Playing for Keeps

Women Step It Up At the Pro Level

Southwest Missouri State superstar Jackie Stiles expressed one teary-eyed request after being shut down by Purdue in the NCAA Final Four last month: "Please, someone in the WNBA take me, so this doesn't have to be my last game." The 5-8, all-time scoring leader in women's college basketball needn't worry, of course. She's sure to be whisked right into the league during Friday's draft. But her remark speaks volumes about the sea change that has taken place in pro women's sports in just a few years.

Stiles is from the first generation of athletes who hit the courts in their freshman year of college with the full knowledge that a professional women's league stood ready to welcome them on the other side of graduation. True, Stiles also said that she couldn't imagine actually being paid to play basketball, and the dream-come-true sentiments of practically any player on a WNBA roster remains the most palpable feeling around the league. Still, as the WNBA gets ready for its fifth-year tip-off, the Women's Professional Softball League (WPSL) launches a barnstorming tour to rev up fan support, and the WUSA debuts to more than 34,000 fans with a hyped-up matchup between Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, there's no question that women's team sports have claimed their rightful place in the pro landscape.

Indeed, except among reactionary groups that seek to overturn Title IX, the idea that women have as much right to athletic opportunity as men has become as mainstream as SUVs, superstores, and soccer moms. Trouble is, in a culture that has less and less regard for anything that doesn't make plenty of profit—witness the obliteration of arts budgets, nonprofit health care systems, and even college sports that don't bring in revenue—recognizing a right hardly translates into delivering on it. As the great media critic A.J. Liebling once remarked, a free press belongs to those who can afford to own one. Several decades later, during which we've turned more and more into a dictatorship of the mass market, his comment applies to practically every area of American life. The right of female athletes to pursue the same sorts of opportunities men have long enjoyed belongs to those who can leverage big financing, mega-marketing, and fat television contracts.

That's hardly to say that there aren't other paradigms out there that have been providing a handsome living to athletes in a range of pro and semipro sports. Elite beach-volleyball players garner plenty of sponsorships and compete for sizable purses—the top players make more than $100,000 a year in prize money alone. Ditto for bowlers. And high-ranking surfers, billiard players, and extreme sports competitors, among athletes in a dozen other sports, don't need day jobs either. Meanwhile, the pioneers of women's pro athletics, the Ladies Professional Golf Association and the Women's Tennis Association, have produced increasingly lucrative earnings for their players (even if they typically trail those of their male counterparts). The WTA, for instance, is a nonprofit organization, explains Chief Operating Officer Josh Ripple, co-owned by a group of constituents: players, individual tournament producers, and the International Tennis Federation. The system allows each tournament to operate without assuming any of the risk of the overall tour, says Ripple, while also giving players significant representation in decisions about operations and purse sizes.

But team sports, unlike individual sports, require that each team be grounded in a particular community, and that alone raises the costs, and the stakes, league operators say. Both are so high that the possibility of some kind of mid-range, mom-and-pop-style league has about as much chance of making it amid the glut of perpetually advertised entertainments as the old corner coffee shop has of surviving the onslaught of Starbucks.

That's one reason that plans for pro women's ice hockey remain stalled. (And it's one of a thousand reasons that the three under-capitalized, inchoate women's pro football leagues continue to founder.) "It's an all-or-nothing sort of situation," bemoans Olympic gold medalist Sue Merz, 29, who played on boys' teams growing up in Connecticut and just helped carry the U.S. to a second-place finish in the Women's World Hockey Championship last week. "If I were a guy, I'd be making a million bucks right now. But I'm not gonna bang my head against the wall about it," she says, noting that the fan base just isn't there for women's hockey yet. "The regular average Joe doesn't get it. He likes to see the hitting and fighting in hockey, or to watch basketball players slam dunk all day. He's less interested in the passing, the defense, and the other intricacies of the sport."

Indeed, while the WNBA started out expecting a large portion of its customers to come from NBA season-ticket holders, they have found, instead, that some 70 percent of the fans are family units who don't travel to the arenas in the winter, while only 10 percent of the NBA regulars stay on during the summer. "We need to focus this year on going out to the grassroots and appealing to our core audience, which is families," says WNBA chief operating officer Paula Hanson, explaining how the league will make up last year's dip in attendance of around 10 percent (a phenomenon that is even worse in men's sports these days—note the abysmal turnouts around the country for baseball's opening week).

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?

Lanktree pauses to note that even though she's sometimes involved in setting up the multi-million-dollar deals, the business has "gotten out of control." Advertisers, she says, spend too much on superstar endorsers only because they're afraid someone else will scoop them up, yet have no evidence that such celebrity hawkers actually help sell more product. "It's an unspoken conversation in our industry," she says, "but we all know that nobody has been able to draw any direct correlation between expenditure on endorsers and return on investment." In fact, she wonders sometimes whether the real reason the men in marketing pay, say, $8 million to Joe Montana is "so they can ask him to make a celebrity appearance at their golf outing and tee up next to him on the course."

Maybe it's the women who will bring the industry back to earth, entering the business without grandiose expectations. "We've gotten to a point where everything has to be blockbuster all the time," says Lanktree. "And something needs to turn it around. Maybe it's a good enough standard for a league to have people attend the sport and not lose money." She pauses. "But I've never heard anyone in the industry talk that way."

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