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.