CABLES KICK IN THE GRASS Hendricks, MSOs Back Womens Soccer League


Women's soccer has become the preferred sport of cabletelevision.

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the women'sWorld Cup soccer team, Discovery Communications Inc. chairman and CEO John Hendricks andseveral major cable operators will help to finance a new women's professional soccerleague to launch in the spring of 2001.

Hendricks -- along with former Continental Cablevision Inc.chairman and CEO Amos Hostetter, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and ComcastCorp. -- will invest a minimum of $40 million to field at least eight teams that willbegin play in 2001, Hendricks said.

The money is expected to cover five years' worth ofteam operating costs.

The league will be called the Women's United SoccerAssociation, or the WUSA, for short.

Hendricks intimated that other MSOs may join thecable-owned league in the future. "No one has said no, but the group that we'reannouncing today was willing to come forward early," he added.

The board of directors will control all aspects of theleague, including salaries, transactions and eventual expansion.

Hendricks said the financial success of the relativelylow-cost league is contingent on the league "hitting certain revenue goals,"which include live-gate ticket sales. He added that the league is projecting an average of6,500 fans per game in midsized, outdoor arenas.

"We're not looking to hold these events inmonster NFL [National Football League] stadiums -- maybe in arenas around 15,000 to25,000," he added.

Each team will feature about four to five members of thewomen's USA soccer team, Hendricks said, including such stars as Brandi Chastain, MiaHamm and Briana Scurry. The players will be paid a base salary of around $40,000, withincentives based on on-field performances.

"Our biggest concern as players has always beenmaintaining our success on the world stage, and the league gives us the opportunity to dothat," Julie Foudy, one of the World Cup mainstays, said at a press conference.

The MSOs will distribute, promote and market games on alocal level. Hendricks said the MSOs will have first shot at the local rights to thegames, and they will actively promote the league through system local avails.

A league official said the WUSA would initially targetcable- and broadcast-network distribution, but as the league grows, it would not rule outdirect-broadcast satellite outlets, as well.

"The MSOs are banking that the league will be acompelling and successful league … long-term, but they also expect to create a leaguethat has positive role models," Hendricks said. "This has enormous value, and[subscribers] will appreciate cable … for [offering] this type of programming."

Pilot House Associates chairman Hostetter said the venture"will add a valuable new dimension to the landscape."

Executives from the MSO investors said the league has thepotential not only to drive viewership for systems, but also to enhance its other businessventures.

"We hope the WUSA will provide opportunities toenhance our business initiatives from local programming, public relations, marketing andcommunity relations," a Cox spokesman said.

"It has the potential to be a very excitingleague," Time Warner vice president of corporate communications Mike Luftman said."We are interested in any high-quality entertainment product that could draw a massaudience."

Hendricks said the WUSA is talking with several cable andbroadcast networks for national distribution of games, including broadcast networks NBC,ABC and CBS, as well as cable networks ESPN, Turner Sports and Fox Sports. He ruled outDiscovery Networks U.S., however, as a potential rights bidder.

An ESPN spokesman said the network is "interested inseeing what the league has to offer, based on our commitment to soccer and our greatrelationships with those MSOs." But a Fox Sports spokesman said the company, "asa national entity, is not interested." He would not rule out potential interest amongthe Fox owned-and-operated regional sports networks for local-team cable rights.

Hendricks would also not rule out female-targeted LifetimeTelevision as a potential national distributor, but he said the WUSA has yet to talk withthe network. Lifetime -- which was a media sponsor of the 1999 Women's World Cup --said it would be interested in national cable rights.

Recently launched female-oriented Oxygen is not beingconsidered because of its lack of subscribers. "To have a [large enough] nationalpresence, you have to have at least [Lifetime's 75.3 million] households,"Hendricks said.

Hendricks is hoping to capitalize on the phenomenal successof the USA women's soccer team, which won the World Cup last summer. World Cup gameson ESPN averaged an impressive 1.47 Nielsen Media Research rating. Further, three ESPNtelecasts featuring the U.S. women's team averaged a 2.62 rating.

"The WUSA, its investors and its founding players alldesire to develop the full potential of women's professional play in a manner thatsupports and enhances the continued growth of soccer in America," Hendricks said.

But some industry observers believe the league willstruggle early trying to establish itself among other professional-sports programming.

"It's a very crowded sports calendar,"Pilson Communications president Neal Pilson said. "From what I understand, however,the league has deep-pocketed investors that are willing to stick with it long term."

Paul Kagan Associates Inc. sports analyst John Mansell saidthat given its television partners, the WUSA should be able to capitalize on the growinginterest in soccer around the country.

"When you look at how many people attended the WorldCup games, you have to believe the league has a really good chance to succeed," hesaid.

"If you look at all of the children who are playingsoccer today, the sport is becoming as big here as it is in Europe. The question will be:Can it meet [industry] expectations?" Mansell added.

Hendricks would not reveal which cities will host WUSAfranchises, but he did say that the league is considering major cities served by Cox,Comcast and Time Warner.

Along with Hendricks and Hostetter, other MSO executivesslated to sit on the WUSA's board of directors include Cox Enterprises Inc. chairmanJames Kennedy, Cox Communications CEO James Robbins, Comcast president Brian Roberts,Comcast vice president of programming investments Amy Banse, Time Warner Cable CEO JosephCollins and Time Warner Cable senior vice president of programming Fred Dressler.