R.I.P. WUSA: Sponsorship woes doom women's soccer

In the midst of preparing to defend their World Cup title, the U.S. women's soccer team got a doozy of a distraction when the cash-strapped Women's United Soccer Association called it quits.

On Monday, September 15, the WUSA, which a dozen members of the current American team who were practicing in Charlottesville at the time– helped found, ceased operations.

While they hold out hope of reviving the professional league sometime, the disappointment of its failure hit them hard just six days before they were to play Sweden in their World Cup opener. (They won that opener, 3-1, September 21.)

"Yeah, I wish we had the opportunity to not have this distraction,'' said U.S. captain Julie Foudy, a member of the WUSA board of governors. "That's true for all the WUSA players in the World Cup.

"This is a sad day for women's soccer and women's sports. But we are not just going to give up, even though the odds are stacked against us. We'll still hold out the possibility of reviving this.''

The eight-team WUSA, built on the stunning success of the 1999 World Cup won by the United States, lasted three seasons. But it was unable to attract new, deep-pocket investors and sponsors.

John Hendricks, chairman of the WUSA board of governors, said the league needed eight sponsors to spend $2.5 million each per year. The WUSA recruited only two sponsors willing to spend that much, Hyundai and Johnson & Johnson.

"If we only had six or seven CEOs in America who had stepped forward in the past year...'' Hendricks said. "An independent women's professional league can survive– if it has corporate support.''

TV ratings were miniscule, and average attendance slipped from more than 8,000 the first season to about 6,700 a game last season. Most teams played in smallish college or community stadiums.

The timing is even more damaging to the players who must ignore the fact there might not be any domestic teams for them to play for next year.

While such stars as Foudy, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Kristine Lilly already have established themselves as U.S. sports icons, the youngsters who will form the core of the American squad– and of other national teams– through the rest of the decade could be lost.

The WUSA's owners invested more than $100 million to run the league. Foudy, Hamm and other founding players took pay cuts this season to help keep it afloat. But even after cutting costs, the league had a $17 million shortfall.

In all, the WUSA employed 375 people, including players, and had franchises in Boston, Atlanta, San Diego, Washington, New York, San Jose, North Carolina, and Philadelphia. The Washington Freedom won the Founders Cup last month.

Some of the WUSA's biggest stars were non-Americans such as Maren Meinert of Germany and Hege Riise of Norway. The opportunity to play in the league vastly improved the quality of play of those nations and several others, and that enhanced skill level should be on display in the World Cup.

After that, who knows?

"We're sad. We're all sad,'' Hamm said. "This isn't like a bus that you missed. This is something that we've all invested so much time and energy.

"I haven't given up. I believe too much in this.''

Brandi Chastain– shown here exalting after kicking the World Cup-winning goal against China in 1999– probably wasn't smiling when she got the world in Charlottesville that her league was folding.