Financially Viable Women’s Sports
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SPOKESMAN: Looking far-post…
KWAME HOLMAN: Members of Washington, D.C.’s women’s professional soccer team the Freedom didn’t have long to celebrate. Just three weeks after the team won the championship of the Women’s United Soccer Association in August, just three years after the league was founded, it folded. League officials actually said they were “suspending operations,” citing a $20 million budget shortfall and a lack of corporate sponsors.
Fan support had dwindled as well. Only 7,000 attended the WUSA championship game. Standing in the Freedom’s empty home stadium in Washington recently, Joe Cummings looked back on what happened to the league. He managed the Boston breakers, one of the eight original teams that made up the WUSA.
JOE CUMMINGS, WUSA Official: The growth from year one to year two to year three didn’t happen as quickly as what we thought. Maybe we became a little bit impatient in how quickly that was going to develop.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Women’s United Soccer Association had been born amid the buzz created by the U.S. Women’s World Cup victory over China four years ago. A sell-out crowd in the Rose Bowl witnessed the sudden death shoot-out while 40 million fans watched on television. The victory generated attention never before given to women’s soccer in America, or to men’s soccer, for that matter.
Mia Hamm and Brandy Chastine became instant sports heroines, not just to traditional sports fans, but to millions of girls who had joined the youth soccer craze sweeping across America. All the elements needed to launch a successful women’s professional soccer league appeared to be in place. But Joe Cummings now says the timing was wrong.
JOE CUMMINGS: We couldn’t have picked a worse three-year period, I think, to probably launch than the economic times of the years 2001, 2002 and 2003. But what we did see early on that the attendance numbers were perhaps a little bit short of what we had projected and certainly the sponsorship, from a sponsorship standpoint, we hadn’t brought on the number of national sponsors that we thought we would in the first year.
KWAME HOLMAN: Women’s team sports never have drawn large crowds or big television ratings. ESPN, the multi-channeled sports network, gradually is finding more time for women on its 24-hour schedule. But in three years, women’s soccer couldn’t generate the revenue, sponsorships and endorsements needed to keep it afloat.
DAVID STERN: It’s very sad that they couldn’t pull it off because it’s a great sport, it did have the great stars, but it … in their case, it just takes a lot of money to keep it going.
SPOKESMAN: What a moment. Here it is.
KWAME HOLMAN: David Stern ought to know what it takes. He’s commissioner of the National Basketball Association which, in turn created and currently bankrolls the WNBA, the Women’s Professional Basketball League.
KWAME HOLMAN: The players may be on target but here, too, attendance for the seven-year-old league has missed the mark. In fact, the Cleveland Rockers of the WNBA folded in September, just days after the women’s soccer league did. But Commissioner Stern is convinced women’s professional basketball and soccer have a future.
DAVID STERN: There’s a huge change taking place in this country with respect to young women and what they’re encouraged to do; what they’re empowered to do. The WUSA and the WNBA are really on the cutting edge of that.
And there really is going to be a significant change in the way sponsors pitch their products and in the way the more than 50 percent of the country that happens to be female makes their purchasing decisions. And sports is going to begin to influence them the same way it has historically been geared to sponsors who want to influence men.
KWAME HOLMAN: Joe Cummings is banking on that change and is spearheading an effort to reorganize the WUSA. These days, making presentations to potential sponsors, enlisting the help of women’s sports advocates — to secure the financial support to resurrect the league, Cummings says investors need reassurance.
JOE CUMMINGS: I mean, you can’t go through what we went through for three years, announce a suspension, and just start up again with the same model, the same business plan. So, you have to make sure that in this partnership, you’re showing them that you’re headed in a different direction, and you’re headed toward some level of financial viability.
KWAME HOLMAN: Reaching that viability — getting fans to buy a seat or switch channels to a women’s sporting event — has been a hard sell. Fans are watching women participate in individual sports, such as golf’s Annika Sorenstam and sister stars Venus and Serena Williams in tennis. Attendance and TV ratings for those events have soared.
But the bulk of the fan’s interest, attendance and television coverage focuses on the men: Football, baseball, basketball and golf. In the opinion of Donna Lopiano, director of the women’s sports foundation, the struggle of women’s team sports has been a failure of creative marketing. Lopiano says more women are needed in decision-making roles in all sports-related entities. She says right now, they aren’t there.
DONNA LOPIANO: We have a situation right now where, with regard to corporate sponsors and especially in the sporting goods and apparel industry, the great majority of these people are still, you know, run by guys as decision-makers who are passionate about men’s sports and who haven’t yet gotten the passion for women’s sports.
We need passionate leaders like a David Stern, who says, “Guess what? I want to own basketball, and I don’t care if women play it or monkeys play it, or it’s played in Europe. I’m going to own it and I’m going to make it successful.” And he’s the kind of marketer who can make it successful.
DAVID STERN: This is a business proposition; this is about television; this is about sponsorship; this is about filling buildings; this is about demonstrating sport at the highest level at which it is played.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Stern says that includes the highest level at which women play.
DAVID STERN: We’re seeing things that are being done by young women at the high school level that NBA players probably a few decades ago couldn’t do. So, you can see the talent level. And so the circle, sort of, goes around, and … good game, good prospects, enjoyable competition, great role models for young women and young men, I might add, because these are athletes who are just great at what they do. And the sponsors are not far behind.
KWAME HOLMAN: Felita Phillips hopes that a bigger stage for women’s sports is coming. But she says the girls she coaches at Stone Ridge High School in suburban Maryland aren’t depending on it.
FELITA PHILLIPS, High School Soccer Coach: Soccer … women’s sports is not for the fame, it’s for the fun, you know, and you have to enjoy what you’re doing. I mean, they’re not looking for the big paycheck to go play pro. At least they have the ability to maybe get a scholarship and go to college.
KWAME HOLMAN: And since the advent of Title IX, federal legislation giving women equality in high school and college sports, more and more are playing competitively.
SPOKESPERSON: Yeah, I don’t think about going pro; I’m not that good. But it’s fun when you’re in high school and maybe in college.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, some of these Stone Ridge players don’t understand why the women who do go pro don’t get the exposure men do.
FRAN VAGHI: People probably think that men take sports more seriously and that they are more into the game, more competitive, and they may not think that girls are as interested in sports, so they think that it’s not as important and that they shouldn’t play them as much on TV because no one is going to watch them.
KWAME HOLMAN: But John Crone admits he watches. The Yorktown Virginia High School athlete says he actually prefers watching women’s soccer.
JOHN CRONE: Women’s sports are just a lot fun to watch. It’s like, I think it’s a lot of fun, a lot more fun to watch because they’re a lot more serious than sometimes guys. Like, especially with soccer. Because the guys’ soccer, they can, like, fall down whenever, like, they barely get touched. But the women, they just get up and they’re all tough about it. So, I don’t know, I just love women’s sports.
KWAME HOLMAN: Joe Cummings hopes such sentiment will continue to grow, but says he’s come to realize his women’s soccer league probably can’t duplicate the success of men’s games.
JOE CUMMINGS: Maybe what the WUSA is, is a sport that’s followed by eight, nine, or ten thousand people on a very regular basis — not 60,000 people on a very regular basis. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t exist and didn’t go forward. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t succeeded. It just means that we’ve succeeded at a different level.
KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, Cummings says the league is making plans to host a series of what he calls “soccer festivals” next summer and hopes to return with a full league schedule in 2005.