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ANALYSIS

WUSA's Fate Puts Cloud Over Players

September 17, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The rock that was unceremoniously tossed into the pond of women's sports on Monday will cause far more widespread and damaging ripples than at first believed.

The collapse of the Women's United Soccer Assn. after only three seasons was not altogether unexpected, but its impact will be felt all the way from the soon-to-be-abandoned WUSA headquarters in Atlanta to Athens, Greece.

Without a women's professional league in the United States, the task of preparing American players for the 2004 Olympics now falls entirely on U.S. Soccer.

Unable to rely on WUSA to keep its top players in game shape for at least half the year, the federation will not only have to arrange a full schedule of matches for Mia Hamm and company, at home and abroad, between now and the Athens Games, but also will have to foot the bill for them.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 89 words Type of Material: Correction
Soccer -- A Sports article Wednesday about the Women's United Soccer Assn. quoted Shannon Boxx as saying, "If we can win a world championship and in the process save the league, we're more than willing to do that. It's our livelihood. We're not down on our hands and knees begging, but we're close." The quote should have been attributed to Abby Wambach speaking to her hometown paper, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, not the Press-Democrat. The article also incorrectly reported that Boxx is from Rochester; she is from Fontana.

The federation can't do anything less. The team won the gold in 1996 and the silver in 2000.

In addition, there is the possibility that some American players could leave home and head for Germany or Norway or Sweden or Japan to continue their playing careers, further complicating national team preparations.

Players who certainly will be leaving the U.S. will be WUSA's foreign stars, the players from 13 other countries who will be unemployed and thus will lose their U.S. work visas.

Then, too, without WUSA, far more once-aspiring professional players now in high school or college might simply drift away from the sport altogether.

Similarly, such players as Shannon Boxx, Abby Wambach and Kylie Bivens, who made the U.S. Women's World Cup team on the strength of their WUSA performances, could now go undiscovered.

Of more immediate concern are the 56 WUSA players on the rosters of teams taking part in the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup, which starts Saturday. Those players are without jobs once the tournament ends Oct. 12, and their concentration has been shattered.

The defending world champion U.S. team, with 19 of its 20 players from WUSA, is most affected. Coach April Heinrichs and her staff already were working Tuesday to get the players out from under what she called the "dark cloud hanging over our camp" and back to focusing on the World Cup.

Also affected are the World Cup teams of Canada (with five WUSA players), Germany (four), Norway (four), Australia (four), Brazil (two), France (two), China (one) and Japan (one).

A struggling economy and the resultant lack of corporate sponsorship were what killed WUSA, not small attendance figures (three-year average: 7,377) and minuscule television ratings.

The latter could be overcome with time and patience. The dearth of dollars could not.

It was in Atlanta that the dream of a women's professional league in this country first took root, in 1996, when women's soccer, kicked and spurred on by Michelle Akers, became an Olympic sport and Akers and the rest of the U.S. players drew sellout crowds en route to their gold medal.

By winning the world championship in the summer of 1999, again in packed U.S. stadiums and amid almost doting media coverage, the U.S. players became America's darlings.

John S. Hendricks, chairman of Discovery Communications and founder of WUSA, was one of those who were hooked, "intoxicated," he said, by the euphoria created that summer.

But despite tremendous enthusiasm and the hard work of its players, the short-lived league never had the opportunity to expand beyond its original eight teams: the Atlanta Beat, Boston Breakers, Carolina Courage, New York Power, Philadelphia Charge, San Diego Spirit, San Jose CyberRays and Washington Freedom.

The initial $40 million that investors in WUSA had intended to last five years was gone in one year. An additional $60 million was swallowed up in the next two years, and, although losses were declining, WUSA's owners could not justify allowing the red ink to keep flowing.

To keep WUSA going, Hendricks this summer sought eight corporate sponsors each willing to pay $2.5 million a year but found only two takers, ongoing sponsors Hyundai and Johnson & Johnson.

A last-ditch effort to interest the Anschutz Entertainment Group into investing in the league was rebuffed, AEG already having its hands full with Major League Soccer.

Enough was enough, and the plug was pulled on WUSA Monday afternoon, five days before the Women's World Cup.

Heinrichs, the U.S. women's coach, had known for some time that the end might be near. She hinted as much when she named the team Aug. 27.

"There are a lot of discussions and a lot of meetings going on right now regarding the WUSA," she said at the time. "I think that everybody involved ... desperately wants to have the league survive, and we all feel that the Women's World Cup will give it its needed injection."

Hendricks has since said the same thing.

"There is a glimmer of hope that a few months down the road the phone will ring," he said Monday.

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