- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

There are stars in women's soccer, and then there is the Washington Freedom's Mia Hamm.

Hamm, the world's all-time greatest goal scorer with 128, insists she's not the only player in the inaugural Women's United Soccer Association. She's right, of course, but can you name anyone else?

Although she won't acknowledge it, at 28 Hamm is unquestionably the brightest star in the eight-team league as it approaches its inaugural season. She has been the biggest star on the international stage for 10 years. Your neighbor's 9-year-old daughter knows who Mia Hamm is but probably couldn't identify Sun Wen or her country (China).

Hamm, who is bothered by an injured shoulder, didn't participate in team drills as the Freedom opened their first training camp yesterday at chilly RFK Stadium. Instead she worked out on the side.

The product of Burke, Va.'s Lake Braddock High School says she will do what it takes to establish the WUSA but don't expect her to carry it on her shoulders.

"I don't think [Michael] Jordan founded the NBA," Hamm said. "I'm proud to be part of this league. I'm proud to be able to compete in it. There is a responsibility that we all carry. I don't consider myself any better or any worse than any player out here… . My biggest responsibility is to my team on the field."

Nonetheless, the league is counting on Hamm's star power to sell its product. The WUSA season opener is at RFK on April 14, when the Freedom play the Bay Area CyberRays on national television.

"Mia is Mia, and the fans have made her the kind of Michael Jordan of our sport," said John Hendricks, WUSA founder and chairman. "She assumes that role, and she knows the responsibility. So she is a great ambassador for our league. She's put her life into this.

"This is kind of an interesting moment. It's a decade after that first 1991 World Cup win. These players, and certainly Mia, have put in a long decade worth of work in building the sport, being great role models, connecting with the fans, signing autographs and not turning them away."

When Hamm began playing soccer as a child, she never expected to see a women's pro league in this country. Hendricks, also the founder and chairman of Discovery Communications Inc., has secured prominent television deals with TNT, CNN/SI and the Lifetime network.

This season TNT and CNN/SI will combine to televise 22 games nationally, 15 on TNT and seven on CNN/SI, including the playoffs and championship game. Hendricks' four-year television deal calls for a total of 88 games to be shown.

"Every team has at least half of their remaining games televised locally," said Freedom general manager Katy Button, who played the sport at Georgetown.

Hendricks enlisted heavyweights of the cable television industry to join as league investors. He approached Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Comcast Corporation after the 1999 Women's World Cup and received overwhelming support with a total of $64 million having been committed to the league.

Hendricks predicts WUSA also will garner $14 million to $20 million in sponsorship fees.

As a result of such a huge financial commitment, the WUSA has some of the world's top international players, such as Sun, Canadian forward Charmaine Hooper, Brazilian midfielder Sissi and English forward Kelly Smith, plus Norwegian midfielder Hege Riise, defender Gro Espeseth and forward Dagny Mellgren.

Player salaries range between $24,000 and $80,000, not including various endorsement deals obtained by top players like Hamm.

Yesterday the club announced it has sold more than 2,000 season tickets with about six weeks left before the opener.

"Over time the league is going to need to enjoy average game attendance of around 7,500," Hendricks said. "Where we are today [in season ticket sales] is very good news."

The Freedom probably will draw more than 7,500 a game because of Hamm. Coach Jim Gabarra said he's going to curtail Hamm's off-field appearances now that the Freedom's preseason has started. Gabarra wants the league's biggest drawing card to play soccer as well as sell it.

"I want her to go out there and enjoy herself," Gabarra said. "I think when she's out there enjoying herself and relaxed, that's when she is a better player. Right now, as of today, training comes first. Any appearance or anything that gets in the way of that, it's my job to say, 'You can't do that because it's going to affect your training.' "

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