Naked publicity gambit or a simple case of crossed signals? That's the question that soccer observers were asking last week after officials at WUSA, the struggling women's professional soccer league, strongly denied reports that they were encouraging their players to pose nude for Playboy.
The brouhaha began after a May 5 Atlanta Journal-Constitution story quoted WUSA president Lynn Morgan as saying that if Playboy "wanted to do a [center] fold, we wouldn't be opposed to something that would show off our players." That was followed by a May 11 piece on SportsTicker.com that reported the league had sent glamour shots of WUSA stars such as Mia Hamm and Lorrie Fair to Playboy.com. In recent years the men's-magazine site has run polls asking participants which female sports figures they'd most like to see nude. The winners—which have included Anna Kournikova (of course) and Fox Sports's Jill Arrington—are then invited to pose for the magazine, but so far none have accepted.
The WUSA acknowledged sending out a collage that featured sexy images of their players but noted that it was simply part of a press packet that went to more than 300 media outlets. As for Morgan's quote, she says the reporter misunderstood her and that she had said the word poll rather than fold. (The Journal-Constitution has acknowledged the error.) Says WUSA publicist Paul Dodson, "I don't think it would be a bad thing for these players to participate in a poll—publicity is publicity—but in no way are we encouraging our athletes to bare it all."
Still, WUSA, whose average attendance this year is down 13.5% from last year, is clearly looking to change its image. In addition to the collage the league sent out, several players, including Fair and her teammate Heather Mitts, posed for model cards that were sent out to the press and Hollywood producers. ("We're still professional soccer players," says Fair. "But we can be feminine and look good when we want to.") "We're very fortunate to have world-class athletes who also happen to be very fit and attractive women," says WUSA vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche. "If the benefit is that we draw more fans—male or female—then it certainly is positive for the league."