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WUSA, MLS agree to cooperate, but pact is far from comprehensive.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, May 23, 2000) -- According to the Major League Soccer and the Women's United Soccer Association, the two leagues "have agreed to a comprehensive cooperation plan that provides for a coordination of marketing and promotion, scheduling, and stadia development," as was stated in their press releases.
As I see it, not quite. Rather than an iron-clad, legally binding agreement requiring each side to do specific things, what seems to exist is sort of an agreement to agree within certain parameters.
It was not easy even to get to this point. It's clear neither side fully trusts the other. MLS, and its owner\operators, don't care all that much about women's soccer beyond wanting to ensure that any women's professional league does not negatively impact their league. Likewise, the people behind the WUSA have consistently shown their disdain for their counterparts in MLS, first by not even approaching them to buy into the new league, and then by saying privately how much they looked forward to going head to head with MLS.
A little history is needed to put this into perspective. After the Women's World Cup last summer, the initial backers of a potential women’s professional league paid MLS to have its chief operating officer and financial guru Mark Abbott draw up a business plan for them.
Reportedly, Abbott produced three versions. One called for a total alliance between MLS and the new investors; a second proposed an alliance, but not as close of one; and the third, that a new women's league would go it alone. To MLS it seemed obvious the third choice was the least attractive. Reportedly, league officials were "surprised" when Hendricks and his allies chose the third option.
From that point on, WUSA adopted pretty much of an "in-your-face" attitude both toward MLS and the United States Soccer Federation which ultimately sanctions a new Division I women's professional league.
WUSA announced to the world it would start play next April 1, no matter what.
The two sides have been talking merger or cooperation agreement since last year. Twice MLS insiders said they thought they had an agreement, but WUSA walked away from the table. WUSA then started to hold news conferences saying it had its investment money, a television contract with Turner Broadcasting, and the 20 members of the U.S. Women's World Cup champion team under contract. The league was ready to kick off.
"Is that so?" MLS seemed to ask, announcing it would submit a competing bid.
It would be hard to understate how desperate U.S. Soccer has been to head off a confrontation. Privately, U.S. Soccer officials have said they believed Hendricks' intentions were to start play next spring, with or without sanction. If sanction was not forthcoming they expected Hendricks to, as one official put it, "Play and sue," filing suit against U.S. Soccer, world governing body FIFA and MLS under anti-trust laws.
Reportedly, both U.S. Soccer president Dr. Bob Contiguglia and youth council chairman Burton Haimes, who heads the U.S. Soccer sanction committee, have worked furiously behind the scenes bringing the two sides back together and convincing both if they went toe-to-toe, everyone would lose.
One group of losers in this agreement are the lawyers representing both sides, and who represent U.S. Soccer. They might have had years of gainful employment had a showdown not been headed off.
At first blush, it is difficult to see what MLS gets out of this agreement. It would be easy to say it was settled pretty much the way WUSA wanted, with a little face-saving thrown in.
But that may not be true. Depending on how enthusiastically WUSA's backers throw themselves into the enterprise, the most valuable thing MLS gets is entry to the vast cable systems owned by those investors, companies such as Comcast, Cox, Time-Warner and Continental Cablevision. These systems have huge inventories of local commercial minutes that could be used to promote both women's and men's soccer. They also have a great deal of clout with ESPN.
MLS has always had the problem that it has operated out of a position of weakness with it's so-called "broadcast partners." If, in fact, the cable giants who make up the WUSA ownership structure throw their weight behind soccer, the sport might even start gaining an occasional mention on ESPN SportsCenter.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this agreement to agree is the two sides have indicated a willingness -- probably short of a contractual obligation at this time -- to take an equity stake in each other. This comes in the form of each agreeing to buy in and operate a franchise in the other's league, probably starting in the 2002 season.
Let me make a prediction here. MLS has said it will expand by two teams in 2002. It is obligated to award one to the owners of the MetroStars, possibly a second New York area team or one in Philadelphia. Houston is another prime possibility, but what eventually could happen is WUSA investors buying rights to the existing Dallas franchise.
The Burn remains owned by MLS, all attempts to find a buyer having failed. Dallas would be a natural target for WUSA expansion. It would make sense. On the flip side, two markets that WUSA is desperate to get into, but failed in the launch, are Chicago and Los Angeles. Stadium problems were insurmountable for WUSA in both cities.
Owner\investor Philip Anschutz is controlling partner of MLS franchises in both Chicago and Los Angeles. He has also announced plans to build soccer specific stadiums in both areas, so it would not be surprising to see an MLS-sponsored WUSA franchise in one of the two cities, and a joint stadium agreement in the other.
In a telephone conference call announcing the agreement, MLS commissioner Don Garber said "We're up against a fractured market already. We both face challenges ahead and together we can achieve a whole lot more than if we were to work independently."
WUSA chairman John S. Hendricks said "There's equal value to both sides in this agreement. We're providing millions of dollars worth of media time. MLS bring years of soccer operating experience. This is how agreements are forged -- equal value for both sides."
They are both probably correct. Now it will be interesting to see how WUSA is going
to pull everything together by next April. Right now, the league has no stadiums, no front
offices, and only 20 players. Starting a professional sports league is a major undertaking,
even when a complete infrastructure is in place as with the Women’s National Basketball Association and the NBA. It will be interesting to see if Hendricks can pull this off without an existing structure.
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..