- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

Even John Hendricks, founder of the Women's United Soccer Association, acknowledges he's asking a lot of sports fans.

The chairman of Discovery Communications is starting a new sports league when fans have seen almost nothing but new leagues in recent years. Just since 1996, established leagues have been joined by Major League Soccer, the WNBA, XFL, Major League Lacrosse, Arena Football 2, and nearly a dozen other indoor soccer and lacrosse leagues and minor league basketball associations.

So WUSA inherits the immediate challenge of differentiating itself from the pack, and not just because it's the league where Mia Hamm now plays.

"There's a lot of competition out there, not only for the entertainment dollar but for the family dollar," Hendricks said. "We know we absolutely have to execute and consistently deliver a superior product on the field."

But where nearly every one of the other start-up leagues has failed outright or experienced serious declines in support, WUSA feels it's poised for success, even if it doesn't come right away.

Hendricks is banking on a potentially potent combination of a conservative long-term business plan; significant TV exposure on TNT, CNN/SI and local cable; long-term commitments from well-heeled investors and the star power of the U.S. national team players who became global celebrities after winning gold in the 1999 Women's World Cup.

"The initial game [tomorrow at RFK Stadium] will be very exciting," Hendricks said. Ticket sales for the opener between the Washington Freedom and Bay Area CyberRays have exceeded 23,000, more than triple the projected average league attendance.

"But we're really designed for a steady, gradual build," Hendricks said. "We feel we're doing something special, really unique. We're giving a whole generation of young girls heroes to look up to and delivering the best competition of women's soccer in the world."

That last part premier competition is something Major League Soccer has long sought and failed to deliver. Of course, MLS is competing against myriad top-quality European and South American leagues, while the WUSA goes unchallenged and boasts a litany of top international stars still in their primes. But the WUSA is still trying to avoid the image pitfalls of not being able to deliver on a business goal.

"Major League Soccer has always strived to be a big league, a significant player," said David Carter, president of Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based industry consulting firm. "I think WUSA better understands its place on the sports food chain.

"People expected a fair amount out of MLS initially, and definitely a lot out of the WNBA given their backing by the NBA. Fans may not be expecting quite so much out of the WUSA, and are as a result in a position to be pleasantly surprised."

Despite the confidence of Hendricks and his fellow investors in their plan, WUSA leaders still looked elsewhere for guidance. The league last May reached a cooperation agreement with MLS, which created a few doubleheaders and joint marketing efforts, as well as heading off development of a rival MLS women's league that WUSA might have conquered anyway.

Hendricks and other senior WUSA executives also met several times with WNBA leaders for advice and ideas.

"The main thing we told them was to be patient," said Paula Hanson, chief operating officer of the WNBA, which has seen attendance fall sharply the last two years. "Every game won't be a sellout."

Beyond the play itself, the WUSA is pushing a wholesome, family-friendly image to draw fans again something MLS, WNBA and other start-ups have sought and failed to deliver consistently. Even though Hamm, Brandi Chastain and other former national team members who form the core of the WUSA player base are now professionals, they are still seeking to benefit from the ideals that endear many fans to amateur athletes.

"These girls are the real thing. They are what sports are supposed to be about, the sacrifice, the belief in a dream," said Donna de Varona, a former Olympic swimmer, Women's World Cup tournament chairwoman and longtime advocate of women's athletics. "They've fought so hard to get here. This is such a great day for women's sports."

That apple pie image attracted Hyundai Motor America to sign a four-year deal and become one of the WUSA's two charter sponsors. Beyond purchasing a large package of TV commercials and stadium signage, the Korean automaker will sponsor a $1 million kick contest during the championship game Aug. 25.

"Our parent company already was a sponsor of the Women's World Cup, so we were already familiar with women's soccer," said Robert Dutcheshen, Hyundai's director of promotions. "Our target demographics match very closely. We're both very much going after families, young people. This was already an attractive opportunity, but this also gave us a way to get involved in a [pro] sport at a very deep level. A lot of the major sports are already [fully] sponsored."

But while WUSA can count on families with young children, a group industry analysts call "the minivan crowd," building beyond that audience will be critical to the league's long-term survival.

"They've got a decent formula now, but ultimately they need to reach out and engage a much broader audience," Carter said. "The World Cup fed off a strong nationalistic pitch that won't be there now."

Hendricks and other WUSA officials similarly admit they must cultivate new stars and not rely too heavily on Hamm, Chastain and the other national team players. In the early going, however, it will be those household names that receive the bulk of the league's marketing push.

"Most Americans don't know any of the players when a new league gets going. But most Americans, I think, can blurt out more than one name in our league already," Hendricks said. "We've got a real potent base to build from in the World Cup win."

Hamm and the more expressive Chastain accept their off-field responsibilities willingly, if somewhat reluctantly.

"Mia and I happen to be in a position where we can speak for our [national team] teammates," Chastain said. "The only way we can be successful is if we give our absolute, complete best, on and off the field. We've gained this opportunity, we're thankful for it, and now we have to make the best of it."

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