Does America Buy the Female Athlete?

Does America buy women's professional sports?

To hear the nearly 35,000 fans cheer Mia Hamm and company to their 3-1 win at the Women's World Cup on Sunday, you wouldn't think women's professional soccer in the United States was flirting with extinction. But that's exactly the case.

The Women's United Soccer Association, one of only two major pro team leagues for women, said last week it would fold for lack of revenue — mainly a shortfall of critical corporate sponsorship dollars.

For soccer fans, the WUSA's disbanding was a downer, but not a shock. Earlier this year, the league asked top stars Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy to take a pay cut. Attendance had dropped nearly 20 percent in the league's three seasons, to an average of 6,667 per game this year.

The league's travails highlight the challenges faced by female athletes after college. Equality may be the law while female athletes are in school, but professional sports still operate by the discriminating rules of the marketplace.

"I keep coming back to the question of why we couldn't attract corporate America. We couldn't get them attracted to the league," U.S. national team captain Foudy told Nightline. "All you really needed were probably eight corporate sponsors to come in and we could still be alive, and we couldn't get that."

Since last week's announcement, WUSA officials said they have been contacted by several businesses interested in possible corporate sponsorships. Foudy and her teammates are hoping the World Cup can generate enough excitement to tease out sponsorship dollars for WUSA in time for next season.

In the end, the bottom line is business, says ESPN's Darren Rovell. "It's money. If these companies don't believe that they can make money off their alliance, then they're not going to do it," he said.

The Anna Kournikova Factor at Play?

Why do some women's pro sports sail in the marketplace, while some fail?

There's the widely held belief that sports viewers, namely men, aren't ready or willing to support women's leagues. The WNBA, for example, is still standing but has suffered a per-game attendance loss of 14 percent since 1998 and is projected to lose a reported $12 million this year. This year, the basketball league downsized from 16 to 14 teams, and moved two teams to new markets.

"What women's sports have not been able to do over the years is make it a cool or a fun thing. Make it the place to be — you have to be in front of your television set for this two- or three-hour period," said sportswriter and ABC Sports analyst Christine Brennan. "Very rarely can you say that about a women's sporting event."

Then there's the Anna Kournikova factor, which some critics have complained awards beauty over skill.

"The irony of Anna [Kournikova] is she's never won a pro [tennis] tournament yet is lucrative as a sponsorship vehicle," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "But I think we're beginning to see signs, particularly with athletes like [Annika] Sorenstam, that you can back up your talent with personality that does resonate with people in the marketplace."

Sorenstam, a low-key yet dominating figure in the Ladies Professional Golf Association, gripped world audiences when she held her own in a men's tournament last May.

Good Sports, Bad Business

The struggle for the commercial success of women's pro sports is not simply about sex appeal or gender bias, though, experts say.

Sports marketing executives agree the WUSA flopped because it was a poorly executed startup sports league in a tough economy. It's not necessarily a referendum on women's pro sports, or America's acceptance of the female athlete.

"Clearly there were some missteps in the founding partners' plans and the management of the initial budget," said Bill Schoonmaker, vice president of 361 Degrees Sports + Event Marketing, a division of Foote, Cone & Belding.

The WUSA started off with an investment of $40 million — the sum was supposed to last five years, but was gone after the first season. Overall, the WUSA burned through $100 million in three years.

"It was get it done and look at the checkbook later," said Lynn Morgan, former WUSA president and chief executive officer. "It's frustrating because you put so much effort and you put so much investment and the needle moves so slowly. And you see the potential, but you just can't make the quantum leap to get there."

Add to management blunders the economic woes suffered lately by every purveyor of sports and entertainment. "They hit the recession and the sponsorship dollars completely dried up," Schoonmaker said. "That also trickles down to the fans who have less disposable income. They're less inclined to spend."

Economic problems have afflicted all startup leagues in recent years, not just women's soccer. "This is about new sports entering the market in a new environment, agnostic to whether it's men or women wearing the uniforms," Swangard said.

Double Standard?

But professional female athletes, less established in the sports marketplace, face a greater burden.

Indeed, the golden girls of American soccer — the ones who wowed crowds four years ago with a heart-stopping World Cup victory over China at the Rose Bowl — aren't just vying for a repeat World Cup win. They're fighting for their league — which in turn will speak to the future health of professional sports for women in the United States.

Is this burden fair? Probably not. But female athletes grow accustomed to such talk. "Every time women fail in some way, it's held as a shining example of the lack of viability of women's sports, which is simply not true," said Jane Gottesman, a sportswriter and creator of Game Face, a traveling exhibition of images reflecting female athleticism.

The troubles of the men's professional soccer league — also facing an uncertain future — are not visited upon all male pro athletes. And no one recalls the folding of the World Football League or the U.S. Football League as watershed moments for men's sports.

But when the news of the WUSA's folding hit last week, it spawned debate on the future of female pro athletes. The fallout even turned the U.S. team's opening World Cup match on Sunday into a political event, with fans carrying signs like: "Price of Saving the WUSA: Millions. Saving my daughter's dream: Priceless."

Amid Struggle, Stars and Achievements

For all the soul-searching about the future of women's sports, there are many positive signs.

With Sorenstam's star power leading the charge, for example, the LPGA is attracting more sports fans of both genders, said Karen Durkin, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the LPGA.

Total LPGA attendance figures through midyear 2003 are up 7 percent from 2002 and network television viewership grew 15 percent in the average household. And the LPGA is grooming another star, Michelle Wie, who at 13 years old can drive the ball 300 yards and has been touted as the Tiger Woods of her gender and generation.

In tennis, U.S. stars like Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport have dominated their field and made the women's pro tour often more exciting and competitive than the men's tour. Even WNBA officials were buoyed by the record crowd of 22,076 fans that watched the final game of the championships last week.

And in troubled women's soccer, Hamm, the epitome of the all-American, girl-next-door female athlete, has pulled in Michael Jordan-esque endorsement deals despite the lackluster corporate sponsorships of the WUSA.

"All is not lost in the sadness of the WUSA's demise," the University of Oregon's Swangard said. "There are lots of other things out there people can be excited about."

And sports marketing executives say another Women's World Cup thriller could be enough to save women's professional soccer — for now.

"It seems to me that there remains an opportunity for women's soccer in this country," Schoonmaker said. "You've got the right role models, it's a good family atmosphere, it's a great spectator sport, and the league and the teams created a great interactive environment for the fans. I do think it's possible."