Wednesday, September 17, 2003

BITTERNESS: The WNBA has a great finale last night and I don't watch because I'm bitter, bitter, bitter that the WNBA has vast corporate support and the WUSA leadership never found any. Steve Sailer dug up one of his old comments here:

Unfortunately, after each frenzy of patriotic feminist chauvinism, our poor women athletes come home and set up a domestic pro league that rapidly loses the interest of most everybody except lesbians and the kind of pathetic guy fan who'll watch anything on ESPN2. That's because, to be frank, even the best women aren't anywhere near as good at sports as the best men, so what's the point in watching them unless they are kicking foreign butt?

This works as an explanation for not watching the WNBA, but not for the WUSA; soccer just isn't a sport where Americans in general have any clue what a quality game looks like--there's not a level of sophistication where an average American could tell where a women's pro game suffered in comparision with a men's pro game. Plus my own perception of soccer is that it doesn't require a lot of obvious athleticism, and there isn't a great quality-of-play difference in terms of how the games actually look between high-level men's and women's competitions. I think you can blame the sport and it's nebulous after-school activity status and not the gender of the athletes for the WUSA's failure. But, I mean, if the WUSA had a D. Stern or a Phil Anschutz keeping it afloat, I wouldn't be posting this right now.

Reluctantly, I have to question the attitudes of the WUSA's founder-players, just if they realized how hard it would be to found a new sports league with an intended audience of 12 year old girls. A league where you'd support it because it was your civic duty, because you (as a parent or whoever) wanted to inspire the girls of today to become the athletes of tomorrow, not because you wanted to see a soccer game. It was--in that sense--an incredibly unrealistic business plan. How much disposable income do 12-year-old girls have? In hindsight it seems like the league was founded on good feelings and that and a hundred million dollars will buy you a pro sports league, buddy. Here's Mark Starr of Newsweek laying a wreath on the grave:

And frankly I blame you, all of you.
All of you who didn’t, as we said so often when I was a kid, put your money where your mouth is. All of you who couldn’t be bothered to buy tickets so that attendance slumped 15 percent since the innaugural year. All of you who never tried to find the games on cable’s outer reaches so that the league’s TV rating were infinitesimal. All of you who are quick to scream bloody murder over threatened inroads against Title IX, but don’t bother to give the most talented of those Title IX babies a place to prosper. All of you “soccer moms” who somehow became a major political force, but not a force for women’s sports. All of you corporate frauds who claim a commitment to both sides of the gender divide, but who are unwilling to invest modest dollars in anything less macho than the NFL. All of you editors who celebrated the World Cup in your pages—sports, news and editorial—and then quickly consigned women’s soccer to the agate type.
And believe it, I blame me, too.

Of course, part of the appeal of the WUSA was that it wasn't just Title IX Americans, but the best of the national teams as well. That was it's uniqueness, being the best of the best with an American tilt by necessity.

Jeff Taylor added something else:

Except that those involved in the WUSA -- players, execs, sponsors even -- did not understand that the women would have to be content to play in what essentially would be a minor league for a very long time, a decade perhaps, as the fan base grew. That didn't happen has the WUSA burned through $100 million in a pointless attempt at equality of largess with men's sports.

The WUSA was not nearly as guilty of forcibly trying to legitimize themselves as the WNBA was, and is, but he's right. Women's start-up leagues should not think of themselves as being immediately entitled to half the popularity of the equivalent men's league (the idealistic Title IX thing, which can work in an idealistic enviroment like college) but as actual new sports, because they are actual new sports. A WUSA Redux will ideally be more like the NLL or the AFL in the early days: players paid per game in llow hundreds of dollars. It won't be as grand as the grand WUSA dream of women being able to make a living off professional soccer, but, sheeit, you're supposed to work toward your dreams, not expect to dream them and never wake up. My final analysis seems to coming down to that this was a case of "too much, too fast" which I didn't think when I was watching WUSA games, because the salaries were low ($80k at the most, and that was for a very few), there weren't that many teams (two more than the early, stable NHL, which played as six teams for 20 years, and is still, to my mind, the most successful niche sport ever) and consequently there was a high level of play. But even those apparently low expectations weren't low enough, it seems; they needed to be even lower.

Perhaps the SPORTSbyBROOKSian interpretation is right, that a successful women's sport has to cash in on sex appeal to draw in the pathetic male fanbase necessary to make a sport successful. Which is something that the WUSA was clearly unable to do, with an audience of 12-year-old girls. I dunno. The only sport that successfully melds female hottiness with female athletic achievement is tennis. You could add pro wrestling, but American women's pro wrestling remains lousy. You could suggest figure skating, but figure skating melds female beauty with female athletic acheivement, not female hottiness, sex appeal, schwing factor, whatever you want to call it. I don't know how tennis does it--it's not just Kournikova, she's just the most obvious one--but it does.

Eric McErlain adds something I didn't know:

One other point about Hamm and Chastain: the WUSA was one of the first sports leagues to offer its players equity in the enterprise. So while they, and many others, took pay cuts, their compensation packages were most likely heavily leveraged with equity incentives -- not much unlike the millions of dot commers who took lower salaries in the hopes that the startup they signed on with would blossom with a big IPO.

Optimistically, perhaps the end of the WUSA is the last gasp of the old speculative economy, and maybe we can go into a more realistic model with WUSA Redux--some amped-up version of the W-League. A successful women's pro league is still very doable, it seems to me--it just has to have the right business model, which would have minimal profit expectations, where the only people who would play would have to be the passionate ones. Maybe you wouldn't be able to draw the world's best anymore--you wouldn't see Kelly Smith and Marinette Pichon on the same team ever again--but you'd still elevate the level of play, if only the American game's level of play.

But....yeah, the dream is over. Like I said: it was the best women's pro league ever, and I mean that entirely in terms of level of play, in terms of how entertaining the games were. May high-level women's soccer return in a more stable form.

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