Pro women's soccer set for spring of 2001

Cable TV interests form 8-10-team league

February 16, 2000|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Investors flush with cable television money and $40 million to spend over five years on women's soccer announced plans yesterday for a professional league that would begin play in April 2001.

The group is fronted by John S. Hendricks -- founder, chairman and chief executive of Bethesda's Discovery Communications Inc. He said the league, called the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), will begin with teams in eight, possibly 10, American cities out of 15 being considered.

"The funding's in place, and the players are there," said Hendricks. The league will include Americans and players from abroad, where the few leagues that exist are semi-pro. All 20 members of the U.S. team that won the third Women's World Cup last summer were listed as WUSA's "founding players."

League backers, orchestrated by Hendricks as their chairman, include Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp., Cox Enterprises, Cox Communications, and Amos B. Hostetter Jr., whose MediaOne is about to merge with AT&T. All are major cable TV players.

No franchise cities were announced; neither were key executives, although former U.S. national women's team coach Tony DiCicco, who has been consulting for Hendricks' group, was present yesterday and flatly said he wants a job in the league.

Hendricks said the group's business plan is predicated on an average attendance of 6,500 in a five-month season ending in August. Players' pay, Hendricks said, would average $40,000, plus incentives that include attendance.

The league would operate as a single entity, meaning shared expenses, income, profits or losses, and ownership of players' contracts -- a business form common among new pro leagues in all sports in recent years.

Hendricks' group has applied for Division I status -- world soccer jargon for "big league" in terms of financing, venues, attendance, competitive quality and staffing -- from the U.S. Soccer Federation, a spokesman for American soccer's governing body in Chicago confirmed yesterday.

"It's a very organized, very detailed proposal," said spokesman Jim Moorhouse. "This is still in the very early stages. There's no real time frame yet."

The proposal must survive scrutiny of the federation's committee on a women's pro league and then its national board. The league could operate without sanction, but doing so would preclude international recognition.

Moorhouse said -- and Hendricks also alluded to it during yesterday's tele-news conference -- that "other entities are out there" interested in forming a women's pro league. But other than to say no other group has sought sanction, Moorhouse would not elaborate.

A proposal for a league two years ago dissolved at the federation level under pressure from the then-impending Women's World Cup. Some of Major League Soccer's investors are said to be interested, commissioner Don Garber is on U.S. Soccer's women's committee, and Mark Abbott, MLS' chief operating officer, drew up a women's league business plan for the federation.

Atlanta is a shoo-in for one WUSA franchise, Hendricks acknowledged, because of backing there by the city's Cox companies and Time Warner, whose vice chairman is billionaire Ted Turner, CNN's founder and Atlanta Braves owner.

The Washington-Baltimore area is under consideration, Hendricks said, but lack of a suitable stadium -- one that is neither NFL scale nor used for American football -- is a problem. Pro soccer interests prefer grass fields with capacities of 20,000 or less. Few large cities have such facilities.

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