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It Seems To Me . . .

U.S. Soccer dispute with World Cup champs defies easy solution.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, January 7, 1999) -- I guess I'll jump in where angels fear to tread, so to speak. In the current pay dispute between the women who comprised the World Cup team last year, and the United States Soccer Federation, I kinda feel sorry for U.S, Soccer.

I will explain "kinda" in a minute. First, let me explain why I don't think this is a black-and-white quarrel, with the heartless men who run U.S. Soccer (and yes, I will admit it's basically a male-only fraternity) in the wrong, and the wonderful and victorious ladies who made up the team (and yes, they were both) in the right.

By now, I would assume most of you know the details of the current impasse. The women's contract with U.S. Soccer expired after the World Cup last summer. The national team has the week-long Australia Cup starting tomorrow, a major friendly against arch-rival Norway scheduled in February and then an important international tournament in Portugal in March, all leading up to the Summer Olympics this September in Australia.

The details of the dispute are themselves in sharp dispute. The women are said to want a new long-term contract running through the next World Cup, at a significant increase over their last contract. U.S. Soccer has stated it simply does not have enough information to be able to base a long term-offer, and would like the women to agree to a one year deal with a raise. The women supposedly said no to a one-year deal. U.S. Soccer supposedly offered a two-month "bridge" contract to cover the three matches in Australia and the Norway match in Florida.

The women say the amount being offered was less than they made last summer, and a major step backwards. U.S. Soccer says that is categorically untrue, and the bridge contract would simply have extended what the women were making last summer for the World Cup.

Neither side right now is doing much talking about the dispute in public. But privately both accuse each other of all sorts of bad faith, and a refusal to be reasonable.

I think I agree that U.S. Soccer does not have some of the basic information it needs to enter in an agreement with the women that will carry through the next women's World Cup. Effectively, what U.S. Soccer is saying is that it lacks the ability to predict the future in three critical areas.

Right now, no one can say when the next women's World Cup is going to be played. The women are asking for a significant amount based mainly on a prediction of what they will bring in sponsorship and rights fees at the next World Cup, based on the popularity of last summer's event.

U.S. Soccer has certain sponsors. It has annual budgets for promotions. If the next Women's World Cup is going to be in 2002, the same year as the men's, as world governing body FIFA has suggested, these sponsors are not going to be able to double what they can spend on soccer. If the two World Cups are played in the same year, U.S. Soccer stands to lose millions in sponsorship dollars.

It is not unreasonable to say U.S. Soccer can't negotiate a contract with the women built around possible future World Cup income, especially sponsorship income, until it knows when it will be played. U.S. Soccer is being asked to believe the tremendous popularity engendered by the women's national team last summer will continue into the future. Hopefully it will, but there is, at best, only mixed evidence right now.

We are asked to remember the sold out audiences who watched the women play last summer. But leading up to those moments, there were many crowds numbered in the thousands, and not the tens of thousands. The women have a number of events coming up in the U.S. in the coming months in which to prove the degree of their popularity. After the 2000 U.S. Women's Cup and CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup, as well as the Olympics television numbers, U.S. Soccer, and for that matter them women themselves, will have a much firmer basis on which to judge exactly what the popularity of the women's game is with the ticket buying public.

Thirdly, by this fall, U.S. Soccer should know whether there is going to be a women's professional league started in this country. Any number of the women have been quoted in various publications saying all they want is the same deal the men get. That is simply not true. They want a lot more.

The men who play on the national team get transportation and per-diem, basically meal money, when they are in national team training camps such as the one currently underway in California. Then they are paid fees for national team matches in which they appear. Finally, they get bonuses for certain victories and for things such as qualifying for the World Cup or making it into the semifinals of a major event like the Confederations Cup.

The women are demanding that they essentially continue to be hired on a full-time basis, with all sorts of perks like housing, meals, training facilities and personnel, travel to and from homes on a regular basis, paid visits by spouses and significant others, and much more. The critical difference is the lack of a viable women's professional league in the U.S., or for that matter anywhere in the world. There are some women's leagues in Germany and northern Europe, but they are essentially semi-professional at best.

If there is to be a women's professional league starting in 2001, then U.S. Soccer can offer to the women exactly what they say they want, the same deal as the men. Then their primary employers will be there professional teams, and not the national team and U.S. Soccer.

Now let's go back to the "kinda" I started this column with. I only kinda feel sorry for U.S. Soccer because it seems to have gone out of its way to screw all this up. U.S. Soccer likes to portray itself as kind of an all-volunteer assembly of good-hearted amateurs out to do good for the sport of soccer. In fact, it is an organization led by highly paid (note, I say highly-paid, and not simply well-paid) professionals who should be turning in professional performances, but are not.

When U.S. Soccer's leadership saw the sold-out Rose Bowl for the Women's World Cup final, the television numbers and Brandi Chastain's picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it should have moved quickly to consolidate the gains and to ready the organization for the future. It did not. The leadership just bumbled along, sort of ignoring the whole thing, as it continued to squabble internally over whether the organization is already paying too much attention to the professionals and international game at the expense of the youth and amateur divisions.

U.S. Soccer supposedly has a deal in place with the most savvy international sports marketing organization in existence -- International Management Group. One would think the executives of IMG, looking at the unqualified success of the Women's World Cup, would have thrown a phalanx of their best and brightest executives and marketers behind the women's team and, by now, U.S. Soccer would be beating off potential sponsors with a stick. But as far as one can tell, the vaunted IMG has done next to nothing.

So one can only feel "kinda" sorry for U.S. Soccer. It is hard to tell what the answer is. It would seem an equitable settlement would be to give the women a reasonable one-year contract with clauses that guarantee certain payment levels in a longer-term deal, based on whether various things that happen or don't happen.

What does appear to be the case is a certain absence of good will on both sides. That does not bode well for a quick and painless resolution of this dispute.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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