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Problems were sizable

WUSA's plans may have been too big

The Boston Breakers' final game was played Aug. 16, a day when 23,947 spectators attended professional soccer games in the area. The problem was, attendance was split between two teams: the Breakers at Nickerson Field and the Revolution at Gillette Stadium. Though soccer has become established in the US mainstream in recent years, there is little evidence that the sport is strong enough to succeed at the level the Women's United Soccer Association had envisioned. In fact, there is little chance of any women's team sport succeeding without subsidization at such a level.

International soccer is different. The US national women's team has a strong identity, recognizable players, and a winning tradition. The team also has a reasonable supply-and-demand equation, so games are spread throughout the country and throughout the year. Each game receives a buildup and is treated as a unique opportunity for fans. This concept reached an apex in the 1999 Women's World Cup, which was heavily promoted and took on a life of its own as the US progressed. But was the success of the event substantial enough to warrant the launch of a professional league? Or was the ambition of the WUSA simply unrealistic?

WUSA organizers were in an unfamiliar position after the US team defeated China on penalty kicks in the '99 final. The television numbers were huge, the national media interest unprecedented for a soccer event. Investors and sponsors were lining up. Something drastic had to be done. The women's game had become too big for the semi-professional W League, but had it grown to the level where it could compete with other US sports leagues?

"All soccer in this country, men's or women's, is all about inculcating into the sports culture, putting down roots," said Steve Gans, a former executive in the Major Indoor Soccer League. "The '99 Women's World Cup was about women, women's sports, the big event, and `America No. 1,' and less about soccer. It got great ratings and Americans believed it was as big as the World Cup, but it had no history -- it wasn't even called the World Cup in 1991 -- and there were only three good teams.

"It did not show there was a potential women's soccer fan base. The event and spectacle aspects were also there in the 1994 [men's] World Cup, but people were there for the soccer. I truly believe that had the men's team done in '94 what the women did in '99, the reaction would have been far greater. But that wasn't going to happen."

A major problem in the US is that sports is considered more a business than an activity essential to society. So unless a league conducts itself in a high-profile way, promising to generate profits, it becomes marginalized.

But the US is a huge land mass with a variety of people who have discretionary income. Few sports become extinct. They either find a cult following or become hybrids, often to satisfy off-hour television programming demands.

The WUSA coaches and players will not go away, though the foreign players might return to the more realistic club system they came from. There is a World Cup to be played -- starting in Columbus and Philadelphia Saturday. Thereafter, either the WUSA can somehow be relaunched or the W League can expand its stage.

If the Breakers players decide to perform for the Boston Renegades, they can expect several hundred to a thousand spectators at Bowditch Field in Framingham. Most of them will have to take on full-time employment. The US national team players have name recognition, but fans arrive in significant numbers only for Mia Hamm. In fact, the emergence of Hamm and Brandi Chastain might have further distorted the concept of the WUSA, since they attained greater familiarity among US sports fans than any male soccer players.

The WUSA certainly made mistakes. There probably should have been more synergy with Major League Soccer. But MLS has been fighting an uphill battle itself and is in no position to pick up a dubious passenger.

There was hope that the Women's World Cup, relocated from China because of problems relating to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, would provide a lifeline for the WUSA. But league organizers could not wait to find out. They decided not to risk falling deeper into the hole.

"We are hoping that when they realize the severity of the situation, someone might come forward," Breakers general manager Joe Cummings said. "But the league didn't have any money left and the offseason isn't the time of bringing in revenues."

Cummings believes the Breakers would have begun to break even in two years. But other teams, funded by publicly-traded entities, were doomed. And when even one team begins to collapse, it can have a domino effect on a nascent league.

This was the reason MLS was set up under centralized, single-entity control. The strict revenue-sharing structure might have stifled ambition in MLS but it has also provided a financial safety net.

The WUSA organizers were not wrong in believing in the inevitability of a professional women's soccer league. But there are questions about ambition and scale, and they are related to the game of soccer itself. Women's soccer might not be interesting enough to create large-scale demand on a consistent basis. The players lack the physicality of men, and women's soccer is simply not widespread enough in the world to reach any level of global interest.

This might not be the right place or time for the WUSA. But times change.

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