The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), the world's premier professional women's football league, kicked off in April of this year. The eight-team league got off to an excellent start and WUSA's future prospects are good.
The fact that 34,148 fans attended the inaugural game in the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) was not considered a sensation in the United States, a country where they have become accustomed to their footballing women accomplishing (almost) everything they set their minds to. Nevertheless, at the historic premiere in the capital city some tears of emotion were shed by the league's "founding members", the 20 players who in 1999 won the FIFA Women's World Cup for the United States on home soil. "It's incredible that we've come so far; after all, everyone kept telling us we couldn't do it, we'd never do it," said Mia Hamm, the most prolific goalscorer of all time.
Hamm is a prime example of the phenomenal rise of women's football in the USA. The men's league, or MLS (Major League Soccer), is still searching for a leading light that grabs people's attention not just in the growing soccer community, yet Hamm enjoys mass appeal. Leading advertising experts recently described her as having the greatest marketing potential of any sportswoman in the United States.Be like Mia.
A solid foundation
"We've got star power, that's our biggest trump," says the former head coach of the United States women's national team, Tony Di Cicco, now WUSA's Chief Operations Officer. In fact, watching WUSA matches is almost like watching the World Cup every weekend, since Hamm and her fellow World Cup heroines have been joined in the United States by the best players from around the world. The ever smiling Chinese goalkeeper Goa Hong plays for New York Power. Nigeria's Mercy Akide was signed by San Diego Spirit. The Brazilians Sissi and Pretinha perform their magic in the colours of the Bay Area CyberRays, while Doris Fitschen has left the German Bundesliga to bolster Philadelphia Charge's defence in the coming months. At the moment the crème de la crème of women's football is to be found in the United States, and this evokes memories of that magical summer in 1999. This was the time the American public began its love affair with its women's footballers, an affair that continues today. More than 90,000 fans came to watch the Final, including the then President Bill Clinton. It was the highlight of a two-week festival of football that nobody had thought possible. Originally, it had been intended to stage the Women's World Cup in small college stadia, but in the end even the giant Rose Bowl proved too small to accommodate everyone who wanted to experience this historic event.
The formation of WUSA was the logical consequence of the boom unleashed by the World Cup success. Yet the new league is not only banking on a strong elite: it also has a solid foundation. According to a recently published FIFA study there are more than seven million women footballers in the United States, and US national team member Julie Foudy estimates that some 90 percent of the fans at the inaugural game were younger than 12. "The future is ours" is her logical conclusion.
For now the new league remains small. Eight teams (Atlanta, Bay Area, Boston, Carolina, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington) will play a total of 88 matches. The first ever WUSA Championship Final will take place on 25 August, and average crowds are expected to be around the 7,500 mark, rising to 8,200 in 2002.
Responsibility for customer care is borne by the players themselves. After each game Hamm, Chastain and co. will sign autographs for as long as it takes to send the last fan home happy. While the stars in the NBA or the NFL remain about as accessible for the average paying customer as Fort Knox, America's women footballers are perfect and cooperative role models. "We're doing everything we can to ensure that young girls accept this league as their own," says Mia Hamm, "because we want WUSA to be around in ten, twenty, thirty years' time."
The future of professional women's football around the world depends upon what happens to WUSA. At long last, we have a league in which women are paid a decent wage for playing football professionally. If WUSA proves successful, it will open up new (financial) perspectives for women's football across the globe. The US stars, at any rate, appear totally convinced that their experiment will work. Given the choice between a one-off payment of USD 50,000 per "founding member" or a share in WUSA that will attain value only if the league makes a profit at some stage, they did not hesitate - of the 20 members of the 1999 World Cup winning team 18 declined the opportunity to make some fast bucks in favour of the more risky investment in the future.