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.
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.
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.
“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.”
That seems about right. If the long struggle for women’s sports is succeeding, then the girls playing today ought to think nothing of competing full-out in any team sport. But it’s nice to know that at least a few are aware there was a time when women didn’t have the opportunity to play pro team sports. With the establishment of the WUSA, that time has just receded a little bit further into the past.