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WUSA opts to suspend operations

League cites financial woes

In 1999, soccer fans and young girls all over the country were electrified when the United States won the Women's World Cup in Pasadena, Calif. The players were electrified, too, and Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, and more than two dozen others went on to a league of their own, the Women's United Soccer Association, which began play in 2001.

But now, on the eve of another Women's World Cup, the league has suspended operations, WUSA chairman of the board John Hendricks announced yesterday. The Breakers, who played at Boston University's Nickerson Field, were the Boston franchise in the eight-team league.

The decision was made yesterday by the WUSA's board of governors at a meeting in New York after it decided the league was financially unable to sustain a fourth season.

Joe Cummings, president and general manager of the Breakers, said he was not surprised. He suspected it could happen when he heard last week that the board of governors would be meeting in New York.

"What's hard for me, though, is that the Breakers were among the more financially viable teams," he said. "But even though the Breakers were doing OK, there were other teams that weren't, and those losses were escalating. We knew that this year was going to be a struggle for us financially, and we just hoped that through all the pay cuts, and all the expense reductions, that we would be OK. And we weren't."

A sign that the league was starting to stagger came last spring when the players agreed to take a hefty pay cut. "We want to help pay for marketing the league," Lilly said then. But it would have taken much more than that.

On television, most games were limited to local cable channels, and sometimes aired on tape-delay. The fan base that was so enthused after the '99 World Cup did not increase. Average attendance for WUSA games was more than 8,000 the first season but had dropped to about 6,700 this year.

Again, though, the Breakers were not to blame.

"Every year we led the league in season-ticket and ticket revenue, and every year we finished either third or fourth in sponsorship," said Cummings.

The main problem, Cummings said, was national sponsorship, which was provided by only Johnson & Johnson and Hyundai.

"We got about $2 million for that, and we could have used another $6 million," he said.

Cummings said the players were notified yesterday by e-mail, and that he spoke with some Breakers, including forward Erin O'Grady and goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who plays with the Canadian national team.

"The overriding question they have is not why, but what could we have done differently?" he said. "That's the quality of these people."

Cummings holds onto a glimmer of hope that the league can be resurrected.

"Which is why we chose suspension instead of just shutting the league down," he said. "What we're hoping -- and this is obviously a miracle hope -- is that people are going to hear this and say, `This isn't right, this isn't good.' And maybe somewhere out there there is a sponsor or investor, or maybe a year or two years from now we try it again.

"So we're going to hold onto those four letters -- WUSA -- and I'm going to hold onto the Boston Breakers as a name and as a trademark. So two years from now if someone calls me up and says, `Joe, would you like to try this again?' I'm going to say, `Heck, yes.' "

The Breakers finished first in the league this year but lost in the first round of the playoffs to eventual champion Washington. Boston's Pia Sundhage was named Coach of the Year, midfielder Maren Meinert was the Most Valuable Player, and Cummings was named Executive of the Year for a second straight time.

"So we've got this trophy case here, and we've won about every award except for the Cup," Cummings said.

Hendricks said that after the 1999 World Cup, he was smitten, like the rest of the nation, and convinced that a professional women's soccer league would work.

"I was intoxicated by what I witnessed, and I mistakenly believed that level of support would flow over into the league," he said.

WUSA owners have invested more than $100 million to fund the league, which has a current deficit of about $16 million.

Hendricks acknowledged that the timing of the announcement was awkward, since World Cup play begins Saturday. But the league couldn't afford to keep its doors open another day, he said.

"This financial situation has been developing, it's just at a critical level now," he said.

The league, which has franchises in Atlanta, San Diego, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, San Jose, and North Carolina in addition to Boston, employs 375 people, including players.

"We couldn't keep the doors open even another 24 hours without jeopardizing a decent and fair severance package for all our employees," Hendricks said.

He, like Cummings, clings to hope that the league will continue, adding that it will not dissolve entirely until the spring.

"There is a glimmer of hope that during the next few months the phones will ring," he said. "It might be a communications company, a sports apparel company, a beverage company who might respond, and they might say, `Keep this alive. Is there a way to resurrect it?' "

Cummings, who is working with World Cup organizers on games in Foxborough and Philadelphia, said he will take a planned vacation with his wife in October, then decide in November "what to do with the rest of my life.

"Like I say to my friends in soccer: `See you on the sidelines.' "

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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