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Leagues need fans, not eulogies

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If all the people who showed up for the wake had actually bothered to attend even one game, there might still be a women's pro soccer league in America today.

For all the good it did the WUSA, there were almost as many editorials lamenting its demise this week as spectators in some stadiums for the league's final regular-season games.

"Critical mass will someday be reached when women athletes and their fans will demand, and sponsors will provide, another women's league. The shame is that that day is not here yet," opined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"It is highly regrettable," concurred the Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City, "that athletic wear, fast food and sport nutrition companies that hand multimillion-dollar endorsement to individual athletes won't support a league in which players themselves had taken pay cuts and agreed to scaled-back rosters to help the struggling organization. It's unheard of in professional sports."

High-minded lectures about supporting athletic opportunities for women are fine — as far as they go. It's fine, too, to bash corporations for failing to put their money where their ads are or to rail against the inequity of measuring success solely by how much buzz an enterprise creates in an increasingly crowded sports landscape.

But none of that is a substitute for getting eyeballs tuned in or putting fannies in the seats on a regular basis. At about the same time organizers of this year's Women's World Cup were announcing a handful of sellouts, all the WUSA had on the books at the end of its three-year run was a $16 million shortfall.

The problem is that paychecks and the rent are due every month and you can't cover either with good intentions for very long.

The obvious problem with women's sports, of course, is men. They still hold the purse strings as well as the remote control in most places and they still won't watch women's sports.

Men never fail to mouth platitudes about how sport is the last frontier where old-fashioned virtues like sacrifice, effort, discipline and teamwork are still rewarded. But when it comes to those qualities, the truth is that women playing the same games at the highest level put their male counterparts to shame.

Annika Sorenstam made eye contact with more fans on every hole during her brief foray on the PGA Tour than Tiger Woods does in a season. And who could forget the disparity between the two U.S. hockey teams at the 1998 Nagano Olympics?

The women, many of whom had put careers and families on hold so they could make their debut, couldn't have been any more professional.

Meanwhile, the men, all of whom had been highly paid professionals for years, behaved like drunken frat boys and proved more adept at busting up dorm room furniture than opposing defenses.

And sportsmanship? Don't even get us started. But men are only half the problem — if that.

Women, too, tune in and turn out to watch these leagues of their own in numbers that are not just embarrassing, but almost disrespectful. The WUSA's own figures show seven of every 10 people in the stands were women. But the totals still fell way short of keeping the league in business. The pioneers in every sport spend much of their free time glancing back at the horizon for reinforcements. Women have been no different, and to be sure, there is still reason for optimism.

Today, the number of girls playing high school sports is one in three; among their mothers' generation, it was one in 27.

Women's basketball programs, such as Connecticut and Tennessee, have become proven performers at the merchandising stands as well as the grandstands.

More important, perhaps, girls are already enjoying most of the real benefits of playing. They're getting in shape and staying fit, learning how to cope with those necessary evil twins, competition and cooperation, and learning how best to deploy them.

What a stable women's pro sports league in this country can do is provide a place for the very best to continue that education. For the rest, it can animate the occasional daydream, as it has for boys throughout this century.

If the reality is that women are paid less, that they have to hustle and market and entertain more for the same dollar, that's a lesson that unfortunately applies to the rest of the world, too.

But if "You go, girl" is ever going to have any real meaning in pro sports, girls and women will have to do more than just play the games. At some point, they're going to have start going to them, too.