Women’s United Soccer Assocation

by Gretchen Miller, Jonathan Scheyer, and Emily Sherrard

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Women’s United Soccer Association

WUSA

The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) began its inaugural season in April 2001.  It was founded in the spring of 2000 by Chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications, John Hendricks, along with other high profile investors like Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast Corporation, who saw the “potential of an eye-popping demographic.”[1] The league was organized and funded as a single entity business structure like the men’s professional league, Major League Soccer (MLS), meaning the league owned all player contracts. The founders invested $40 million in the league, which was projected to last 5 years before the league would (hopefully) take off.[2] They also pledged another $24 million for stadium improvements.[3] Born out of the success of the 1999 World Cup, WUSA consisted of 8 teams all across the United States.

Teams

  • Atlanta Beat
  • Boston Breakers
  • Bay Area CyberRays
  • Carolina Courage
  • New York Power
  • Philadelphia Charge
  • San Diego Spirit
  • Washington Freedom

All 20 players from the 1999 championship team signed onto the league and were designated its founding players. Unlike Major League Soccer, WUSA signed the highest caliber female soccer stars in the world.[4] The league brought in the best players from the United States as well as from around the world. There were initially five players from China, including Sun Wen, Bente Nordby, Gro Espeseth, and Hege Riise from Norway, Sissi from Brazil, Marinette Pichon from France, and Birgit Prinz from Germany.[5] In fact five of the first six players drafted were from China’s 1999 World Cup team.[6] Players in the league were paid a minimum of $27,000, with the highest paid player earning $85,000 yearly.[7]

The season was from April to August and each team played 22 games, followed by a playoff series and the league championship, The Founders Cup. Every game was initially to be televised in local markets, with 22 games to be broadcast nationally each year. Games were played in stadiums with seating for 4,000 to 55,000 spectators. With tickets priced at an affordable $13, officials hoped that WUSA would appeal to families wanting to see “wholesome moderately priced entertainment,” complete with world-class professional athletes.[8]

The combination of talented athletes and guaranteed television exposure should have lent itself to a successful and sustainable league; however this was not the case. Even before its start many were skeptical about the league’s prospects. “With the Women’s World Cup used as a sort of champagne bottle to christen the launch of the WUSA, many wondered whether the league would be seaworthy.”[9] In 2003, a World Cup year, the US women were looking forward to playing on their respective WUSA teams instead of a lengthy, full-time residency training program. Julie Foudy felt the 2003 WUSA season afforded the US National Team the opportunity to be assembled from a large pool of the best players in the country. “Where once the pool of players was 25, now the pool is 125 who are training and playing at the highest level. There’s more depth, and it’s not a coincidence-it’s a product of the league.”[10] Sadly on September 15, shortly after the conclusion of its third season and just 5 days before the first matches of the 2003 World Cup were to be played, the league folded. Hopes that the World Cup would bolster support for the foundering league were squandered.

Despite a seemingly abrupt termination, WUSA had been struggling for quite some time. The league experienced a steady decline in attendance and TV ratings. Attendance to games fell 17.8%, with average attendance dropping from 8,116 in the inaugural season to 6,667 in its last season. This was only worsened by the fact that WUSA lacked time slots on network television, and did not land a television contract for 2004. The league was also in short supply of funds after burning through its initial investment of $40 million, projected to last 5 seasons, in just its first season.[11] Founder and chairman of WUSA, John Hendricks, said that the league’s $20 million budget shortfall for 2003 and the $90 million in losses was due to the lack of big-time corporate sponsorship.[12] The league’s founding players had to agree to take a 20% pay cut from $80,000 to $60,000 and the average salary decreased by almost 20% as well and team rosters were cut from 20 to 16 players.[13] WUSA faced the same obstacles as the men’s Major League Soccer: weak television contract, low salaries for players, a tightly controlled league, a saturated U.S. sports market, and overall disinterest in the sport.[14] While the 1999 World Cup was a success it “failed in selling the sport as a commodity.”[15] America’s interest in women’s soccer did not stretch beyond the reaches of major events like the World Cup. “The exuberance that came out of the World Cup of 1999 did not translate to a sustainable business model and marketing platform.”[16]

Women’s United Soccer Association Founder Cup Champions

 

  • 2001 Bay Area CyberRays

  • 2002 Carolina Courage

  • 2003 Washington Freedom

 


[1] Jack Bell, “Women’s Season a Lead-In to World Cup,” The New York Times, 4 April 2003, p. S6.

 

[2] Andrei S. Markovits and  Steven L. Hellerman, “Women’s Soccer in the United States: Yet Another American ‘Exceptionalism,’” Soccer and Society, 4 (2003): 14-29.

[3] Jere Longman, “The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How it Changed the World” (New York: Harper Collins, 2001),

[4] Longman, “The Girls of Summer,”311.

[5] Markovits and Hellerman, “Women’s Soccer in the United States;” Longman, “The Girls of Summer,” 315.

[6] Longman, “The Girls of Summer,” 319.

[7] Jack Bell, “Women’s Season a Lead-In to World Cup,” The New York Times, 4 April 2003, p. S6.

[8] Longman, “The Girls of Summer,” 311.

[9] Longman, “The Girls of Summer,” 309.

[10] Quote by Julie Foudy from Bell, “Women’s Season a Lead-In to World Cup.”

[11] Vicki Michaelis “Women’s soccer league folds: Lack of sponsorship hurt WUSA,” USA Today, 16 September 2003, Sports,  p.1C.

[12] Michaelis “Women’s soccer league folds”

[13] Bell, “Women’s Season a Lead-In to World Cup.”

[14] “Soccer Challenge in the US,” Journal of Sport Management, 17(2003), 189-190.

[15] Michael Hiestand and Oscar Dixon, “Unlike WUSA, WNBA has NBA,” USA Today, 16 September 2003, Sports, p. 03c.

[16] Quote by WPS commissioner Tonya Antonucci in Beau Dure, “Familiar faces back for women’s kickoff,” USA Today, 26 March 2009, sports, p. 12C.

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