- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2000

John Hendricks, the unlikely new godfather of women's pro soccer, has plenty of adversaries. A neophyte to pro sports from the world of nature and science media, Hendricks is battling the wreckage of dozens of other failed sports leagues, the heavy expectations of the soccer community, and plans for a rival league run by Major League Soccer.

But he isn't the least bit scared by any of them.

"It would be better if there was only one league, but it's a free country," said Hendricks, chairman of the new Women's United Soccer Association, which will start play next April. "That's why we went to all the extra trouble to lock up all the best players right away, make sure we had a national television package in place, had five years worth of investment capital.

"This was going to be a challenge anyway. We've been aware from day one what the hurdles are."

Hendricks, founder and chairman of Bethesda, Md.-based Discovery Communications Inc., stunned the sports world last year when he announced his intent to form the WUSA with eight teams, including one in Washington, and possibly more in future years. With his only experience in the sport being a soccer dad to his two children and investing $1 million in the planned SoccerPlex in Gaithersburg, Hendricks became the man to put a decade-old idea into reality.

Then in the span of two months, Hendricks upped the ante considerably by lining up $40 million in investment capital, letters of intent to play from the entire U.S. team which won the 1999 Women's World Cup, the team's coach Tony DiCicco to serve as WUSA acting commissioner and a four-year national TV contract with Turner Network Television and sister station CNN/SI.

The basic plan of the WUSA is quite simple: put the best players out in front of fans at reasonable prices in a fan-friendly environment, both on TV and in person.

Unlike so many other executives of new sports leagues, there is actual weight, real money and promises to air games from cable industry heavyweights Time Warner Inc, Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc., and signed contracts behind Hendricks' good intentions.

But there also is the controversy.

MLS, by itself for five years as the torch bearer for American outdoor soccer, had long talked about starting a women's league but had not yet moved on a plan. Hendricks and the WUSA, however, have quickly pushed them into action and MLS next week will file a plan with the U.S. Soccer Federation seeking official sanctioning for its league.

The rival ventures give the USSF a major decision to make this August: choose MLS, with its established battery of sponsors, name recognition and stadium leases; choose WUSA, with Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and all the other stars; or choose both and risk having the two cannibalize each other.

Don't count on a merger between the two. While each side gives some lip service to cooperation, it stops well short of seeking to combine the two leagues. Also don't count on a fight similar to that between the WNBA and the ABL in women's basketball. The WUSA has a far more united player base, deeper pockets and will have more TV exposure than the ABL did.

"There are some possible avenues for cooperation with the MLS, particularly with facility development," said Hendricks, who wants to keep WUSA teams out of large NFL stadiums as much as possible. "But there are other potential parties to work with on matters such as that besides MLS. We'll know a lot more after the first year and we see how much demand for this there really is."

Hendricks's business plan for the single-entity league is conservative, even for a start-up. He projects average attendance of about 6,500 per game to start, and is planning on five full years without profits. Players will average about $40,000 per year, but Hendricks also has drafted a revenue incentive plan that gives players direct reason to help boost sponsorship, ticket sales and TV ratings.

The WUSA is not the first such uphill road traveled by Hendricks, whose laid-back demeanor and casual dress belies a more aggressive work ethic.

Hendricks, 47, started the upstart Discovery in 1985 without any experience as a TV executive and facing rival company National Geographic and its more than 100-year head start.

While National Geographic had considerably more awareness among the public, it was Hendricks and Discovery that executed on many of the fundamentals. Discovery was the first to start a mainstream 24-hour cable network for science and exploration, first to significantly branch into retail and first to capitalize fully on the Internet. The company now generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

"[The WUSA] looks like a very serious operation, very organized," said Neville Waters, marketing manager for the D.C. Sports Commission. The commission operates RFK Stadium, where Hendricks likely will place the local team for at least its first year.

Hendricks was approached two years ago by D.C. United president and general manager Kevin Payne to buy into the team, which is still on the market. While intrigued, Hendricks said he felt the approximately $5 million he was looking to invest in pro sports would not go very far with MLS.

"I like getting in on the ground floor. That's where the excitement is. I felt there was something truly special going on between these girls and the public, and wanted to be a central part of bringing that to the next level," Hendricks said.

"I value the MLS opportunity, but $5 million goes a lot farther here. It's a more attractive investment. [MLS] is already up and running, and that money gives you, essentially, a minority stake in one franchise. Here I'm a bigger part of this league and have the chance to do something really great."

MLS, meanwhile, is mum on its specific plans.

"We want to serve the best interest of not only women's soccer, but soccer in general," MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said. "We are continuing to have discussions with the WUSA and USSF and are proceeding with our plans."

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