Cable's League of Its Own, Soccer's WUSA, Struggles

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

This past Saturday, the Carolina Courage battled the Washington Freedom for the championship of the Women's United Soccer Association. Both clubs have turned things around significantly from the eight-team league's rookie 2001 season, when they shared the cellar.

The cable-owned circuit, now in its third season, will need to mount a similar overall comeback if it hopes to reach the goal of turning a profit during its fifth campaign — or maybe even of lasting that long.

WUSA, the brainchild of Discovery Communications Inc. chairman John Hendricks —and whose ownership ranks includes Amos Hostetter, Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc. — declined at the gate and on the tube during its second season.

Regular-season attendance totaled 576,063, an average of 6,858 per game. That was down 15 percent from 680,705, an average of 8,104 per game, in the first season.

WUSA's national Nielsen Media Research ratings also tumbled, from a 0.4 household average on Turner Network Television (11 regular-season games) to a 0.2 average on Pax TV (21 games), according to league and network officials.

On the plus side, after encountering significant start-up expenses in season one, the single-entity league cut some costs to narrow its deficit, while buttressing its sponsorship base.

The teams also play a dual role of promoting community relations in local cable markets, and operators say that part of the equation is working.

Sophomore setbacks are not unusual for fledgling pro leagues. The Women's National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer — the men's pro league here in the U.S. — both experienced similar growing pains at the box office and on the box following their mid-1990s debuts.

"Attendance and ratings often fall off in the second year for new leagues," said Neal Pilson, the former CBS Sports president who now heads sports consultancy Pilson Communications. "The curiosity factor fades a bit, and you don't get as much exposure from the media."

'Novelty is gone'

Added Hendricks: "During the second year, you're not spending as much on promotion. The novelty is gone to a large extent. Ten to 15 percent declines in attendance are not unexpected."

Hendricks also noted that with respect to the Freedom, the team he controls, figures were skewed by the 34,148 who came out to RFK Stadium in Washington for the league's first game on April 14, 2001.

WUSA CEO Lynn Morgan also said that the gate for both the league and the Freedom were hurt by the injury-prompted absence of Mia Hamm, the sport's most recognizable player and top drawing card, during the first half of the season.

"WUSA's original estimates called for about 6,500 fans per game. The second season was closer to that expectation," said John Mansell, a sports analyst for Paul Kagan Associates.

HOPEFUL SIGNS

If the gate didn't open as wide, there were encouraging signs on other fronts.

"We kept all of our core sponsors [Hyundai, Gatorade and Johnson & Johnson] and added companies like Maytag, McDonald's and Coke," said Hendricks. "We would have been happy with a 10 percent increase in sponsor dollars, but we had a 40-percent increase."

On the expense side of the ledger, Hendricks said he's happy with the shift in league offices from New York to a Cox facility in Atlanta. "There has been a lot cost-cutting," he said. "A lot of the big expenses are behind us."

Officials won't say how big those expenses were, but published reports indicate that the league burned through most of the $40 million in seed money during its first year.

Morgan, a Cox Enterprise veteran named president on Aug. 30, 2001, said that like many start-up businesses, WUSA didn't foresee some expenses.

"There were unexpected costs on the administrative side, and in terms of maintaining the league," she said. "Video boards and other facilities did not exist at some of the stadiums. Those cost a lot."

With higher revenue and a better handle on costs, Morgan said WUSA "showed a 43 percent improvement to its bottom line" during its second season.

The same could not be said from a national TV-audience perspective.

While WUSA gained scheduling continuity, with Pax airing its games at 4 p.m., ratings declined by half to a 0.2 from the 0.4 generated by TNT in early-afternoon time slots in season one.

Sources said TNT wanted to push WUSA into a midweek window for its second campaign, and the parties went their separate ways.

The new schedule bumped women's games up against ESPN2's coverage of the men's league, MLS. Although observers point out that MLS's audience is more male and ethnic than WUSA's, soccer is still competing against itself.

"It's unfortunate," Hendricks conceded. "Hopefully, there is something we can do to rectify this."

