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WUSA fires opening salvo in battle with MLS for Division I sanction.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, April 18, 2000) -- It's been a little more than a week since Women's United Soccer Association founder John Hendricks held a wide-ranging telephone press conference. What he said during that teleconference, and what has transpired since, can be viewed in one of two ways: he is either trying to force his potential competitor, Major League Soccer, to the bargaining table on his terms; or else he is throwing down the gauntlet and effectively issuing a challenge to both MLS and the United States Soccer Federation.
In the teleconference, Hendricks announced preliminary funding to the tune of $40 million, most coming from big cable TV companies like Time-Warner, Cox and Comcast. He also announced that initially the league would likely have eight franchises in New York, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando\Tampa, Fla.; San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
In addition he named eight back-up markets where the league could go if satisfactory arrangements could not be made with one of the initial eight. Those markets are Chicago, Columbus, Ohio; Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Portland, Ore.; Raleigh, N.C.; and St. Louis.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, he announced a television agreement whereby Turner Sports will televise 15 games a season and CNN\Sports Illustrated will televise seven. No dollar figure was put on the TV contract.
The tone of the news conference was almost matter-of-fact. This is our funding. This is where we are going to play. This is who is going to televise our matches. The subtext was, "We're here, we're playing, get used to it."
But of course WUSA still has to face some pretty tall hurdles. The first, and probably the biggest, is the fledgling league must win the sanction of U.S. Soccer. Then it must find coaches and players, organize a schedule, find eight stadiums, hire eight front office and sales staffs, market its product, sell tickets and open the gates, all by next April.
As much as WUSA wants to appear that its doors are open and it's ready for business, Major League Soccer also will submit, by the May 1 deadline, a plan to operate the U.S.’s first Division I women’s league. Thus MLS is also seeking U.S. Soccer’s endorsement, as well as that of world governing body FIFA.
To gain sanction, candidates had to declare their intentions to file by April 1 and have the full proposal submitted by May 1. WUSA has already submitted its formal proposal, which it continues to supplement. MLS has filed its letter-of-intent and says it will have a formal proposal at Soccer House in Chicago by the May 1 deadline. Two other groups, one in Florida, one in Texas also filed letters-of-intent, but neither is expected to file an actual full proposal.
After May 1, U.S. Soccer will turn the proposals over to a four- or five-person committee made up of members of its national board of directors and headed by Burton Haimes, a board member and a commissioner of the U.S. Soccer Youth Council. The committee will evaluate the two proposals, hear from both sides, and will report back to the board, which will vote at its annual meeting in New York in August.
It is likely the full board will ask both sides to make formal presentations. The board will then vote to sanction one, both or neither. Most believe it will make a choice and will sanction only one.
The exact form of the MLS proposal is unclear, but the assumption is they will suggest putting franchises in eight to 10 of the current MLS cities, and running them jointly with the men’s teams in terms of stadiums, sales and marketing.
So it appears to be a two-horse race. Many in the soccer world are dismayed that Hendricks and MLS appear on a collision course. Thus the two ways of interpreting the flurry of announcements from WUSA.
On the one hand Hendricks may be trying to force MLS not only to the bargaining table, but on his terms. He says he has sent a letter to MLS commissioner Don Garber suggesting that WUSA and MLS enter into an agreement of cooperation in areas like shared stadiums, conflict free scheduling, marketing and promotion while reinforcing that the two will remain very separate and distinct. But on the other hand, he might also want to make it appear that WUSA is so far down the road already it would be fruitless for MLS to oppose him.
MLS reportedly already feels burned by Hendricks. The two sides were in negotiations earlier in the year when Hendricks broke off the talks and made the public announcement that WUSA would start play next April.
There is some question about how serious MLS is about women's soccer. Many in women's soccer believe MLS is getting involved to try to keep the women's game from conflicting with the men's game. But MLS does have owner\investors who could easily meet or exceed the $40 million committed by Hendricks’ group. And the league does have a structure in place that would take WUSA years and millions of dollars to develop.
Right now, this is a contest for the hearts and minds of the 41 members of U.S. Soccer's national board. To gain sanction, one of the two proposed leagues will need 21 votes. Going in, MLS clearly has perhaps 10 votes - those of MLS officials and players who sit on the board (including Garber himself). WUSA might have a like number of votes coming from allies who sit on the board as well as those who oppose anything MLS is for. Thus the contest is to swing as few as a dozen individuals.
The latest salvo from WUSA is a letter signed by 20 members of the victorious U.S, Women’s World Cup team. Going beyond their initial support for the WUSA proposal, these 20 women who would be the marquee players in any women's professional league say flat out they will only play for the WUSA.
Clearly these women believe MLS only wants to get involved with women's soccer to be able to control it. But if MLS gets the sanction, does this become a letter of mass resignation?
Sort of lurking in the background of this latest flurry of announcements by Hendricks and the 20 players is the idea that the WUSA will go forward with or without sanctioning. If MLS wins sanctioning and WUSA decides to go it alone as an outlaw league, a real mess will surely ensue.
Whatever Hendricks and WUSA's motives, what is clear is that the announcements resulted in a public relations
coup. Reading the dozens of next-day newspaper stories in papers across the country, WUSA was treated as a certainty,
one that would begin play next April with the world's greatest women players and a fat television contract. Maybe,
maybe not. The next six months will be interesting for women's soccer.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
e-mailed at email@example.com..
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..