power midfielder Tammy Pearman said. "When we were growing up we didn't have female idols in (soccer). These kids do. They know your birthday and everything about you, and bring you gifts and stuff. It takes two seconds to sign (an autograph), say hi, take a picture with someone.

"And that is hardly anything compared to what they're doing for us. Without their support we're not getting paid to play. It's just so hard to say no. You're tired, you're hungry, and some kid comes up to you with those eyes and says, "Taaa-meee,' and how can you turn that away?"

Exposure

Television ratings aren't close to what was hoped. Mark Lazerus, president of Turner Sports, said before the season he was looking for a 2.0 cable rating (1.5-million households), similar to that TBS draws for the Atlanta Braves.

"In our cities the ratings have been pretty good," DiCicco said. "In other major cities (without WUSA franchises) the ratings have been sporadic. ... But to expect a young league to just step in and tear down the ratings walls is unrealistic."

The league's 22-match national TV schedule is split between the TNT and CNN/SI cable systems. For the first six WUSA matches, on TNT, the rating was 0.4 (340,000 homes). TNT will resume telecasts Aug. 4. CNN/SI isn't in the ratings mix because its 17-million homes do not meet ACNielsen's 25-million minimum. By comparison, MLS' national rating is 0.245 on ESPN and 0.225 on ESPN2. MLS also is on two Spanish-language networks (Telemundo and Fox Sports World Espanol), and its July 28 all-star match and Oct. 21 championship are on ABC.

"The advantage (the WUSA) has is that every game is televised nationally or regionally," said Anson Dorrance, former U.S. women's national coach and commentator on regional Atlanta and Carolina telecasts. "That's a major promotional advantage."

Said Neil Pilson, president of Pilson Communications, a sports consulting firm, and former CBS Sports president: "When you think of all the start-up leagues, none gets the exposure the WUSA is getting. ...

"The real challenge is attendance and TV ratings. They have to grow. At this point the ratings are in fractions, below 1.0. But there are a lot of sports (TV ratings) now in fractions. Everything considered, the WUSAs are comparable to the MLSs, and that shows there is support for the women's game."

TV, in fact, pretty much owns WUSA. John S. Hendricks, chairman and chief executive officer of Discovery Communications (Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, etc.) is the league's chairman. He and Amos B. Hostetter Jr., former CEO of Continental Cablevision, along with Comcast Corp., Cox Communications and AOL Time Warner Cable, have committed at least $40-million to fund the league's first five years.

"Is it helpful that the league is owned by mass-media companies? Absolutely," said Dean Bonham, CEO of the Bonham Group, a sports and entertainment marketing consultant. "Is it a panacea? No."

He said he believes women's pro soccer will succeed because "the time for women's sports in this country has come, and I believe there's a recognition and an understanding by corporate America that we didn't have five years ago, that the female demographic is much more influential in the sale of products and services in this country than we ever thought to be the case."

Bonham also said the WUSA could benefit with "the level of promotion and advertising that the XFL used." The spring football league failed to deliver what it promised and folded after one season. "I don't want the WUSA to in any way misrepresent itself," Bonham said, "but I am saying the XFL was without question the most effective new sports league ever to appear on the American sports scene in terms of marketing and promoting itself."

A viable league

Dorrance, also the coach of North Carolina's 16-time NCAA women's soccer champions, said he was concerned about the quality of play when he saw the first few WUSA matches. The players weren't fit, they hadn't played soccer in a while and they weren't used to one another.

"But as we got into the summer a bit, all the teams started getting better, all the players started getting a bit fitter, playing with more confidence," he said. "All the polish that is critical for professionalism started to come through."

And being professionals has forced them to elevate their game. "If they didn't play well (in college) it didn't matter because the kids on the bench could never replace them," Dorrance said. "Now what's happening is if you don't play well, you're off. They trade you or put you on waivers, think about firing you. So now there's a greater sense of urgency and as a result the level (of play) has improved. ... I was worried at first, Not anymore. The WUSA has become a very viable league."

-- Information from Bloomberg News was used in this report.

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