if 1999 was the boom year for U.S women's soccer, then 2003 was
its annus horribilis, a one-two punch that included its early
World Cup exit and the collapse of the WUSA, the eight-team
professional league that began play in 2001. Chastened but
optimistic, the Girls of Summer now hope to turn 2004 into the
Year of Redemption. While the Yanks spent the first week of March
in Costa Rica successfully qualifying for the 2004
Olympics--which will mark the international swan song for stars
Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy--the group seeking to
relaunch the WUSA in 2005 announced plans for a pair of weekend
soccer festivals in June.
The three-day exhibitions, to be held in Blaine, Minn., and
Carson, Calif., are meant to serve as a bridge to a full
eight-team WUSA revival next year. Less clear is whether a league
that blew through $100 million in three seasons ($60 million more
than its original five-year budget) can attract the corporate
sponsors, team owners and fan interest necessary to start over.
"We don't want anyone to think it's a slam dunk in '05," says
former WUSA commissioner Tony DiCicco, the chair of the launch
committee. "But we learned a lot from the first go-round, so
we're trying to correct the mistakes and re-create the
positives." Among other things, the WUSA sold itself on the
feverish expectations of the 1999 World Cup, a onetime event,
instead of marketing itself as an entity that played twice a
DiCicco says a decision on the 2005 season should be announced by
the end of June. Until then the WUSA is trying to gauge support
through the festivals and a Keep the WUSA Dream Alive ticket-fund
initiative, which in its first five weeks received more than
$75,000 in pledges for games over the next three seasons. More
than anything, though, the WUSA's fate depends on its main
benefactor, Discovery Channel chairman John Hendricks, who is
lobbying prospective sponsors and owners in an attempt to round
up the $20 million annually that organizers estimate will be
needed to run the league.
Though the 11-member relaunch committee includes DiCicco, Foudy
and other holdovers with extensive soccer backgrounds, former
WUSA president and CEO Lynn Morgan and members of the old
marketing brain trust are conspicuously absent. The conventional
wisdom was that the WUSA had a promising niche product that was
torpedoed by inept management. Start-up costs were far too high
(Barbara Allen, the league's first CEO, presided over close to
$60 million in losses in her only year on the job), and the
decision to opt out of a four-year TV deal with TNT for the
obscure Pax network in 2002 caused meager ratings to plunge.
Those weren't the only problems. "For Gen-X moms, the whole
'soccer mom' concept is essentially dead," says James Chung, the
president of Reach Advisors, a Boston-based market research firm
that conducted independent consumer studies of the WUSA in 2003.
"They don't view themselves the same way as Baby Boomer moms. But
that's what the WUSA tried to sell, and the strategy fell on deaf
ears." Chung also concluded that the league didn't do enough to
target the dads who took their daughters to World Cup '99, didn't
turn its matches into group social occasions (most girls tended
to watch televised games alone) and didn't capitalize on the
initial goodwill showed by the "tween" market--girls between the
ages of eight and 12--to create repeat customers.
The talent pool is certainly aching for a revival. Of the 120
former WUSA players contacted by their union, more than 100 said
they would participate in the June festivals. Aside from the two
dozen American residency camp players who are being paid by the
U.S. Soccer Federation, the breakup of the league scattered
players to the four winds. Carolina Courage defender Nel Fettig
is a law clerk for an Atlanta-based firm, New York Power defender
Kristy Whelchel is selling real estate, and San Jose CyberRays
forward Mandy Clemens is appearing on the upcoming edition of The
While TV viewers speculate on Clemens's fate next month, soccer
fans are asking a similar question about her former employer:
Will consumers and corporate America save a rose for the WUSA?
COLOR PHOTO: DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES MIA HERO Fan festivals featuring WUSA stars such as Hamm (left) should help keep women's soccer in the spotlight.
COLOR PHOTO: ANDY MEAD/ICON SM
Suffering from WUSA withdrawal? Don't fret. There are still
opportunities to catch women's soccer this year while awaiting
the U.S. pro league's possible return. Here are a half-dozen
April 24 U.S. vs. Brazil, Birmingham
Friendly with South America's Olympic entry
May 9 U.S. vs. Mexico, Albuquerque
El Tri has never beaten its CONCACAF rival
June 17-20 WUSA Festival, Blaine, Minn.
Clinics and exhibitions to rally support for WUSA
June 24-27 WUSA Festival, Carson, Calif.
All eight WUSA teams will reunite
Aug. 11-26 Olympic tournament, Greece
Swan song for Hamm, Chastain & Co.
Nov. 10-27 U-19 World Championships, Thailand
U.S. defends title that it won in '02