CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Five days before the start of the World Cup, the development of professional women's soccer in this country suffered a huge blow Monday when the financially strapped Women's United Soccer Association announced that it was suspending operations after three seasons.
Some 56 players from several countries who are participating in the Women's World Cup, which is scheduled to begin Saturday, currently or formerly played in the eight-team WUSA. While the league was considered the world's best for women, its revenues fell far below the level of its talent.
In starting the league, investors from the cable television industry such as Comcast and Time Warner made financial assumptions involving corporate sponsorship, debt, attendance and television exposure that did not meet projections.
After an initial outlay of $40 million, which had been the planned budget for five years, investors poured another $60 million into operating costs, but the WUSA kept losing money — $46 million the first season, in 2001, $24 million in 2002 and an estimated $17 million to $19 million for the recently concluded third season.
The league had been hoping to attract eight corporate sponsors, each paying $2.5 million, but only Hyundai and Johnson & Johnson were willing to pay that amount. Star players like Mia Hamm agreed to take pay cuts to $60,000 from $80,000 last season, and rosters were trimmed to 16 players from 18. But these belt-tightening measures could not make up for a severe lack of revenue in the face of dwindling attendance and corporate indifference.
While the timing was awkward, the decision to shut the WUSA's doors was made Monday so the league could pay its debts and offer a sufficient severance package to its employees, John Hendricks, the founder of the league and its chairman, said during a conference call with reporters.
Julie Foudy, captain of the U.S. national team and a member of the WUSA's board of governors, said that the players wanted the announcement to be made before the World Cup so news would not leak during the tournament and become an even greater distraction. The United States is scheduled to play Sunday against Sweden.
In announcing the suspension of the league, Hendricks left open the possibility that it could be revived if sufficient corporate sponsorship is secured. League officials and players acknowledged that this would be difficult, given the state of the economy, the difficulty of attracting sponsorship for women's sports, and overall decreases in attendance and television ratings for sports in this country.
Foudy and Hamm had tears in their eyes as they discussed the shutdown of the league after a scrimmage Monday at the University of Virginia. However, the American players said they would use the 16-team World Cup, which runs through Oct. 12, as a kind of audition for potential sponsors.
"It's not that women's sports can't make it," Foudy said, adding that the problem was persuading corporations to sponsor women's sports. "It's taking a chance," she said. "It's a scary proposition."