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Seeing red

Cash-strapped WUSA folds five days before Women's World Cup

Posted: Monday September 15, 2003 8:42PM; Updated: Tuesday September 16, 2003 2:39AM
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  Abby Wambach
Abby Wambach hoists what could very well be the last WUSA championship trophy.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

ATLANTA (AP) -- The cash-strapped WUSA called it quits Monday just five days before the Women's World Cup, bringing an abrupt end to a soccer league built on the success of the 1999 tournament.

The decision was made by the league's board of governors at a meeting in New York.

The eight-team WUSA was filled with the world's best female players, including U.S. stars Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. Chastain provided the signature moment in the '99 tournament when she ripped off her shirt after scoring the championship-winning goal against China.

But the attention the Women's World Cup received faded over the years, leaving the WUSA foundering. TV ratings were almost nonexistent and the league had trouble finding fans who weren't under 18 and play on a soccer team. Average attendance slipped from more than 8,000 the first season to about 6,700 a game last season.

"This is a sad day for women's soccer and women's sports," Foudy said.

The WUSA hoped another World Cup this fall would bring last-minute corporate sponsorships to save the league, but that hasn't happened, said John Hendricks, chairman of the WUSA board of governors.

Hendricks blamed weak corporate support for the league's failure.

"I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in 1999, and I mistakenly believed that level of support would flow over into the league," Hendricks said.

The WUSA's owners have invested more than $100 million to fund the league, and some of the top players took pay cuts this season to help keep it afloat. Even after cutting costs, the league was about $16 million in the red.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

Mia Hamm
"We're sad. We're all sad. This isn't like a bus that you missed. This is something that we've all invested so much time and energy. I keep saying it goes beyond this team and to the women you train with everyday. We continue to find the positive in it and continue to have hope."

Shannon Boxx
"Having this league here is a dream come true and I just feel bad for all the little girls who had a great dream of playing in the WUSA."

Julie Foudy
"People knew it was coming, but for a long time we were hoping we could keep it alive and we still hope that. I think there is a great sense among this team that we've got 30 days of great visibility and tremendous fan support. For us, this is more than about soccer, this is about incredible role models and people, and how you're empowering a lot of young girls and boys with having this league around. Reviving the league will be a top priority for us."

Dr. S. Robert Contiguglia, U.S. Soccer President
"There is never a good time for news of this nature, and we are obviously saddened for not only the players and coaches, but the fans, administrators and investors in the league, as well. The league has been very positive for the sport across the United States, and we appreciate the hard work from everyone involved in providing the highest level of professional women's soccer in the world. It is disappointing that the league could not find the additional investors and funding they needed to continue."

Hendricks said the league needed eight sponsors to spend $2.5 million each per year. The WUSA recruited only two sponsors willing to spend that much, Hyundai and Johnson & Johnson.

"If we only had six or seven CEOs in America that had stepped forward in the past year," Hendricks said. "An independent women's professional league can survive -- if it has corporate support."

The league conceded the timing of the announcement was awkward but said the WUSA had to consider all its employees and players who aren't in the World Cup.

"We couldn't keep the doors open even another 24 hours without jeopardizing a decent and fair severance package for our employees," Hendricks said.

Foudy said the announcement will be a distraction to players on the U.S. national team. Every member of the 1999 World Cup champions was a WUSA founding player.

"Yeah, I wish we had the opportunity to not have this distraction," she said from Charlottesville, Va., where the U.S. team is training for its opener Sunday in Washington. "That's true for all the WUSA players in the World Cup.

"But we are not just going to give up, even though the odds are stacked against us. We will still hold out the possibility of reviving this."

The league employed 375 people, including players, and had franchises in Boston, Atlanta, San Diego, Washington, New York, San Jose, North Carolina and Philadelphia. The Washington Freedom won the title last month.

The Women's World Cup begins Saturday in Philadelphia, and the U.S. team opens the next day against Sweden in Washington, D.C. Fifty-six WUSA players are to compete, representing 11 of 16 countries in the tournament.

WUSA players took an active role in the league's management and were involved in the decision to close the league.

"The impact of the WUSA on women's sports and millions of fans has been extraordinary," said Foudy, captain of the San Diego Spirit and U.S. team, and a member of the WUSA board of governors.

"The players remain hopeful that more sponsors will recognize the value of associating their brands and products with the wholesomeness of the WUSA," added Hamm, the sport's biggest star and career scoring leader. "Major sponsors committed to bringing back world class women's soccer could enable a successor league to launch in 2005 or perhaps even earlier."

The WUSA will not dissolve entirely until next spring, Hendricks said.

"There is a glimmer of hope that a few months down the road the phone will ring" from a deep-pockets sponsor, Hendricks said.

The folding of the WUSA leaves Major League Soccer as the sport's only top-level professional league in the United States.

"Although we are disappointed by today's action, we believe this decision has no impact on the future viability of the sport of soccer in the United States," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "Major League Soccer continues to be encouraged and excited about the explosion of youth participation in the sport, as well as the Hispanic and international opportunities which present themselves daily. We continue to focus on building stadiums, developing players and expanding our footprint across the United States."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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