WUSA collapse leaves void in sports

September 15, 2003
By Graham Hays

The most important sports story in Tuesday's paper won't be the outcome of the Cowboys-Giants game. It will be the story about the demise of the Women's United Soccer Association, and it probably won't be easy to find.

After three seasons of play and reported losses topping $100 million, the league suspended operations effective immediately. The shutdown comes just days before the start of preliminary-round play at Women's World Cup venues near Boston, Columbus, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland and Washington D.C and leaves the bulk of the U.S. team -- defender Cat Reddick is still in college -- unemployed.

Seven years after the Olympic Games in Atlanta were trumpeted as a turning point for women's sports in this country and four years after the glow of 100,000 spectators filling the Rose Bowl for the World Cup final between the United States and China, the second-most visible women's professional sports league in this country is no longer in business.

And that's a problem.

It's not because Mia Hamm or Tiffeny Milbrett are out of work -- that's merely unfortunate for them and sad for the fans who enjoyed watching them ply their trade -- but that some sports stories really are about more than wins and losses.

The WUSA was never just about the players on the league's eight teams, or about who scored the most goals or made the most saves. It was about taking the gains achieved under Title IX and showing a younger generation what was possible.

Maybe the WUSA died because it was mismanaged. Maybe it died because Americans have little interest in professional soccer. And maybe it died because women's professional sports cannot capture a large enough market share to be profitable for investors and sponsors. But whatever the cause, the league's demise is a crushing blow to an issue whose import extends well beyond the machinations of free-market economics.

The WUSA didn't need to be the NFL, or even MLS. It's not the fantasy leagues or the nightly recap shows on ESPN that are important. It's not the culture of fans that make themselves more important the games. Women's professional leagues don't need to mimic men's professional leagues to be a success -- in fact, it's probably the quickest road to ruin. What was important was the exhibition of sport at the highest level and the message it sent.

Girls -- and boys, for that matter -- should be able to see Abby Wambach score goals. They should be able to know who Hege Riise is or be able to watch Sissi in action.

Athletes will always be role models, because they're living the dreams of the kids who idolize them. And young girls -- especially those with an interest in sports -- needed the role models provided by the WUSA.

And it is different for young girls. Between every Sally Ride or Elizabeth Dole making a name for herself in science, politics, academics, there is a gaping void. A void that grows smaller every day, but a void nonetheless. But leagues like the WUSA and WNBA provide a venue for literally hundreds of recognizable faces of achievement in a field previously reserved for men.

Nobody wants to be lectured on why they should watch women's soccer, or women's sports in general. If the WUSA wasn't your cup of tea, it wasn't your cup of tea and society won't fall down around us because you weren't tuned to PAX on Saturday afternoons.

But, there is no denying that in one fell swoop on Monday afternoon, the visibility and accessibility that was provided for many successful women was drastically reduced.

Soccer fans will miss the WUSA for the competition and personalities it provided, but there just weren't enough of us to keep it afloat financially. Younger generations will miss the WUSA for different reasons, and the real shame is they never got their chance to support it.

Abby Wambach and the Washington Freedom are gone. The money trail suggests the sports world didn't have a place for them, but some things are more important than the bottom line.