- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

In Washington’s vast sea of pro sports mediocrity, the Freedom, for the second straight year, are playing in the Women’s United Soccer Association title game.

But will there even be a WUSA to have a championship next year?

As the fledgling women’s soccer league completes its third season, the financial outlook is more clouded than ever.

Regular season attendance fell 4.2 percent to 6,667 per game this season, nullifying a successful season-ticket drive last winter and continuing a slide from 2001’s average of 8,104.

TV ratings on PAX again were barely on the radar, reaching just one-tenth of one percent of U.S. households with cable TV.

The league slashed salaries for players and front-office personnel in a $2million cost-cutting program this season, reducing WUSA’s annual losses. However, the cuts also fueled anxiety about the league’s future since they were instituted after the league burned through more than $70million in start-up capital.

Most unsettling is an ongoing switch in ownership structure from a single-entity model, in which the central league office controls all player contracts and most expenses, to a modified franchise model. The change — it gives local marketing, ticket sales and sponsorship control to individual teams — is designed to make the WUSA more attractive to current and future investors.

But it does not come without hurdles and in no way ensures future stability or success. The WNBA went through the same process earlier this year and saw two franchises fold and two others relocate because of it.

Already, some current investors, including Comcast Corp., have not decided whether to continue supporting the WUSA.

There is some question about the WUSA’s future. As of now, the league will be back in 2004, but it is undetermined in what form it will be.

Players, coaches and team personnel across the league are openly wondering about the future, including founding player Tisha Venturini-Hoch, who said recently the WUSA’s fiscal state is “coming down to the nitty-gritty.”

Even WUSA chief executive Lynn Morgan acknowledges the current footprint of eight teams — six of them based on the East Coast — could change, though the plan for next season is to continue with the same lineup.

“It’s fair to assume there are certainly no guarantees, in any business really,” Morgan said. “There’s a level of anxiety that’s more prevalent in some of our markets. It’s been a challenging year. With some of the budget reductions come questions. But our plan is to stay the course, try to build on what we’ve accomplished so far, and perhaps even expand our footprint in 2005.”

All is not completely lost for the WUSA. The league’s sponsor list, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson and Gillette, is impressive for an entity of its size and age.

Despite the rumblings from players about the WUSA’s uncertain future, those same players willingly agreed to take pay cuts, many 20 percent or more, to help improve the league. No further salary cuts are planned and the new ownership structure already enticed interest from several potential investors, Morgan said. She declined to identify any such suitors.

“I’ve been around leagues that have gone under, and I don’t get the same feeling that is going to happen. A couple of teams need new investors,” said Freedom coach Jim Gabarra.

The league contracted noted TV consultant Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, to help it shop for a new national TV deal.

“I wouldn’t be involved if this was one more year and out,” Pilson said. “I think they have an excellent product. There is an audience for this. It’s an issue of their finding the right carrier, someone who can put their arms around this and give it a marketing push, really get out and sell this product.”

Morgan echoes Pilson, and, despite the dramatic spending reductions, will seek additional marketing dollars from the WUSA Board of Governors this offseason. Morgan initiated marketing cuts in the broader cost-shedding before this season. She now admits that needs some type of reversal.

But the crucial issue is finding additional ways to generate revenue.

Attendance, a key driver of revenue, was diminished by this spring’s extremely wet weather on the East Coast. But, regardless of weather, a jump in average attendance to 10,000 or 15,000 appears unlikely anytime in the near future.

WUSA officials are hoping for a bump in fan interest from the upcoming Women’s World Cup, they also know it would be unwise to depend on it.

“It’s the same question that’s been there since the league’s inception: are the [fiscal] losses happening now just temporary, or are they going to hang around? Is there a true plan to get out of that?” said a source close to one of the WUSA investors.

Staff Writer Ken Wright contributed to this article.

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