Flip to a WUSA soccer game on TNT, and you can be forgiven if, based on what you hear, you think you've landed on MTV's TRL. Rising upward in tones only 11-year-old girls can muster, a cacophony of squeals pours forth, leaving the viewer half expecting to see Ricky Martin sub in at left fullback. These cheers, however, are for ponytailed midfielders, not boy bands, and thus are sweet music to the WUSA's organizers, vocal proof that fans are coming out, often in surprisingly large numbers, to support the distaff league. (The inaugural game on April 14 between the Washington Freedom and Bay Area CyberRays attracted 34,148 to RFK Stadium, and the league average through Sunday was 11,110.)
As impressive as attendance has been, the league's television viewership has been less imposing. After 40 million U.S. viewers tuned in to see the U.S. battle China in the women's 1999 World Cup final, WUSA's brass was hoping for a carryover effect when TNT began telecasting Saturday afternoon games in April. Instead, the first game drew a 0.5 rating (393,000 households)—TNT had hoped for a 0.5 to a 1.0—and the following two weeks the Nielsens were 0.4 and 0.3, respectively. Placed in context, these aren't horrible numbers. MLS soccer has averaged a 0.3 on ESPN this year. Nonetheless the early ratings don't bode well for the WUSA, because the audience numbers figure to decline as the novelty of the league wears off.
There are many explanations for the low viewership—afternoon (as opposed to prime-time) kickoffs, competition from NBA and NHL playoff games and locally telecast baseball, poor preseason promotion and a dearth of scoring (the first three TNT games featured a total of four goals)—but the coverage isn't one of them. Relying on many of the same people who put together the World Cup coverage, TNT's broadcasts have been smooth and gimmick-free. JP Dellacamera, who did play-by-play on the Cup final, is paired with analyst Wendy Gebauer, a former North Carolina and national team star, to provide solid work in the booth. Banners across the bottom of the screen are usually helpful, providing background on the league, the rules of the game and the players, though we don't need to know that Freedom forward Roseli "likes sushi, George Michael and the color blue." On the other hand, such information might appeal to the young female audience.
As for the preteen chorus, Dellacamera hopes it endures. "When a goal is scored," he says, "I've tried to let the crowd provide the call."