The USA's first ever professional women's football league - the eight-team Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) - kicked off this year. Despite disappointing TV audiences, the championship proved to be a huge success and the winners of this inaugural competition were the Bay Area CyberRays from San Francisco/San José.
On 25 August 2001, no-one in Boston's Foxboro Stadium had a smile wider than Gina Oceguera. Little more than two months after being released by San Diego Spirit, she found herself kissing the Founders Cup - the trophy crafted for the WUSA Champions by Tiffany & Co.
In June, a career that had taken the 23-year-old to the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup with the Mexico national team seemed to be in ruins. After the termination of her contract with San Diego, where she had played only a few matches, Oceguera was left in a very difficult position. If you lose your job in the United States, the welfare programme is fairly minimal, no matter whether you have come from Silicon Valley or WUSA, so in despair she got on the phone to all of the WUSA clubs. Just one General Manager returned her call. The CyberRays offered her a position as a squad player. Her monthly salary? One thousand US dollars, not much when compared to the average WUSA player's salary of USD 41,250 for the season.
Then came a twist of fate, Diane Alagich's misfortune gave Oceguera her chance. When Australian international Alagich tore her cruciate ligament, there was suddenly a place for Oceguera in the CyberRays' team. Oceguera made the most of the opportunity and was ever present from then until the end of the final in Boston.
Something out of nothing - Gina Oceguera's story is a little like the story of WUSA.
Ten dollars a day
The founder members of the first women's pro football league have vivid memories of its humble beginnings ten years ago. Back then, players received just ten dollars a day in expenses for representing the national team abroad. When the US women returned from China in 1991 after triumphing in the Women's World Cup, they were met at the airport by just three fans. On the CyberRays' return to San Francisco after winning the WUSA title this year, several hundred fans turned out to welcome them home.
"The memories of the hard times make us relish today's successes even more," said CyberRays' playmaker Brandi Chastain, who in the final in Boston was spared the role of penalty shoot-out heroine that brought her overnight fame in the 1999 Women's World Cup final. This time it was Atlanta Beat's two foreign stars, Sun Wen from China and Canadian Charmaine Hooper, who succumbed in the test of nerves from 12 yards, while all of Chastain's team-mates scored.
As soon as the ovation from the 21,078 fans in the Foxboro Stadium had died away, the league started to prepare itself for hibernation until the new season in April 2002 and those involved began to take stock of the first WUSA campaign.
"The support from the fans was phenomenal," said league chief Barbara Allen, "the prospects for the future are fantastic."
"We have shown that there is a definite market for women's football in this nation," Tony Di Cicco, the WUSA Chief Operations Officer and former coach of the US women's national team, added with satisfaction. The regular season games drew an average of 8,104 spectators, topping targets by 600. Washington Freedom - thanks to star striker Mia Hamm - attracted 14,421 fans for each game at their home stadium, and this despite the fact that Mia and her team-mates only managed seventh place out of the eight teams in the league, thus missing the play-offs by a wide margin. Despite their disappointing performances, Washington Freedom were the league's biggest crowd-pullers, both at home and on the road.
Just like a World Cup
In contrast to match attendances, TV ratings for the championship were much less cheering. Cable channel TNT secured only a 0.4 percent share of overall TV audiences, which converts to approximately 400,000 households. By comparison, the women's basketball league (WNBA), which is scheduled in direct competition to WUSA games during the summer, pulls in almost three times as many viewers, without being anywhere near as profitable.
"The WNBA can draw on enormous resources that we do not have," says US international Julie Foudy of San Diego Spirit, "so we just have to work harder." This commitment was very evident at every WUSA game. No-one is more willing to sign autographs than women footballers in the USA. "All the players have to realise that playing in this league is a privilege, not a god-given right," says Brandi Chastain, who in recent years has become one of the most vociferous figures in the women's game.
Unfortunately, many potential WUSA supporters cannot tune in to see the efforts of Chastain, Hamm and Co. Ratings are not available for CNN-SI as the cable TV provider does not reach enough households to be a statistical factor. And WUSA has signed long-term contracts with its current TV partners so there are no prospects for any immediate improvements to these figures. "We must educate our audiences in how to watch football on television," says Barbara Allen with a sigh.From a purely sporting perspective, the new league has fulfilled almost all expectations. The 31 players from outside the US on the whole performed at a very high level. In some ways, WUSA is almost like having a taste of the World Cup on a regular basis. According to Canadian international Charmaine Hooper, the level of play is better than she had imagined, something she attributes to the depth of home-grown American talent. The fact that millions of American girls are actively playing football has given the game a rock solid foundation on which a bright future can be built.
WUSA's second season will not see any sweeping changes. There are no plans to add more teams to the league before 2003. The majority of the stars will stay next season and a few more will join them. Cooperation with Major League Soccer (MLS) needs to be intensified, otherwise the league will rely on its existing strengths. "We will do everything in our power to ensure that this league is still here in ten years," vows Brandi Chastain.