National numbers aside, Pax executives were encouraged by stronger performances in individual markets, like Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta, as well as non-WUSA DMAs as Seattle, Chicago, Memphis, Tenn., and San Antonio, Texas

Pax, a predominantly over-the-air network with supplemental cable carriage, views the WUSA as a good fit with its target audience of women 25 to 54 and its family-friendly approach to programming.

"Two-thirds of the WUSA fan base are females between six and 50, with a core of 36 to 40," said Pax president of cable distribution Steve Friedman.

Although Friedman had higher Nielsen expectations this year, he attributes the shortfalls to Pax's late entry: The hybrid network signed the two-year pact last December.

Friedman said the network didn't deploy tune-in spots with some of the players and a watch-and-win contest tying the game to its Web site until midway through the season.

Next year, Pax plans to bolster those initiatives and is also considering "player cameo appearances" in series fare like Doc.

DRESSLER'S EXPECTATIONS

Friedman will meet with league officials during the All-Star Game in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 21.

Among other things, those talks will center on a pre-game show (Pax runs infomercials on Saturdays until the WUSA kicks off); an edited replay of the weekly match; more cross-promotional efforts with cable systems that carry games; and uniform network identification.

Time Warner Cable executive vice president Fred Dressler said that while the league has gained continuity from the 4 p.m. starting time, guide listings typically use station call letters, instead of "Pax."

A Pax spokeswoman said that while network radio and outdoor ads can incorporate Pax, the station and WUSA, newspapers ultimately decide how to identify networks in their guides.

Dressler, who has "high expectations for WUSA in the long run," said 2002 has been a mixed year. But he's pleased with the progress of the Carolina Courage.

"The families who go to the games love the quality of soccer, the overall experience, and come back," he said.

Dressler noted that senior Time Warner Cable officials attended the Courage semifinal match on Aug. 17 and "were amazed to see players from both teams signing autographs 90 minutes after the game."

Such enthusiasm also manifests at cable offices in Raleigh, N.C. "Our CSRs and tech people have placed banners and news clippings in their cubicles. They're really supporting the team."

So is News 14 Carolina, Time Warner's regional news outlet, with pre- and post-game interviews and midweek updates. Dressler said that helped to drive up attendance and ratings on Fox Sports South.

Power outage

The experience has not been nearly as good with the New York Power. A playoff team in 2001, the Power fell into the WUSA basement this past season. Ratings have slipped on carrier Madison Square Garden Network and at the gate.

It's tough for any new team to make a name for itself amid the Big Apple's myriad cultural and sports offerings. But the Power's plight has been exacerbated by a lack of support in their home base on Long Island, a hotbed for metro-area soccer.

Dressler said Long Island soccer organizations have not pushed clubs to the matches, and have refused to distribute any of the Power's marketing materials.

"Let's say, they haven't embraced us," Dressler noted.

Consequently, Dressler is looking into a new venue within Time Warner's New York footprint (Long Island is the home of Cablevision Systems Corp.), preferably in Queens. There, Dressler believes the club will benefit from the power of cross-channel promotion and coverage by its New York 1 News operation.

KEEPING THE FAITH

Despite its struggles, sports watchers haven't given up on WUSA.

"The cable owners have deep pockets. The players are out in the community, at the grassroots level," said Pilson. "They're doing well with sponsors. They need to push to sell more seats. Sponsorship and ticket sales, not TV, is the big driver at this point."

"One of the boons to minor, alternative and women's sports leagues is the proliferation of TV outlets. They can work if they can get a national 0.5 [rating average]," said Mansell.

"With its single-entity ownership structure, it won't run into salary cap and other labor issues. There's a future for this league."

Hendricks still believes so. He said WUSA is still on course to reach break-even by season five, but will "reserve judgement" until after a league meeting following the All-Star game next month.

"In year three, we're looking at more expense control and growing our sponsor base," Hendricks said. "We're looking to continue to move toward being successful. At Discovery, most of our businesses break even between the fourth and sixth year."

Related