September 18, 2003

WUSA Was Just Too 'Wholesome'

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“Four years ago, they made history. Now, they’re ready to take on the world.”

That’s what the ESPN promo ad for the upcoming Women’s World Cup says.

“WUSA folds due to financial issues.”

That’s what the Sportscenter BottomLine ticker says.

A few weeks ago when I was scrounging for column ideas, I planned to write a preview of the World Cup and comment on the event’s impact on the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA). It would have been a great column, too. I was going to introduce the new American stars like Abby Wambach and Cat Reddick, while highlighting the last charge of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Brandi Chastain (she’s the one who ripped her shirt off and has better abs than you, for all you soccer-illiterates). I had looked forward to discussing the WUSA’s role in developing foreign players such as Germany’s Birgit Prinz and Norway’s Dagney Mellgren, and how the presence of such a top-flight women’s professional league has evened the international playing field.

I was going to do this.

But now, there is no WUSA. On Monday, it went the way of the USFL and the ABA — into the alphabet soup of defunct leagues and tarnished dreams. Wither the Washington Federals of yesteryear?

The timing of the announcement, exactly five days before the first World Cup match, is problematic and begs several questions. Why would a fledgling league in financial trouble dissolve only days before the start of the single greatest showcase of its stars? The WUSA was born out of the success that the 1999 World Cup enjoyed. It brought elite-level soccer to sold-out stadiums all over the country, something that had never happened before in the United States (Major League Soccer, please pick up the white courtesy phone). The members of the U.S. national team were THE role models for young girls, and the eyes of the nation watched them beat China in the final at the Rose Bowl. The soccer buzz in the States has never been higher, not even during last summer’s men’s World Cup when the U.S. team got past the (gasp) Round of 16 for the first time in a billion years. If there was ever going to be a time to start a women’s soccer league in the Land of Baseball, Football, and Beer, 1999 was it.

And so, the Women’s World Cup begat the WUSA, and it was good. Aside from way too many of the teams adopting teal as their primary uniform color (which should automatically disqualify a team from credibility. Look what it’s done for the Grizzlies. Where are they now, Memphis? And yes, I do know that the Florida Marlins are but a stone’s throw from the NL wildcard, but they are forever stricken from the record after Wayne Huizenga’s firesale following the 1997 World Series, a move that underlined everything that’s wrong with professional sports and humanity in general), the league looked solid. The teams carved up the U.S. national team so that each city would have a few players with some name recognition and held a draft to distribute the best foreign talent.

The best foreign players and the best domestic players. Hmmm. This should have worked, right? These were the very best women’s soccer players the world had to offer; the WUSA already had a leg up on second-rate leagues like NFL Europe. The wastes-of-space playing for the Barcelona Dragons can’t make the Oklahoma scout team, and their league is alive and well. If you can sell the worst to Europe, shouldn’t you be able to sell the best to the United States?

There is still hope, however slim the glimmer may be.

“The players remain hopeful that more sponsors will recognize the value of associating their brands and products with the wholesomeness of the WUSA,” according to Hamm.

And this is true. But Hamm’s comment touches on the problem inherent in marketing the WUSA and women’s sports in general — wholesomeness. The WUSA’s major sponsor was Johnson & Johnson, maker of No Tears baby shampoo. The NFL has Coors, Gatorade, and Al Davis. As much as it pains me to say it, bacchanal urges, scandal, and sensationalism override the game when it’s marketed to the public. Mike Tyson isn’t the 10th best boxer in Nevada, let alone the USA, and people will buy his fights on pay-per-view until he bites his own ear off. The Lakers will have even more TV viewers than normal this season because people will want to see how Kobe plays with the specter of jail time hanging over his 44-inch vertical (yes, Mark Cuban was right). It should be no surprise that the violence of the NFL has surpassed the pastoral virtues of baseball as America’s choice cut of sport.

Drugs, domestic violence, and other such off-the-field distractions are notably absent from most women’s sports. Male athletes miss games because they spit on an umpire, choke a coach, or get caught driving a van carrying 300 pounds of marijuana. Female athletes miss games so they can give birth to their children.

The former members of the WUSA and the players in the WNBA and on the WTA tennis tour are professional athletes, first and last. They just happen to be women. Unfortunately, as is the case with the WUSA, the only way to get attention is to be controversial, not talented (or be the coddled step-child of a major men’s league). Serena Williams is known worldwide, not because she is good at tennis; she’s not close to dominating the tour like Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova did back in the day. And it’s not because of her skin color, either. Chandra Rubin has had success on tour for twice as long as Serena, and I bet none of you remember Althea Gibson. No, Serena is famous for the same reason that Martina Hingis is famous, that Jennifer Capriati is famous. Hell, it’s the same reason Jeremy Shockey is famous. It’s because she’s brash, cocky, she says the wrong thing, and she whines and cries foul when she loses. Controversy sells. And to its credit, yet ultimately to its downfall, the WUSA had none.

WUSA players are better athletes than anyone reading this article (myself included) will ever hope to be. As the U.S. tries for its third victory in four attempts at next week’s World Cup, held again in the United States thanks to the SARS outbreak in China, maybe a few corporations will be enticed by the high television ratings and resurrect the league. I hope that it survives, because the caliber of athlete that U.S. soccer turns out demands a forum. It’s the best players and it’s the most popular sport in the world; this should work! Shouldn’t it?

Archived article by Per Ostman