Playing for Keeps

Women Step It Up At the Pro Level

The WUSA, too, is gunning for the dad-and-daughter crowd. Both leagues—and the WPSL as well—promote themselves as wholesome family entertainment featuring role-model athletes, in tacit contrast to those tantrummy, coach-throttling, wife-beating millionaires in bigger shoes. The WUSA enters the scene as the antithesis of this year's other sports startup—the tanked XFL. Marketing the fresh-faced girl-next-door has, of course, meant the closeting of lesbian athletes, the over-promotion of some white players, and the downright deification of the most traditionally feminine. (WPSL second baseperson Julie Smith recalls one of her sponsors going ballistic when she merely suggested that she might like to cut her blond hair.) But even those players who are kept out of the spotlight tend to defend this approach as part of the "branding" of their sports, so essential to survival.

Indeed, according to Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, to make it, these sports must have the marketing power to brand themselves, as well as enough backing for at least three years of running at a loss, and the television exposure that makes it all pay off for the sponsors. In other words, they must jump cash-first into an increasingly crowded, and ever more expensive, entertainment industry, while encouraging individual players to snag as much visibility as possible through high-ticket endorsements. And to rub even harder to erase the boundary between sponsor and sponsored.

Though all three leagues are drilling these three essentials, they are organized in different ways. The WNBA, of course, has banked on the power of the NBA to leverage TV contracts, venues, and other connections, while the WUSA has defiantly chosen not to be the women's auxiliary of the feeble MLS (which rebuffed overtures about supporting a women's league some six years ago). Both use a single-entity structure. That is, the whole league, as opposed to each team, is owned by one organization—respectively, the NBA, and a group of cable operators (chiefly, John Hendricks, founder and CEO of the Discovery Channel). The WUSA's backers have thus far pumped some $64 million into the enterprise. This structure lets the leagues centralize sponsorship and licensing agreements and promotes economies of scale. And, no small thing, it keeps a lid on player salaries as teams cannot compete over athletes by waving higher and higher paychecks at them. Players in the WNBA, at least, are beginning to chafe under this restraint, though they're still two years away from their next collective bargaining sessions. Just last week, Liberty point guard Teresa Weatherspoon was holding forth about the league's inadequate pay scale—the average salary is $55,000—at a charity appearance at Basketball City.

The WUSA starts out with salary bases ranging from $25,000 to $85,000. Unlike the WNBA, the soccer league offers players a share in league revenues—a practice pioneered by the late American Basketball League—and a cut of merchandise sales.

But the biggest business-related innovation of the WUSA is, as Donna Lopiano puts it, "your owner group is your television outlet. The television distributors own the product rather than paying a licensing fee for it, so the advantage is that everything they pour into developing the product, they benefit from return on the dollar. If it works, why wouldn't cable companies want to own a sport in every season?" Whether this model is tantamount to a monopoly is irrelevant, at least at this stage, when TV deals aren't exactly throwing themselves at women's sports.

Ask John Carroll, president and CEO of the WPSL, who is spending this season working on broadcast and sponsorship deals (all currently in negotiation, and thus unnameable at this point) and regrouping the softball league so that it can break out of obscurity next year.

With a 14-city exhibition tour this summer, they'll test out such locales as Oklahoma City, Madison, Wisconsin, and Allentown, Pennsylvania, and vow to maintain their $5 ticket price. Carroll says it costs about $500,000 to operate a team in a city the size of Akron, and that with 1200 spectators a game, they can break even. That's certainly a lower-key model than basketball and soccer are following—the WUSA is banking on 7500 spectators per game to break even.

Creeping out of the red (where the WNBA and many a men's team currently reside) is ever more of a goal as the WPSL shifts to a franchise system in which local infrastructure will help generate funds, and away from a single-entity system that has been bankrolled from the beginning by the Minneapolis-based Cowles Media (which has sunk more than $20 million into the bargain so far). In the meantime, players are making about $15,000 for the three-month season—"less than we'd like to see, of course," says Julie Smith, "but those of us who love playing ball are determined to do what it takes to get this thing going."

Will it get going without getting as big as the WNBA or WUSA? "It's so grassroots that it can't have a big national impact with advertisers, but it can certainly generate all that warm and fuzzy stuff from regional advertisers," says Chicago-based sports-celebrity broker Nova Lanktree. "It's for sure not where the multi-million-dollar endorsements are going to come." But do they have to?

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