- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

Mia Hamm is seemingly the reluctant face of women's soccer.

She lends her image to the cause, just not her personality.

She dares to be bland in a market that dares to have the Redskins, Michael Jordan and Jaromir Jagr.

Hamm is possibly the best women's soccer player ever, and possibly the least transcendent superstar ever.

Hamm is in her second season with the Washington Freedom of the Women's United Soccer Association. The details matter in her case, judging by the corporal's guard at RFK Stadium.

The league is a rumor, the lead player stuck in the disconnect.

Attendance is flat-lining, and the red ink is considerable. There is no there there with Hamm and the WUSA, no buzz, no nothing beyond a distant hope to stem the financial losses before it is too late.

This was not the blueprint three summers ago, when Hamm and the U.S. women's national team tapped a nerve with the masses en route to winning the World Cup.

Even then, as the star among stars, Hamm made an effort to be indistinct from her teammates. She brokered a certain peace with those who suspected otherwise, which complemented the egalitarian message. As it turned out, it was Brandi Chastain who made the most lasting impression after she removed her jersey in celebration of the championship.

That was said to be an arrival of sorts for Hamm and women's soccer, if not for women in general, as always.

America, given its flag-waving enthusiasm around the team, was deemed ready, again, to support a women's team sport. Hamm, logically, was the star of the vehicle, the WUSA. Her endorsement power, with Nike, Gatorade and the milk mustache ads, provided the synergy that big-money types covet.

If she did not exist, the WUSA would have invented her. She had the numbers, the face and name recognition to boost a fledgling league.

Three years later, the marketing dream is fuzzy, the public relations bump still on hold. Hamm's effect on the WUSA has been negligible. A good measure of the burden is hers. The job of a pioneer is not easy, especially with an enterprise desperately trying to find an audience. The job requires that certain something, that indefinable something called charisma.

Cheryl Miller and Nancy Lieberman-Cline, two of the pioneers in women's basketball, instinctively understood this and became skilled practitioners at sticking their faces wherever it might do some good. They became so good at it, in fact, that they took up being talking basketball heads.

The artifice is important enough in a culture that embraces the maxim that perception is reality. If you are inundated with a message long enough, a segment of the population is bound to come around to it eventually, buying it, believing it or spouting it as their own. That is one of the NBA's marketing elements with the WNBA.

Hamm has never quite seemed fitted to the role of promoter, preferring to let her deeds on the field speak for her. That's the old-school way, and nothing against old school, as far as it goes.

In the age of a zillion cable channels and the 24/7 news cycle, however, the understated are often underappreciated. The American attention span is not what it once was.

No sizzle means no resonance. The WUSA might as well be the call letters of an out-of-the-way radio station, so soft its impact.

Hamm speaks diplomatically of the promotional challenges ahead amid the sobering accounting of $40 million in losses. It probably is just as well.

The vast emptiness in the stands is all too clear, and Hamm, the face of women's soccer, is all too remote.

If Hamm and the WUSA are destined to go down, the dignity is in the fight.

Given the circumstances, they can't do too many soccer clinics, sign too many autographs, speak at too many functions and consent to too many interviews.

The way the WUSA is going, Hamm and the rest of the players in the league may have to consider going door-to-door to sell tickets.

It is just a thought.

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