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It Seems To Me . . .

WUSA's demise was hastened by rocky relationship with MLS.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, September 17, 2003) -- The shockingly swift demise of the Women's United Soccer League Monday opened to public view the long festering antipathy WUSA and Major League Soccer officials and investors felt toward one another.

It made no apparent sense to fold the league on the eve of the Women's World Cup, scheduled to begin Saturday. The central reason given for throwing in the towel was a lack of sponsor interest. However, there has to have been the possibility that another hugely successful World Cup, such as the one in 1999, would catch the attention of sponsors and convince them to sign on the dotted line for at least one year.

How lame is the excuse that after reportedly losing $100 million over three years -- a figure very hard to fathom -- John Hendricks, the league's founder and chairman of its board of governors, said it had to cease operations immediately or risk the ability to give reasonable severance packages to its employees. Moreover, Hendricks went out of his way to say that the World Cup offered no real hope of any revised interest in women's soccer. So the plug had to be pulled now.

It appears that the WUSA's owners thought they had a appeal of last resort. They thought that if all else failed, major MLS investor Phil Anschutz would come along and bail them out. Reportedly, they approached Anschutz Entertainment Group two weeks ago for bridge funding to get them through next season, and they were turned down.

It just so happens that AEG is a major participant in SUM, Soccer United Marketing, the promotional company formed by MLS and a number of its investors. SUM owns the television and marketing rights to this Women's World Cup. By grabbing the headlines in a negative way just days before the competition kicks off, Hendricks and company probably hurt the marketability of the competition and possibly its level of viewership.

Take that Phil Anschutz.

The fact is, the hostility between the WUSA and MLS goes back four years to when Hendricks was organizing the fledgling league after the 1999 Women's World Cup. He and the other potential initial WUSA investors went to MLS and asked the league to draw a business plan for them. MLS executive vice president Mark Abbott did that, essentially calling for something of a partnership between MLS and the proposed new women's owners group.

It was rejected out of hand by the WUSA investors, and they went their own way. Many in MLS felt almost duped. There was no way MLS and its investors now were going to bail Hendricks and company out. The simple fact is, if Phil Anschutz wants to get involved in women's soccer, his smartest move is to let the WUSA disappear, and then to start his own league. Is there a WMLS just over the horizon?

Still, the demise of the WUSA does leave unanswered a central and fundamental question. Is there a market for a women's professional soccer league in this country? If so, was the WUSA was simply unable to reach it? Or does that market not really exist?

To listen to Hendricks, he seems to be saying there is no market. He says he and his fellow investors had unrealistic expectations. "I was intoxicated by what I witnessed during the '99 World Cup, and all the sponsors surrounding that event," he said. "I mistakenly assumed it would move over to the league."

The answer to this puzzle might be clearer had the WUSA done a good job of organizing and marketing itself. But by all accounts the league has been a disaster from day one. Part of the problem seems to be the league was started by a bunch of cable television owners who were looking for an exclusive product for their cable systems. They were not soccer people. They simply had no idea how or to whom to market their product, but they did not turn management over to people who did.

Here's one example. In the first year, one team's president, marketing vice president and director of communications all had one thing in common -- none of them had ever seen a single live professional soccer match - men or women - before accepting their new jobs.

So we are left with the question if any women's league can succeed -- and what is the definition of success? Maybe the answer will have to wait for the WMLS -- if that ever happens.

One last note: In a column last week, I gave reasons why I thought United States midfielder Eddie Lewis should be the 2003 Honda Player of the year. Yesterday, it was announced that defender Carlos Bocanegra, and forwards Landon Donovan and Brian McBride are the three finalists. I had none of the three among my top four choices - and a large percentage of readers' e-mails agreed with the choice of Lewis. Shows what we know.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com.

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