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.
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.