The day the Women’s United Soccer Association died, I called Tom Stone, the ever-quotable head coach of the Atlanta Beat, who was grappling with the fresh reality that he was out of a job.
This was just days after his team finished second in the WUSA in 2003 and shortly before the Women’s World Cup, which had been moved to the United States from China because of the SARS outbreak. There had been optimism that event might boost WUSA’s sagging prospects, just as the groundbreaking 1999 Women’s World Cup gave birth to the idea of a women’s pro league.
But on that fateful day nearly six years ago, reports trickled in to my former newspaper office that young soccer-playing girls in the Atlanta area were howling with sadness. Their ponytailed heroines no longer had a league of their own.
Befitting his innate wit, Stone didn’t demur:
“If their parents had brought them to games more often,” he quipped, “all those little girls wouldn’t be crying today.”
The reasons for WUSA’s demise were attributable to a business model that didn’t work, even after tens of millions of dollars had been expended, executives were replaced, television deals reworked and star players accepted hefty pay cuts. Some have argued that the social message WUSA was trying to get across — with an overt, if benign, endorsement of “girl power” — turned off potential fans in other demographic groups. To hard-core sports lovers, here was another example of a women’s sports entity feeling the need to become a cause.
Not enough people came to WUSA games, or watched them on TV, to adequately attract advertisers and sponsors needed to keep the league afloat. Stone’s prognosis was correct, and pulling the plug was strictly a business decision.
A few years later, as Women’s Professional Soccer was being organized around a slimmed-down approach, commissioner Tonya Antonucci was very clear about her priorities. While the subject of gender in sports was unavoidable, the emphasis would be on making professional women’s soccer stick.
You don’t have to be a fan of the over-the-top methods that gargantuan enterprises like the National Football League employ to understand that pro sports in America — as well as major college athletics — is all about . . . business. For niche sports like soccer and women’s athletics, it’s about staying in business.
All of this should be quite obvious.
Yet there have been protests against veering away from the idea of women’s sports as a social cause. A heated response to Chicago Red Stars CEO Peter Wilt’s rather mild explanation of WPS philosophy on this point was drenched, typically, in dreary ideological twaddle:
I’ll bet Soccer United Marketing has some talented people who could think up an appropriately edgy marketing campaign based around girl power, women’s rights, or feminism that would push all the right buttons for getting people into the gate. Male and female. Niche or mainstream.
The recent travails of the more established Ladies Professional Golf Association and the Women’s National Basketball Association should be instructive to activists and those who see the world strictly through the prism of gender. As business ventures, they’re both on shaky ground, and that’s all that should matter to anyone claiming to be an advocate for feminism or women’s sports.
The venerable LPGA, more than 50 years old, is undergoing turmoil following the forced resignation of Carolyn Bivens, the tour’s first female commissioner. Players balked at her management style and are rightly worried about the loss of sponsorships and television exposure triggered partially by the recession.
Ever since its inception 13 years ago, the WNBA has attempted to be “appropriately edgy” with a mix of activities to attract fans across the board. Between individual teams marketing to lesbian fans and league-wide efforts to crusade on behalf of breast cancer awareness, the WNBA has been admirable in fashioning itself as a rather enlightened organization.
But social enlightenment does not pay the bills. The long-term viability of the WNBA is in some doubt because its benefactor, the NBA, is facing financial obstacles and potential labor strife. The WNBA has reduced roster sizes and folded its winningest franchise, the Houston Comets. The best team in the league this season, the Indiana Fever, might not be around much longer:
The social aspect (of women’s basketball) is wonderful. But in times of recession, tough business decisions must be made. Teams are saving money in many ways, and one is staffing. If you have a choice where to put your marketing staff effort, it’s on the NBA team, not the WNBA team.
A decidedly non-female sports league, the Arena Football League, has gone out of business, unlikely to return. The economy ultimately claimed it after it operated on the margins of tight finances, gimmickry and public indifference for years. Women’s sports and soccer in North America exist on the same fragile ground.
Are sports and social initiatives intertwined outside of women’s sports? Absolutely. FIFA’s ballyhooed pledge to stamp out racism in soccer is noble, if largely ineffective. On college basketball telecasts, ESPN relentlessly promotes cancer research in the memory of Jim Valvano. And the community-minded selflessness of athletes like NFL running back Warrick Dunn is a powerful example of how the sports world can contribute to worthy causes.
But demanding that a fledging league like WPS shoulder the burden of advancing such things like an anti-rape movement is absurd. WPS has had enough difficulty launching during a recession, experiencing lower-than-expected attendance figures and attracting corporate donors. People go to sporting events to be entertained, not to attend a “Take Back the Night” rally. WPS is right to promote personality players like Hope Solo and should take heed of the need to improve the product it puts on the field.
The women’s sports movement in America was borne out of the politics of feminism in the 1960s and crystallized with the passage of Title IX in 1972. Its strongest legacy is in college athletics, which have not been shielded from the recession but are not going away anytime soon. (Stone, now at Texas Tech, is not the only former WUSA coach currently in the college ranks.)
Professional sports, however, is a dicier proposition. A generation ago, Billie Jean King expertly blended feminist activism with her vision of a more lucrative future for female tennis pros. She used her business savvy and personal passion to accomplish this and has been justly lauded for her pioneering efforts.
It’s a combination that T. Fitz Johnson, owner of the expansion WPS Atlanta Beat franchise, sounds like he might try to emulate, but in a manner that fits the times, and the paying customers he’s trying to attract. The original Beat inspired his soccer-playing daughters, and renewing that enjoyment for others prompted him to get involved. Speak to him for just a few moments and it’s clear he’s rather zealous about this.
But as a successful entrepreneur, he also understands that his latest venture has to be more than just a nice thing for girls and women to call their own, much less for activists to hoist as a crucible for a “post-feminist America.” For WPS, “what’s relevant to its own existence” is not the promotion of social issues but succeeding as a business.
Because if it does not, little girls will be crying again, and they may not get another chance to cheer.
Wendy Parker is the writer and creator of Atlanta Soccer News and covered the WUSA, soccer and other women’s and college sports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.