- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

The thrill is gone, and so are the fans.

Mia Hamm and the Washington Freedom were hot commodities a year ago: heaping coverage in the national media, thousands of screaming fans, prominent celebrities openly supporting the fledgling Women's United Soccer Association.

Now, however, the second-year league is in trouble. It has lost more than $40million, much more than projected. Television ratings are minuscule. Attendance for the Freedom, who play in a near-empty RFK Stadium, and the WUSA as a whole is down sharply.

And perhaps worst yet, the considerable mainstream buzz about women's soccer that Hamm and others worked for years to generate now is largely extinguished.

Hamm, the Freedom's reluctant star attraction, has not been able to help much. She played most of last season with knee and shoulder pain and as a midfielder instead of striker, curbing her legendary goal-scoring skills. The Freedom finished tied for last in the league.

A year later, Hamm's road to recovery and return to the limelight are still works in progress. After a seven-month absence from all competitive soccer because of knee surgery, Hamm returned to action last month, and flourishes of her usual high level of play are easily evident.

To be certain, Hamm remains a bona fide star of the WUSA and holds the unofficial title of best women's soccer player ever. But she is neither the league's best player nor resident sex symbol. And her ability to be a transcendent force to drive mass interest to the sport, at the least for the moment, has been dulled.

"We all have responsibilities; we all have roles to play in developing the league," Hamm said. "But sometimes roles change. My role probably has changed to a degree. I'm still getting out there, promoting this league. I really believe in what we're doing. But there are other players, very good players, and they're the future of this league. It's an important transition that's going on."

Discovery Communications chairman John Hendricks began his efforts to form the WUSA after the U.S. team's stirring victory in the 1999 Women's World Cup, a victory fueled by the play of Hamm. Later, he tapped her to lead the hometown Freedom, of which Hendricks is the lead investor.

It was Hamm who formed half of the widely hyped Mia vs. Brandi matchup in the league's inaugural game at RFK Stadium against the San Jose CyberRays led by Brandi Chastain. It was Hamm whom many of the 34,148 in attendance that warm April day came foremost to see.

And it was Hamm who was anointed to join Jaromir Jagr of the Capitals and Michael Jordan of the Wizards to form a powerful new trinity of Washington sports titans.

Hamm, as always, was unfailingly polite and forthright through it all. She spoke of the long dream to have a pro women's league. She spoke of being a positive example for young girls interested in sports. She signed autographs by the thousands and visited hospitals and community groups by the dozens.

But her focused sense of purpose and serious, shy persona betrayed her in front of cameras and in mass settings and still does. She doesn't have the natural bubbliness or open, charismatic presence of a Chastain or Julie Foudy.

And on the field, she hasn't dominated as she did before. New York's Tiffeny Milbrett won the league scoring title and MVP honors last season; Hamm didn't even make the WUSA first-team all-star squad. Hamm did win FIFA's World Women's Player of the Year honor for 2001, a new award created by soccer's global governing body.

"As Mia has come back, we've seen the skills we know she has," said Lynn Morgan, WUSA chief executive. "But last year was tough in a lot of ways. She certainly was playing with a lot of pressure, and the team was really trying to jell."

Hamm's New York-based agent, David Bober, said corporate interest in Hamm is as strong as ever. What has stopped, however, are the more unusual requests, such as posing for Playboy and doing appearances with the likes of Dennis Rodman that signify a broader, though perhaps not better, level of fame.

And like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, by far the two biggest names among sports endorsers, Hamm is paring down the roster of companies she endorses and seeks longer and deeper relationships with the blue-chippers left, such as Nike and Quaker Oats, makers of Gatorade.

"We're starting to ramp up again to the next World Cup and Olympics. That cycle is starting again," Bober said. "So I think you'll see as much Mia as you did before. Her marketability has not lessened."

Hamm's public exposure, however, did wane drastically during the long rehabilitation from knee surgery. Repairing a lesion on her left distal femur and then building back up muscle in the leg required her first extended layoff in more than 15 years of international-level soccer. Marketing of any type took a definite back seat.

"I never really had to do rehab before, and I'm still not really 100 percent," said Hamm, who returns to national team action this weekend. "It's been a real education. But my focus was definitely foremost on getting better and back on the field. One of the best ways I can help sell the team and the league is being back out there. I owe that to the team. I owe that to myself."

Endorsement advisers say the absence probably hurt Hamm, particularly considering the short memory of today's pop culture. Hamm's endorsement portfolio, while still garnering her an estimated $2million annually, is now far smaller than that of other top female endorsers like Venus and Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova.

"Mia is as strong an endorser as ever. It's much too soon yet in her career for her popularity to begin waning," said Bob Williams, president of Chicago-based Burns Sports & Celebrities, which matches endorsers and corporations. "But she needs to continue to play and stay in the news. She's very marketable and really brings the whole package. She just needs to keep doing what she does best, and that's play soccer."

When Hamm does play, it is before ever-dwindling crowds.

The WUSA expected a drop in attendance this season but has been surprised by the depth of the decline. The current league average of 6,727 is 19 percent behind last year's pace. The falloff is even more severe in Washington: The Freedom's average crowd of 7,728 trails last year's pace by a whopping 51 percent. Fans, spread among the cavernous seating bowl of 56,000-seat RFK Stadium, often appear miles away from one another.

"There are a lot of factors, not the least of which this is still a developing league, but Mia's absence early on was also one of those," said Freedom general manager Katy Button.

Away from Washington, the Freedom are easily the league's best road draw, which owes in no small part to Hamm.

Freedom and league officials, while obviously pleased with what Hamm does with community groups and after games with fans, speak even more glowingly of her ability to communicate with sponsors and fans in smaller settings. Away from the constant camera flashes and crushes of bodies pushing for an autograph, Hamm finally allows her shell to soften.

"She's gone with [Hendricks] to meet with sponsors and prospective sponsors, and she just charms the pants off of them," Button said. "It's the same with fan events. We had a VIP party earlier this year with maybe 100 people, and she took the time to speak with every single one of them. She's very bright and really effective dealing on that one-to-one level."

Hamm, the league and Freedom all know she is now probably at the beginning of the end of her career. Another World Cup and the 2004 Olympics await, and Hamm will be 32 when they are over. Beyond that, Hamm's future is uncertain. And WUSA executives are already preparing for Hamm to be away during large chunks of 2003 and 2004.

"We've started to have meetings with U.S. Soccer," Morgan said. "In the best of scenarios, we'll have a situation in which we'll be supportive of the national team and they'll help drive interest for us as well. Everybody's going to have their day [when they retire], but right now, Mia is still a very important part of this league."


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