- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

The forecast for pro women’s team sports in America is ominous.

Monday’s collapse of the Women’s United Soccer Association, a demise spurred by the loss of more than $100million, provided a decidedly downbeat but revealing look into the troubled financial state of women’s pro sports.

WUSA founder John Hendricks blamed the demise of the 3-year-old league on a lack of high-level corporate sponsorship. But the failure was in reality much broader, similar to that of the American Basketball League and the Women’s Professional Softball League — both of which were created after the 1996 Summer Olympics and disbanded in less than five years.

The WUSA’s average attendance dropped nearly 20 percent from its debut season of 2001 to this season. TV ratings were barely on the radar, and no immediate prospects existed for a new TV contract with significant guaranteed income. Merchandise sales were similarly small.

The story is very much the same for the WNBA, the United States’ other major pro sports league for women. Attendance this season dropped 4 percent to 8,830 a game, lowest in league history and the third drop in seven years.

Average TV ratings on ESPN were just 0.25 percent of homes with cable TV, despite an unprecedented wave of promotion. Two WNBA franchises folded, and two others moved this past offseason.

A bitter labor feud nearly forced the cancellation of the now-complete 2003 season, a dispute solved only when NBA commissioner David Stern strong-armed the players union into accepting a deal that gave ownership wins on nearly every economic battlefront. And even with labor peace restored, the WNBA is at least several years away from producing a profit.

Though some recent WNBA playoff games have drawn the same lively, full crowds as those in the NBA, the league’s long-term future is anything but secure.

“The demise of the WUSA is not necessarily a broad, sweeping statement on all of women’s sports. But this does remind us that fan and sponsor behavior are simply not going to change overnight,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “This [womens movement] is going to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. And you have to remember that traditional sports are still out there providing value to both fans and sponsors.”

The struggles of these pro sports are particularly jarring because women in such amateur sports as figure skating, gymnastics and track often draw far more fan interest than male counterparts.

Indeed, the only sports event besides the Super Bowl to rank among the 50 most-watched TV events of all time was the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding drama of the women’s figure skating competition at the 1994 Winter Olympics.

But the struggles of the women’s pro leagues indicate that high interest in amateur events, as well as robust participation rates by women in many sports, do not automatically transfer to pro level success. Hendricks conceded that he erred in believing such a seamless transfer would occur.

“Hindsight is 20-20,” said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “Every decision [the WUSA] made at the outset seemed the right thing at the right time. Looking back now, you see some things that could have been done differently. But this failure wasn’t about it being women’s sports. This was about the business proposition.”

WNBA commissioner Val Ackerman remains optimistic about her league. Even though the two franchises folded early this year, the league still is considering expansion and could do so as early as next year.

“Girls and women’s sports are a fact of life in today’s world, and we believe women’s pro team sports have a bright future in this country,” Ackerman said.

Hendricks, upon announcing the shutdown of the WUSA, said no independent women’s league can survive without a battery of major sponsors and patient, willing investors. The WNBA has that in the NBA, but that likely precludes any further high-profile entries in the near future.

“There has to be this critical sponsorship,” Hendricks said. “It’s feasible to have an independent women’s professional league. But without sponsorship support, I think the sport can only survive with an existing team or organization.”

One new women’s league, National Pro Fastpitch, is trying to buck that sentiment and succeed where its predecessor, the Women’s Professional Softball League, did not.

Set to begin play in eight cities next year, National Pro Fastpitch’s business model and expectations are extremely modest. Player salaries for the three-month summer season will not exceed $5,000, meaning no one will expect to earn a livelihood from the league. Total team budgets will not surpass $500,000, and league officials say an average attendance of 2,000 at the outset would be phenomenal.

Also aiding the Denver-based start-up is a formal affiliation with Major League Baseball that foremost provides marketing support and access to some of MLB’s key sponsors.

“We’re not trying to be anything than what we are,” said Rich Levine, NPF president. “It just blows me away to see what some of these leagues go through in terms of cash. We are projecting to be profitable by Year 3, but either way, we won’t lose a fraction of what those other leagues do.”

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