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Time to Move Beyond Their Cause's Effects

Title IX put women in game, but pro leagues will need a lot more than that to succeed, experts say.

September 19, 2003|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

The inaugural WUSA game, played in Washington, D.C., in 2001, drew 34,148. By the time the women's professional soccer league folded this week, not many more people than that were watching on television.

Attendance had dropped nearly 20% in three seasons. And crowds and TV ratings have also been diminishing for the WNBA.

The failure this week of the WUSA, the professional women's soccer league that spawned from the successful 1999 women's World Cup, has staggered confidence in the future of women's professional sports.

But it shouldn't be a death knell, say several experts who say critics should have expected an evolution, not a revolution.

"In this country, men's sports grew organically. Women's sports grew legislatively," said David Carter, head of the Sports Business Group and co-author of "On the Ball: What You Can Learn about Business from America's Sports Leaders."

What Carter means is that men's sports, which now fill stadiums and arenas with thousands of people, which show up on television almost 24 hours a day, began modestly.

Games were invented because a few guys got together with bats and balls, hoops and goals, sticks and ice, and played. They formed teams, they got better. Their families started to come to the field to watch. Then friends and a few neighbors.

They played on schoolyards, in high school and college. Then more fans came and were willing to pay to watch. Arenas and stadiums were built. More fans came and paid more money. Radio and television were invented, and the fans were happy to watch the games from home.

With women, it took Title IX -- federal legislation that made it illegal for high schools and universities to treat men's and women's sports differently -- to make the sports grow.

"One of the problems associated with women's professional athletics," Carter said, "is that there is a cause associated with women's sports. It's the right thing to do, is the argument. And it's an argument which has some merit; and at the high school and college level it's more than an argument, it's the law....

"A lot of women's athletics, at least subtly, are positioned that way. But guess what? Corporate America doesn't owe sports a nickel. Broadcast outlets don't owe them a look-see. Fans aren't obligated to spend their money. And that's where the fork in the road has come. You can't persuade or threaten, there is no ability to drop a legal hammer. As Yogi Berra might say, 'If nobody's going, you can't stop them.' "

The failure of the WUSA prompted knowing head shakes and "I told you so" statements. To critics, the problem is clear: There is no domestic market for women's professional sports.

Several experts disagree. They say there is room for women's professional sports guided by investors with uncompromising patience, fabulous athletes willing to work for low wages, stellar marketing, creative genius, and money to buy television time.

Television time on channels where sports fans will find the games. On networks such as ESPN in any of its versions, Fox Sports, Fox Sports Net. Not PAX or Oxygen or other niche channels.

"If you have to buy television time on NBC or ESPN, do it," said Leonard Armato, commissioner and reviver of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, a beach tour with men and women competitors.

Other expert advice:

* Forget the equality argument, Carter said. Pro sports isn't college. Title IX is irrelevant. There is no law that says the WUSA is entitled to exist at all, much less as an equal to any other league. There is no law that says NBC must televise the WNBA or that ESPN must give time to the WUSA.

* Be realistic, said Jim Kahler, executive director of the MBA sports business program at Arizona State and former senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA and Rockers of the WNBA.

He advises women's sports professional leagues "to set their own benchmarks and come up with realistic timetables."

"In Cleveland," Kahler said, "I asked my female staff to help me figure out why we couldn't get more season ticket holders for the Rockers. What they told me was: 'Our lives are different than yours. Our time is less available. This isn't like being a Browns' season ticket holder. We can't. Not at this point in our lives.'

"I had never thought of that, of the time commitment it takes to commit to purchasing season tickets. So you have to be creative with the women's market. But it can be done."

* Have a plan -- and stick to it -- said Sue Rodin, president of the New York-based Stars & Strategies Inc., a sports marketing and management agency.

Rodin, who represents seven players on the U.S. World Cup team, said of the WUSA hierarchy, "The people running the show had some challenges. They had the enthusiasm, but this was a business. Not to point fingers, but from what I understand the league went through nearly $100 million in three years.... Someone has to take responsibility for a budget."

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