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  •   U.S. Team Wants Soccer to Go Pro

    Women's World Cup logo By Amy Shipley
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, July 9, 1999; Page D1

    CLAREMONT, Calif., July 8 – International soccer officials in town for the Women's World Cup final Saturday between the United States and China seem to enjoy repeating their catchy slogan, "The Future of Football Is Feminine." But as far as the U.S. national team players are concerned, soccer is already feminine, thank you very much, and the only question about the future is whether it includes a women's professional league.

    Whether the unimagined frenzy that has followed the 1999 Women's World Cup since its June 19 start will lead to the creation of such a league in the United States is a debatable and somewhat contentious topic here. A crowd of nearly 90,000 is expected for Saturday's final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. About 650,000 fans will have attended the tournament's 17 events.

    "We're demanding a league," U.S. defender Brandi Chastain said. "You can't deny us that because you think there's a lack of interest. We know there is interest."

    During today's practice at out-of-the-way Pomona College, at least 2,000 people showed up. Children in the crowd chanted players' names and "U-S-A!" throughout the training session.

    The way several U.S. players see it, the attendance figures alone prove the time has come for a women's pro soccer league. U.S. midfielder Tisha Venturini says naysayers are "crazy."

    "I think there will definitely be a pro league – no question in my mind," Venturini said. "If you have been to any of these games, I think you have to believe there is going to be a league. Everybody I talk to cannot believe how exciting and how into this the world is."

    "As players," U.S. defender Carla Overbeck added, "obviously we want it to happen in the next couple of years so we can benefit from it."

    FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, isn't yet sold on the feasibility of a women's league, though, according to FIFA spokesman Keith Cooper. He pointed out that only a few nations – Japan, Germany, Sweden and Italy among them – operate so-called professional women's soccer leagues, which generally are small-time operations with only semi-professional status.

    "Let's be fair. How many countries have a women's pro league?" Cooper said. "It's a big jump to a female league. . . . You've got to remember, women's soccer internationally is a little over a decade old. It's got to be a commercial consideration. There's not much point in doing it and then letting it die, and then having people say: 'I told you so.'

    "There's a huge difference between the short window and the short focus of the World Cup, where all the stars are concentrated, and week in and week out at a lower level."

    Neither the U.S. players nor FIFA ultimately will decide whether there will be a league in the United States. Pocketbooks and sponsor dollars will be the final determinants, and it's unclear at this point whether there will be enough of either.

    A feasibility study on a prospective women's league was launched recently by the U.S. Soccer Federation. A report from the committee is expected in December. Burt Haimes, the chair of the study group, said he believes a small league, with perhaps eight teams, could get off the ground in the spring of 2001 – after the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Haimes speculated that such a league could kick off with a U.S. team barnstorming tour in the fall of 2000.

    Haimes said the committee is looking at various issues such as the optimum size of stadiums, a possible partnership with Major League Soccer and sources of sponsorships. The group has identified at least one future investor but has not solidified any sponsor agreements or stadium sites.

    "I don't think there will be a better time," Haimes said. "I think if there is any time to pursue it, it is now. . . . But I know there is skepticism within and without our federation and FIFA.

    "But this country leads on women's rights and the women's movement. If it could work anywhere, it could work here."

    Actually, whether any women's professional league can survive and thrive in the United States remains unclear. The Women's National Basketball Association has drawn throngs of fans in its first three seasons, but it also has relied on the financial support of its parent league, the billionaire NBA. The WNBA's rival, the American Basketball League, folded in its third season last winter.

    Certainly, a women's pro soccer league in the United States would attract talented players from around the world. Perhaps largely because of their experiences during this tournament, many international stars view the United States as women's soccer nirvana. Brazil star Pretinha and Chinese star Sun Wen said this week they would love to compete in a U.S. league.

    "The one huge thing is this women's league could attract the best players in the world immediately and not go broke doing it," said Sunil Gulati, a U.S. Soccer Federation official who was instrumental in getting MLS off the ground. "That's a big advantage."

    Cooper isn't so sure. He says there aren't enough talented women's players worldwide to support a major league.

    There are "30 outstanding, hard-core individual players" in the world, Cooper said. "If you want a national league, say you have 10 teams, you only have three [of those players] per team. One big problem in women's soccer is the rapid falloff [in talent] at the top."

    American players argue that there are plenty of talented players – many at major college programs in the United States. U.S. players also say that, without a league on their home soil, the loss of their international dominance is inevitable. The United States has been a soccer power since the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991. The U.S. team won that, finished third in 1995 and the next year won the first Olympic gold medal awarded in women's soccer.

    Though drawing big crowds to women's pro soccer games might seem unlikely, who would have predicted the phenomenal success of this tournament? Three years ago, tournament organizers turned heads when they decided to hold the 1999 Women's World Cup in major national stadiums rather than smaller, East Coast ones. Yet on Sunday, the last of the 85,000 available tickets to Saturday's game sold out within hours of the conclusion of the U.S. team's semifinal victory over Brazil. (Since then, organizers have found 3,000 additional seats – some with an obstructed view – and sold those, too.)

    "There are always people saying it ain't going to happen," U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers said. "We've been hearing that our whole lifetime in soccer. We don't pay much attention to them. I believe the pro league is only a matter of time."

    International and national soccer officials aren't so sure. In 1994, two years after the United States hosted the men's World Cup, a men's professional league, Major League Soccer, got underway. Despite the phenomenal success of the '94 men's World Cup, which drew 3.6 million fans (an average of 69,000 per event), MLS has yet to catch the nation's fancy. Some franchises have struggled to draw fans and the league's future remains in doubt.

    "When I look at successful professional leagues in this country, baseball, basketball, football," Women's World Cup CEO Marla Messing said, "I don't think women's soccer would work under any of those models. It's important to get really creative and come up with a different model. . . . You're not going to launch a women's pro league that looks like Major League Baseball and have it be successful."

    USSF officials stress that their involvement in a league – if it comes about – would be merely from the standpoint of planning and making proposals.

    "Getting MLS started was a lot tougher than putting on a World Cup," Gulati said. "It's up to some people with money. This isn't going to be a federation-run league. It's got to stand up in the end on private capital."

    Perhaps there is only one certainty about the future of a women's professional league:

    "It's more of a possibility today as we sit here," U.S. national team coach Tony DiCicco said Tuesday after the team's training session, "than it was three weeks ago."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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