Women's Soccer League Kicks Off in High Gear

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The cable-backed Women's United Soccer Association league kicks off its inaugural season Saturday with a lot less hoopla and media attention than the ultra-hyped XFL.

But the league's MSO and network investors maintain that its conservative operational and financial plans — as well as numerous branding and promotional opportunities — will paint a rosier long-term picture than that for the struggling football league backed by World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. and NBC.

The eight-team WUSA, owned and financed by several MSOs and cable executives, is hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of women's sports in general, and distaff soccer in particular.

With a five-year breakeven plan, an up-front operating kitty of $64 million and modest attendance and ratings expectations, executives believe the WUSA can thrive in a sports environment that has been hostile to new entrants.

The league is the brainchild of Discovery Networks Inc. chairman and CEO John Hendricks and the first circuit completely owned and operated by cable operators and the companies and executives associated with them. It will also feature the top names in women's soccer.

WUSA rosters are stocked with players from the 1999 World Cup champion United States national team, such as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers. Also involved are the top competitors from China, Norway, Brazil, Germany, and Canada they faced in that competition and in the 2000 Summer Olympics.

League investors pledged an investment of $8 million per team — $5 million for operating costs and $3 million in seed money for future stadium and team upgrades.

Time Warner Cable will run the New York and Raleigh, N.C. franchises, while Cox Communications Inc. will operate the San Diego team.

Hendricks himself will run the Washington, D.C., franchise and will be a 50-50 partner with former Continental Cablevision Inc. owner Amos Hostetter in the San Francisco/San Jose franchise.

Comcast Corp. controls the Philadelphia team, while Hostetter oversees the Boston franchise. Cox Enterprises Inc., MSO Cox Communications Inc.'s majority owner, will own the Atlanta entry.

The WUSA affords operators opportunities to extend their brands in key markets, connect with their subscribers and provide a quality sports product for their cable systems.

The MSOs will essentially serve as the general managers of their franchises and will be responsible for securing local advertising, sponsorships and local cable deals.

Time Warner, for example, will look for cross-promotional opportunities with its New York and Raleigh, N.C. teams and systems in those markets, Time Warner Cable senior vice president of programming Fred Dressler said. The cable systems will use cross-channel avails to promote both the teams' local telecasts, as well as national match coverage on Turner Network Television and CNN/Sports Illustrated.

BOOSTING BRANDS

Dressler said the company would marry its corporate assets in an effort to reach out to consumers. After several home games, for instance, Time Warner may offer a concert featuring an up-and- coming Time Warner Music performer, which will help its sister music company to build artist awareness and boost record sales.

"The players will sign autographs and take pictures with the fans," Dressler said. "It will be a family friendly atmosphere."

The association with a family friendly sport is as important to the MSOs as any financial gains they may accrue from the league, the executives involved said.

"I would be happy to be at a break-even point in two years," Cox Communications CEO James Robbins said in an interview last week. "But we look at it as a way to give back to the community in terms of providing a quality product, as well as role models for young women to look up to."

To further illustrate the company's commitment to the league, Robbins quipped that he would consider offering some of the players interested in a telecommunications career a job at Cox during the off season.

But the MSOs are not planning to run and fund a money-losing venture. Executives are confident that the WUSA's conservative financial and operational tack will allow it to avoid the pitfalls that have doomed so many startup professional sports circuits.

Unlike the struggling XFL, which launched with high performance expectations, the league has very modest attendance and ratings goals for its first few years of operation. Hendricks said the league hopes to average about 7,500 fans per game, well short of the numbers drawn by most other pro circuits.

The league would be happy with ratings between a 0.7 to a 1 for its games, which will predominantly air on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, said Hendricks. TNT and CNN/SI will air a combined 22 games per year, including playoffs and the championship match.

"That's the advantage of having a single entity owning and running the league," said Hendricks. "You can control costs."

Dressler also thinks the league will avoid the problems that have beset the XFL. Touted as a more provocative and hard-hitting alternative to the National Football League, the XFL's on-field product has yet to match the hype. As a result, ratings have fallen well short of projections, causing several advertisers to bail out and put the league's future in doubt.

"I hope that we will be successful, but we think our goals and expectations are more modest, conservative and realistic than other start-up leagues," Dressler said. "We have the luxury of already having a working relationship with the local media and we have a national sports deal."

Executives said the players also understand the importance of a fiscally sound league and consequently are not demanding enormous salaries, although league officials haven't clearly said how much the players will receive.

"We're all going into this with a cost structure that's very realistic, and the players are mindful that we're in this together to make this business a success," Robbins said.

Robbins added that if successful, Cox would consider investing in another team down the line.

"If we're successful in getting eight teams off the ground, I think we'll look to expand the league going forward."

Reining in operating costs and aggressive promotion will be the keys to the WUSA's fortunes, said Pilson Communications president and sports analyst Neal Pilson.

"If they can keep the economics and the level of expectation under control, they have a good chance of succeeding," he said.

The latter may not be so easy. While America's youth soccer programs are booming and the U.S. National team was the cynosure of the sports world during its World Cup title run in 1999 — which climaxed with Chastain's jersey-removing celebration — in the U.S., the world's game has not played all that big on TV or in the stands over the years.

Major League Soccer, now in its sixth campaign, has never matched the attendance average from its inaugural season, and TV ratings for the men's pro-league telecasts have been minimal. Last year, six contests on ESPN averaged a 0.34, matching the average for 11 games on the total sports network in 1999.

Spin-off ESPN2 averaged a 0.22 for 19 MLS games in 2000, down from a 0.26 average for 21 matches the year before.

But during the Women's World Cup, the U.S. National team generated a 2.6 average for three games on ESPN, highlighted by a 3.7 rating for the semifinal against Brazil, which made that July 4 match the most-watched soccer telecast in the network's history.

Similarly, the June 27 match versus North Korea, which tallied a 1.96 rating, was the most-watched soccer game ever on ESPN2. The final against China scored an 11.4 rating for ABC, with more that 40 million viewers tuning in for all or part of that match.

STARS ARE SCATTERED

The penalty-kick victory for the U.S. remains this nation's all-time top-rated soccer event. It also holds the distinction of being the country's most-watched women's sporting event.

Still, that was with all of America's sweethearts on the same side. Now, the stars are scattered among the eight franchises, but league officials remain confident of their appeal.

Overall, the league will create more than 250 hours of original programming, said WUSA chief television and marketing officer Lee Burke.

"We're essentially televising almost every game both nationally and locally between the Turner deals and the regional sports networks," he said. "There is a terrific opportunity to provide compelling product through the various outlets."

Among the production nuances the league will showcase are more player close-ups than are typically screened on soccer telecasts.

"Americans expect close-ups of the players, and we have many recognizable stars," Burke said.

One thing the networks won't do is disrupt the action with commercials. Each half will run ad-free, with spots clustered during the pre-show, post-show and halftime segments, Burke said.

There will be significant sponsorship opportunities throughout the matches, however.

Advertisers can sponsor the clock or the scoreboard during the telecast. They'll also be able to place their logos on three different parts of the players' uniforms and on-field signboards, Burke said.

"We're looking to have sponsors exposed during the game without interrupting the action," Burke said.

Johnson & Johnson, Hyundai, Gillette and Soft & Dri have signed on as charter sponsors of the nascent league and will receive spots, on-air billboards, signboards and the rights to use the WUSA trademarks and logos. Era Max, meanwhile, has inked a deal making it the league's official laundry detergent.

Negotiations for other packages were ongoing at press time.

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