Foot Soldiers

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

The WUSA's handful of enlightened tweaks to its power structure are welcome, but not entirely unprecedented, ideas. The American Basketball League, the women's pro circuit that started in 1996, had organizing principles that were similar to those the WUSA now features—even to the extent of having a player sit on the league board. But the ABL collapsed, largely because of competition from the heavily promoted, heavily bankrolled WNBA, the little-sister league begun by the NBA to cash in on the women's hoops explosion.

The ABL also fell victim to the perception that women's basketball is a pale imitation of the men's game, and to the economic reality that more than one pro league was not sustainable. Neither of those impediments stand in the WUSA's way. Last year, the WUSA organizers prevailed over an MLS-sponsored bid to form a women's league, mainly because the U.S. national teamers threw their support behind the WUSA. They wanted no affiliations with a men's league, particularly the MLS, which has hardly proven a promotional or aesthetic triumph in its six-year existence.

As for the perception problem, the WUSA has a unique advantage: Very few Americans know or care about men's pro soccer, so the women's game does not suffer by comparison. The women's national team has drawn higher TV ratings than the men's, and a lot of red-meat Americans still believe there's something vaguely sissified about boys and men playing soccer anyway.

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.

"Women's soccer started a little later in the United States than it did overseas, but it was embraced more quickly here," says Tony DiCicco, the WUSA's chief of operations and coach of the U.S. Women's World Cup team in '99. "Parents thought it was a great activity for their little daughter, whereas in a lot of foreign countries soccer is a macho sport, and not something for your daughter to play. A lot of women who come here from abroad appreciate that the men's game in the U.S. has not developed to the extent that the women's game is compared negatively to it."

And hoo-boy, can women's soccer be compared negatively to men's. In Germany, some columnists writing about WUSA have taken pains to note how much "slower" and "weaker" the women are, opinions that have shown up fairly regularly in other countries. This will all sound very familiar to American basketball fans, who have read a lot of this kind of stuff in the '90s. Thus, says DiCicco, the foreign players' surprise that here, "they are held in high esteem as first-class athletes."

How U.S. fans take to the WUSA will be determined, as always, by ticket prices (low), TV exposure (fairly extensive), and print-media exposure (newspapers and magazines figure to be a lot friendlier toward the WUSA than they've been to the MLS or XFL; though placing the New York franchise way out in Uniondale was a buzz-killing blunder guaranteed to keep Manhattan opinion makers and celebs away). As for the charisma and cool factor of its players, the WUSA is all set: Hamm, Foudy (who holds the players' seat on the league board), Chastain, and company are smart, attractive, and signify the same suburban, upper-middle-class culture that plays home to so much of soccer in this country. On top of that, they're famous already. And at the games themselves, expect the same kind of kid-friendly, majority-female atmosphere that has made WNBA games so much fun to attend.

As for its "sense of mission," the notion that the WUSA may be striking a blow for womankind, well, you don't hear a lot of that from players. "We want this league to work," says Whalen, in about as radical a pronouncement as you'll get, "so that players from the United States and from all over the world can make a living playing this game." New York goalkeeper Gao Hong, who tended the Chinese nets in the dramatic penalty-kick contest that decided the '99 World Cup, also downplayed the politics. "I don't feel like a pioneer," she said through an interpreter. "But I'm very happy to help build a professional league here."

However little overt political rhetoric one hears from the WUSA's players, American or otherwise, the league is already having a positive effect on women's soccer around the world. "Many players in China are interested in the chance to play here professionally," says Gao. UEFA, the European soccer confederation, is said to be considering the establishment of a continental women's club championship, and last month in England the Football Association announced its intention to start a fully professional women's league by 2003, in large part to compete with the United States.

Women doing well by doing good for women, but without making a big deal of it: Good or bad? Or, perhaps, beside the point now, some 19 years after the first NCAA women's soccer championship and almost 30 years after Title IX. At a recent practice of the Manhattan Rockets, the under-9 travel team representing the Manhattan Soccer Club (the MSC U-14 girls coach, Greg Kenne, was hired as the goalkeeper coach by the Power), several players were asked what they thought about the WUSA. All the Rockets wanted to see a game, and all of them loved Mia Hamm. But when asked about women's struggle for equal athletic rights, almost all of them seemed baffled. They didn't know that some people still think they have less right than boys to play organized sports. But one player, Sophia Staley, said, "I'm really glad that there's a league for women now, because they've had to overcome a lot."

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