It Seems To Me . . .
WUSA opens on big stage, but how will
it play over time?
By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, April 11, 2001) -- The Women’s United Soccer Association kicks off its inaugural season Saturday at RFK Stadium in the Nation’s Capital with the Washington Freedom taking on the snappily named Bay Area CyberRays (two "R’s," second capitalized, if you please).
As this is being written, I have no idea how many people will pass through the turnstiles at RFK, nor do I know how many people will tune into the match on TNT. Further, I don’t know what the quality of play will be. But no matter how many people do or don’t turn out or tune in, no matter whether the quality of play is world class or something much less, judgments being made on the league, or on its future, should not be determined by this one match.
Over the past six weeks, in the local Washington media, it is impossible to have missed the incessant advertising for the opening match. Mia versus Brandi. In television spots. In radio ads. In full page, color newspaper ads. On the sides of buses. It is likely that WUSA has spent more advertising this one match than Major League Soccer’s D.C. United spent in advertising in the last two years. So what happens Saturday is not a true test.
On Sunday, July 15, six of the league’s eight teams will be in action. San Diego will be at Carolina. New York will travel south down I-95 to D.C. Those CyberRays will come east again to play in Boston. This will be a better day to judge exactly how the WUSA is doing. Will interest in the league have gown or waned from opening day? Will more or fewer people tune into the three regional cable broadcasts? The level of play for the league should be well established by midseason. What will it be?
July 16 may be the date by which we have some definitive answers on the WUSA.
In the meantime, league officials seem to be trying to somewhat diminish expectations. In the great flurry of activity following the league’s kickoff announcement, they were saying publicly that they expected to easily fill the lower bowl of RFK and more, drawing maybe 30,000 seats for the inaugural match. Privately, some in the Freedom offices were saying a sellout of 52,000 was possible.
Now, depending on the weather and how many ticket vouchers sold as part of a flex plan are turned in for opening day tickets, the crowd will be about 20,000 with perhaps a few thousand more if it turns out to be a lovely spring day and there is a decent walkup sale. Depending on one’s perspective, that might be a disappointing, but probably not embarrassing crowd -- below 15,000 would be embarrassing, bordering on a disaste). Or again, 20,000 to some might be a nice crowd, one which holds great promise for the future. Glass half full or half empty, take your choice.
When the league was launched, with great hoopla following the United States women’s Women’s World Cup title in 1999, plan was to begin modestly by rigidly controlling operating costs. The league’s backers believed that the WUSA would almost instantly become the dominant force in women’s professional sports and that the world would beat a path to its door in terms of sponsors willing to pay top dollar top reach a young, female, demographic.
Initially, the league said that given the sponsorships it was confident of selling, the break-even point would be as low as an average attendance less than 6,000 a match. But surprise, the league has not found sponsors willing to pay top dollar, and as a result it has had to revise its financial projections to the point where the league now says it will need an average of 8,000 fans at every match, paying an average ticket price of $11 to not lose money. Certainly modest by most professional standards, but will WUSA be able to attain it?
WUSA officials insist they have more than enough money in the bank to last two full seasons, if no one shows up, and has additional cash pledges to finanace a third season. But who are these sponsors, and what is their motive?
On one level, we are told that the men behind this league are very rich guys who wanted to do something for their daughters. So to that extent, since they are not in it to get rich, they are prepared for the long haul. More exactly, most of the money in the league comes from cable television giants -- Cox, Time-Warner, Comcast. They see the league as a way of instantly developing exclusive programming for their regional sports channels, and one which will reach that holy grail of advertisers, a young, female audience.
What will be interesting to see is what happens if this audience does not materialize. To this extent, the WUSA is not unlike XFL football. Just as NBC is set to bail on the XFL after a season of setting records for the lowest ratings ever on network television, what will the cable broadcasters being the WUSA do if no one is tuning in?
It has become almost a cliché to say the U.S. is a big event country. People turn out for Olympics or World Cups. But as MLS has learned, getting fans to buy tickets week in and week out is a much different proposition.
As far as women’s soccer is concerned, U.S. fans are used to seeing the best 11 players, the U.S. national team, on the field. Those players, with a small number of very good foreign players, have now been spread over eight teams. To be somewhat harsh, this means that in any WUSA match, about half or more of the players or more on the field never have been close to playing for their nation.
If this becomes the level of play, how will fans react? One school of thought is the level of play is almost irrelevant because there is a universe of young girls available to cheer for their role models.
This will play itself out over the coming months. By mid-July, for better or worse, the league should be established. Then some judgments will be valid. Good or bad, it will be premature to judge what transpires Saturday and the following weekend.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..