Foot Soldiers

The Launch of the WUSA Opens a New Front in Women’s Pro Sports

A pro league for women is rare enough to be remarkable in and of itself. But how about a pro league for women that pays its players at the same salary levels as the men? Where the players have a stake in the league's finances? Where one seat on the league board of governors is reserved for a player? And how about a women's pro league that is truly independent, not the subsidiary of an existing men's league?

Until last week, there had never been anything quite like this. But with the debut of the Women's United Soccer Association on Saturday, there is one now. Counting on the huge popularity and considerable bankability of the U.S. Women's National Team in the wake of its World Cup victory in 1999, the WUSA enters the sports scene as America's second big-time women's pro league. It has TV deals firmly in place with TNT and CNN/SI (and local cable carriers in all eight league markets), the goodwill of a mainstream news media eager to seem receptive to the idea of women's pro sports, and, of course, the best women's soccer players in the world.

It is a fascinating experiment. Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Tiffeny Milbrett, and the rest of the U.S. National Team have been through many of the controversies over the legitimacy of women's sports: media indifference, media hype, the pros and cons of female athletes' expression of sexuality, and the most heated argument of all: What does it mean to take your shirt off when celebrating a goal? Now, having emerged on the other side of these debates, they have helped form what might be called the world's first post-feminist pro sports league.

Power to the people: Tiffeny Milbrett lines one up against goalkeeper Gao Hong.
photo: Marc Asnin
Power to the people: Tiffeny Milbrett lines one up against goalkeeper Gao Hong.

Sara Whalen is a U.S. national teamer and a midfielder with the New York Power, the metro area's entry in the WUSA, and one of the 20 "founding players" who have a special financial stake in the league (which also has teams in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Atlanta, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area). "There was a lot of push and pull between the players and the business people when we were forming the league," she says during a break at a recent practice at the Power's home stadium, 10,000-seat Mitchell Field in Uniondale, Long Island. "We had to be sure that the best players in the world would want to play here, not just because of the level of competition, but because they would make enough money to afford to play here."

In the end, says Whalen, the players were able to hammer out a guaranteed minimum salary of $25,000—slightly higher than the minimum for the MLS, the top men's soccer league in this country. The maximum WUSA salary is about $85,000, a bit more than three times higher than the base rate—pretty progressive for a pro sports league. Furthermore, all the players have a revenue-sharing agreement with the league, and the founding players—consisting solely of U.S. National Team members—own equity shares in the league.

Those founding players, says Whalen, "are in for a percentage, but only if the league reaches certain goals." For the Power, the drive to reach off- and on-field goals begins this Saturday at Atlanta in a game televised by TNT, followed by the team's home debut on Sunday the 29th against San Diego.

If $25,000 and $85,000 seem like modest sums in today's sports labor market, consider the context. Except for a brief period in the '90s when the L-League, the women's soccer league in Japan, paid healthy salaries to imported stars like Milbrett, women never got more than token stipends for playing the world's most popular sport. Anka Aarones is a striker for New York, a member of the Norwegian National Team that beat the U.S. for the Olympic gold medal in Sydney last year, and a 10-year veteran of Norway's domestic league. "I never made more than $3000 a year playing in Norway," says Aarones. She earned a small additional salary doing the team's books, and that, along with a youth-coaching job, allowed her to make a living. Such arrangements were the only way a woman could afford to play elite-level soccer. As Doris Fitschen, a German playing for the WUSA's Philadelphia team, puts it, "You could make more money delivering newspapers."

Despite these financial hurdles, top-flight women's leagues have existed in several northern European countries for more than 20 years. In Germany, where Fitschen played, some clubs pay players the equivalent of $50 for each point earned in the standings. It is no coincidence that Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark, all countries with relatively open-minded attitudes toward women's athletics, have had strong domestic women's leagues for a generation and the strongest showings among European countries in international competition. In the United States, a six-year-old women's semipro loop, the W-League, provided until now the only stateside option for women after college.

Still, these leagues have flown very much under the radar. Crowds for matches in the top European women's leagues range from as few as 25 paying customers to perhaps 500 for a really big showdown, and the top W-League teams average only 1400 per game. Thus the WUSA's announced goal of an average attendance of 7500, puny by U.S. standards, is actually about five to 15 times higher than the crowds drawn by any women's club team in the world.

Next Page »