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As American as Women's Soccer? - Page 2
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he quest for a professional women's soccer league gained momentum following the spectacular success of the 1999 World Cup—symbolized by the midfielder Brandi Chastain's game-winning penalty kick and her post-kick celebration. The goal was attained in February of last year, when a group of individual investors and cable companies, led by John Hendricks, of the Discovery Channel, and including Amos Hostetter, formerly of Continental Cablevision, announced that they had raised $40 million to start a league that would begin play in 2001.

Several things make WUSA's strategic approach distinctive. First, in addition to being cable-company executives (this ensures that most games will be televised; this season you can see twenty-two of them nationally, on TNT or CNN/SI), the league's owner-operators are all also soccer parents. The enterprise would thus seem to be not just a business instrument but also a social one. Second, in marked contrast to the leagues of the big-three men's sports, where skyrocketing player salaries have helped to drive admission prices above affordability, WUSA is keeping tickets at an average of $15. "We didn't want a family to have to get a second job in order to buy tickets," says Joe Cummings, the Breakers' general manager. Third, WUSA follows MLS and the WNBA (the women's professional basketball league, which is backed by the NBA) in being a "single-entity structure." Unlike the NBA, the NFL, and other traditional pro leagues that have competing economic franchises with individual owners, WUSA "owns" all eight teams. Players sign contracts with the league, not with a team. Some sports economists say this structure will damage the league in the long term, because it artificially holds down salaries (teams can't bid for a player's services) and impairs normal competitive processes. On the other hand, the start-up costs for a professional sports league are exorbitant; pooling revenues and—yes—keeping player salaries artificially low can help to contain these costs. Most important, the single-entity structure has given WUSA substantial control over which players go to which teams.

To start out, WUSA allocated its twenty "founding players" (the 1999 World Cup team) and four top collegians three to a team, for purposes of competitive parity, marketing effectiveness, and—in a distinct departure from the way most leagues work—player satisfaction. (Julie Foudy, allocated to San Diego, might have preferred to play for the Bay Area. Then again, she might not—her husband is the Bay Area CyberRays' head coach.)

MLS, when it began, allocated its foreign players according to ethnic fan bases—Latin Americans to Los Angeles, for instance, and Eastern Europeans to Chicago. WUSA proceeded differently. From May to October the league's vice-president for player personnel, Lauren Gregg, traveled the world, interviewing foreign players, talking to their local club teams and national federations, and negotiating contracts. In the professional-sports world this is unorthodox—getting players to sign a contract with a league before a team drafts them. By the time the foreign-player draft was held, on October 30, Gregg had received commitments from four Brazilians, four Norwegians, three Germans, two Swedes, a Canadian, an Englishwoman, and a Japanese.

More unorthodox still was the way the draft was conducted. Recognizing that linguistic and cultural barriers would create adjustment difficulties for the international players (and knowing that they had to be kept happy if their countrywomen were to follow in the future), WUSA grouped as many players as possible for drafting in pairs (Brazilians with Brazilians, Norwegians with Norwegians) and then paired the remaining players with others who spoke the same language or whom they already knew. After the draft took place, Gregg managed to get commitments from five Chinese players, including the great Sun Wen, perhaps the best female player in the world; they were drafted individually in December.

To fill out the training-camp rosters, WUSA held an invitation-only tryout at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, the first week in December. The indefatigable Gregg, who had long been an assistant coach and scout for the national team, managed to bring together the 200 best amateur players in the country. Coaches and scouts from the eight teams strolled among them and evaluated talent in preparation for the fifteen-round draft, which occurred December 10 and 11. Unlike, say, the NBA draft, which is covered by every major media outlet, this one drew no press—so aspirants had to check WUSA's Web site every few minutes to see if they'd been drafted. "I sat for hours clicking 'reload' on my browser to see whether I'd been picked," a player who ended up on the CyberRays told me recently.

on't expect to see in WUSA the same kind of athleticism you would see in the men's game. The women's national team sometimes practices against under-sixteen boys' teams—and loses. "They just boot it over our heads and run past us," Kate Sobrero, the national-team and Boston Breaker defender, told me. But in most important technical respects—ball control, shooting, tactical sense, and, above all, passing—the women are just as skillful as the men.

Some basketball connoisseurs argue that women's basketball is "purer" than men's: it's more dependent on teamwork, the "pick-and-roll," and moving without the ball, and less centered on airborne dunking dramatics—it's basketball the way the game used to be played. But for fans accustomed to the high-flying acrobatics of the NBA, the more ground-bound play of the WNBA can appear plodding. Women's basketball is different in kind from the men's version (they even use different-sized balls). Women's soccer, on the other hand, differs from men's only in degree. And in some respects, I would say, it is better.

Soccer's myriad creative possibilities derive in part from its being played on such a large field. The long runs "to space" and the extended passing sequences that build from the back and move in geometric patterns toward the goal are, to my mind, what lend the sport its sometimes transcendent beauty. In the men's game the speed with which these movements unfold can be awe-inspiring; in the women's game the plays still unfold fast, but slowly enough that the spectator can see them developing. Also, many of the great men's strikers are notable for their ability to move deftly in small places; the women sometimes do this too—but they need to less often. "With their speed and size, twenty-two men fill up a field pretty well," says Tony DiCicco. "The same number of women leave more open space on the field," and thus a wider variety of tactical approaches.

Also, women's soccer by its nature addresses one of the primary complaints that football- and basketball-addled Americans make about soccer—its lack of scoring. Because women are on average smaller than men, they fill up much less of the goal (the men's-national-team keeper, Brad Friedel, is six feet four inches; his counterpart on the women's team, Briana Scurry, is eight inches shorter)—hence there's more scoring in the women's game.

he women of WUSA understand that they are pioneers. Some of the players selected in the league draft last December have abandoned graduate school or burgeoning careers to take a chance on WUSA. "When I was invited to the Boca Raton combine," the midfielder Elie Foster recalls, "I went based on fear of regret: 'If I don't do this, will I look back and wish that I had?'" Leaving behind a lucrative position as a marketing manager at a (successful) dot-com start-up in Silicon Valley, Foster moved across the country when she was drafted by Boston, and is sharing an apartment with Allie Kemp, who left her job as a first-grade teacher in Encinitas, California, to join the Breakers' training-camp roster as a forward. The possibility of failure is considerable: players will be cut; the league itself may not survive. But the chance to earn a living playing soccer full-time was too much to pass up.

This is a new attitude—hard-won, American, and not yet global. Tony DiCicco, now WUSA's chief operations officer, tells a story about the European Football Symposium held in London in November of 1998. DiCicco was there to make a presentation about the Women's World Cup, to be held the following year. He showed a video and some slides. People were awestruck that the U.S. Soccer Federation had planned an event of such magnitude around women's soccer. The plenary assembly was about to break into separate sessions when a man stood up. "He was from an enlightened European culture, not a backward country," DiCicco says. "He pointed to a poster showing Brandi Chastain and a Norwegian player fighting for a ball and said, 'I look at that and I see ugliness and muscles ... This is not what this is supposed to be about.'" DiCicco says he replied, "If this poster were of men playing, you would have seen fitness, athleticism, commitment. We need to change people's attitudes so that that's what they see when it's women, too."

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2001; Three-Wheeler; Volume 287, No. 6; pp. 76-80.