The Women’s United Soccer Association has learned the benefits of low expectations.
Midway through its inaugural season, the WUSA’s modest business plan not only has saved it from the massive hype and public scrutiny that lifted and ultimately doomed the XFL, but it has allowed the eight-team league to keep its focus on the field and its list of U.S. national team stars.
Average attendance through 47 of 83 games is 8,656, above the 7,500 mark projected in preseason. TV ratings on TNT have averaged 0.4, below the 0.7 mark predicted but not abysmal considering its Saturday afternoon placements on cable. Losses will top $8 million for the season, but no profits were expected until 2006 anyway.
But it’s more important to league officials that there have been no public relations disasters to wrest away control over image-making. In short, the country has yet to be captivated by women’s pro soccer, but the WUSA appears nowhere near life support either.
“Everyone here would have liked to have started really strong out of the box,” said Kerry Tatlock, WUSA’s vice president of television and new media. “But we’re all realistic and understand we need to work and develop an audience.”
Before the season’s start, league founder John Hendricks developed a five-year business plan and projected a slow, steady growth for the fledgling league. So far, he’s gotten exactly that.
Three of the first seven league games ended in fan-unfriendly scoreless ties. Scoring has picked up somewhat in the weeks since, and so have ticket sales. Atlanta, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and New York have all posted crowds above 10,000 since Memorial Day.
Washington midfielder Mia Hamm, the superstar of the American team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, started the season as a rather reluctant focal point of the WUSA. But she, too, has since warmed to the limelight and is now tied for the league lead in assists.
“They set expectations reasonably low, and they’re now finding out what every new league must and that getting shelf space in the mind of the sports fan is a challenge,” said David Carter, a Los Angeles sports business consultant and lecturer. “Where they evolve from here, how they ultimately make a profit, those are the questions ahead.
“But the best news for them right now is that they haven’t stepped in any landmines,” Carter said.
The WUSA is not without its problems, however. Take away the two wildly successful Washington Freedom-D.C. United doubleheaders at RFK Stadium, each drawing in excess of 30,000 people, and the league’s average draw falls by more than 1,000 to 7,609. Take away the Freedom altogether and the typical turnout for the rest of the league is 7,228.
Some of the low numbers are a function of the small buildings where some WUSA teams play. Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego, where the Spirit play, seats just 7,000. And there are four other stadiums that don’t top 12,000 in maximum capacity.
But the WUSA commands little buzz among mainstream American sports fans or within pop culture. There are few mentions of the league on late night talk shows, sports talk radio or other avenues that can help turn a developing enterprise into a bona fide hit.
“We obviously want to cast the net wider and keep finding ways to reach fans,” Tatlock said. “Whether that be the production of our TV games, such as miking more players, our advertising in and out of the stadiums, the Internet, whatever. We simply need to continue building awareness of who we are.”
Scheduling also has been something of a problem. The WUSA would love to have more than the two doubleheaders they have had at RFK Stadium this season. However, no others are slated for this season, and next year may not see more than a handful, largely because of differing schedules between MLS, WUSA and next year’s World Cup.
“You also can’t simply assume what works in one market automatically will in another,” Carter said. “A chord may have been struck in D.C. The league has been very deliberate so far in the execution of their strategy, and there’s really no reason to deviate from that.”
Despite the unspectacular beginning, WUSA already is thinking expansion. Nine cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas, are under consideration. No additional teams will play in 2002, but league officials hope to make a decision by this winter on 2003 and give any new franchises a full year to organize.
“You simply cannot replace time,” said Shaun May, WUSA spokesman. “We’ve already seen a significant difference in the success of teams that were set up earlier to those established later.”