- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

SAN DIEGO — At first glance, the scene on a recent Saturday night on the University of San Diego campus seemed to showcase all that is right about women’s professional sports. In the stands of cozy Torero Stadium, little girls in soccer jerseys squealed in unison when their favorite San Diego Spirit players were introduced. As the sun sank toward the Pacific Ocean, the Spirit got a late penalty kick from Julie Foudy to tie Atlanta 1-1. Soccer moms and dads bundled up their children and headed home happy. Beneath the idyllic setting, though, all is not well in the WUSA, which was founded in the giddy euphoria of the 1999 women’s World Cup with Foudy and 16 other U.S. team players holding a small equity stake. Now in its third year, player salaries have been slashed, TV ratings are almost nonexistent and the league is having trouble finding fans who aren’t under 18 and play on a soccer team. Things aren’t much better in the WNBA, which narrowly escaped its demise this spring after NBA owners threatened to pull the plug in the absence of a new labor contract. A new deal eventually was reached that keeps salaries capped at $622,000 a team, but even so, the 14-team league will lose at least $12million this year. Attendance is stagnant in WNBA arenas, teams in Miami and Portland folded, and the league can’t seem to expand its fan base. NBA commissioner David Stern remains a supporter, but there are rumblings among some NBA owners that the women’s league has run its course. “I couldn’t afford the Jazz if nobody came to a game,” Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller said when the Utah Starzz moved to San Antonio in the offseason after averaging only 7,240 a game. “It’s the same situation with the Starzz. We tried everything we knew how.” Indeed, it’s not for lack of trying. Since 1996, when the Atlanta Olympics served as a showcase for female athletes, promoters have launched five different women’s professional sports leagues, ranging from softball to volleyball. Three have folded, and the two that remain are hanging by a thread. And that doesn’t include two women’s semipro football leagues, where most players pay to be on the team and whose games are watched mostly by relatives and boyfriends. “Right now, we couldn’t fill a high school stadium,” said Catherine Masters, founder of the 37-team National Women’s Football Association. A quarter century after Title IX opened a new wave of college opportunities, the jury is still out on whether women’s pro teams can carve out more than the small niche they occupy in the multibillion-dollar sports business. Women’s tennis and golf do well at times, although the LPGA Tour always suffers in comparison to the riches of the men’s tour. And every four years at the Olympics, women’s figure skating and gymnastics are two of the most popular sports. But women’s sports leagues are proving a hard sell. The eight-team WUSA debuted in April 2001 with a Washington Freedom game that drew 34,148 fans, a number that has not been seen since. More troublesome for the league is that last year’s average attendance dropped to 6,957 from 8,116 the season before. “We’re being very patient in how we manage our expectations of growth,” WUSA president Lynn Morgan said. “The league is making progress and improving, but we have a long way to go.” The leagues have had little of the TV revenues that are the backbone of major men’s sports, relying instead on sponsorships and attendance. And they’ve done for the most part without men, who may be avid sports fans but not when it comes to watching women playing them. “Women’s professional sports are the new people on the block. They have to capture their audience,” said Neal Pilson, a TV sports consultant and former head of CBS Sports. “They don’t have the residual audience of men’s football, basketball and baseball. It’s a difficult environment out there.” It’s not just women’s soccer that men don’t seem to want to watch. Surveys by New York-based Scarborough Sports Marketing show that only 4percent of men say they follow women’s soccer even casually, while just 6percent have an interest in the WNBA. The LPGA fares a little better at 8percent, but it’s had a half-century to build even that audience. “They know they can’t get men interested. Men compare it to the NBA, and it’s a different level. So they try desperately to pitch it to women,” said boxing promoter Bob Arum, who has had his own problems trying to promote women’s boxing. “You go to these games, and the vast percentage of people are women and girls … but there’s not enough of them.” WNBA attendance is averaging a little more than 9,000 a game, down from the league’s high-water mark of 10,869 it drew during its second season. Filling seats is critical for both leagues because they get little in the way of TV revenues, forcing them to rely on sponsorships and ticket sales. In the WNBA’s first year, NBC got a 1.9 rating for league games, but by last year that rating had fallen more than half to a .9. Some games are on the Oxygen cable network, while the WUSA is shown mainly on local cable and on the PAX network. With no rights fees to speak of, the leagues must rely on getting women who may not be avid sports fans to buy tickets — a task that has proved more difficult than imagined. “Women in general aren’t accustomed to buying season tickets. They haven’t supported sports as spectators,” WNBA president Val Ackerman said. “We have to work harder to show them the benefits of season tickets and show them not only the basketball side of the equation but the people side.” Some WNBA teams, including Los Angeles and Seattle, have reached out to the lesbian community — a marketing strategy that may not work with some parents or in more conservative markets. The leagues have done well attracting young girls to games — a whopping 89 percent of fans at WUSA games are girls under the age of 18 — but that will pay off only if the leagues can survive long enough so those girls can someday buy their own tickets. “That’s what’s going to be huge if the league is around in 10 or 15 years,” said Monica Gerardo, who left the WUSA this year to become an assistant college coach. “Those little kids who are screaming in your ear all game long … they will be 30- to 35-year-olds coming to the games.” And if the number crunchers aren’t so optimistic, the players seem to be. “The future of the league is so bright,” said Sacramento Monarchs forward Demya Walker, a fourth year WNBA player. “Every league goes through growing pains and its ups and downs. I don’t see the WNBA going down anytime soon. I see it going up and up.”

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