by Jon Worley
A couple of interesting bits of information bubbled out at the end of the Olympics. NBA Commissioner David Stern said that the WNBA is breaking even as a league, even if some teams are still losing money. And then there's the news that yet another fully-professional women's soccer league will start playing next year.
That first tidbit informs the second. The WNBA was announced in 1996 and began play in 1997. It was founded with the full faith and credit of the NBA, and most of its teams were tied to NBA teams, right down to the names (the Washington team is the Mystics, not unlike the men's Wizards, etc.). So there was plenty of money and organization invested in the birth of the league. Nonetheless, the WNBA has still taken 15 years to arrive at modest survivability.
How did this happen? In large part, the WNBA finally figured out its core audience and has built its league around attracting those people, rather than trying to convince folks who don't care about women's basketball to come to the games. MLS (which started at about the same time) has done the same thing.
The WNBA figured out that plenty of men are fans of the women's game. And not just because they find the players hot. Indeed, as most men (and women, for that matter) will tell you, any top athlete is attractive when being, well, athletic. Sure, some are better-looking than others, but an athlete in full flower is a beauty to behold. And some of the most celebrated "hot" athletes are astonishingly normal-looking when not performing. Their exploits make them beautiful, and there's nothing wrong with that. Men I know will often refer to beauty in sports, even when the sports in question are played by men. Baseball pitches often, in the words of my wife, "look like the only weights they've lifted are twelve-ouncers." But those same big boys can look beautiful if they're on their games. The pear-shaped Livan Hernandez pitched for years with a fastball that occasionally hit 85 mph. But the way he changed speeds and located his pitches was a thing a beauty.
Most guys like sports, and many of them like women's sports. I'm not a gymnastics guy, but I can give you chapter and verse on women's soccer. And when my family goes to a college basketball game, we see the Maryland women. Kids aren't as particular about the gender of the athletes they watch. Competition is competition, and that's what all of us feed on.
I'd like to see a women's soccer league succeed. When the last league folded, I published a few suggestions. I stand by those, but if you're starting women's soccer league from scratch, here's what you have to do:
1. Find owners with enough cash to carry teams for 10 years.
Yes, the league will need sponsors. And the games must be televised. And the players will have to do outreach like they've never done before (Every soccer player in the area—boy or girl—ought to have a game-time or practice visit from a player at some point during the season; this isn't quite as onerous as it sounds, but it does require diligent scheduling ).
All of that, however, pales next to the obvious: The owners must have money and be committed to the long haul. If there's money, then the organization can be built. No money=no organization=no league.
Sports is a business. And the success of any league (even one a slow-building as the WNBA) will be determined by its success as a business. New leagues require long-term investment; that's the only kind that will give long-term returns. I'd love to see a new women's pro league (and I'd really love for one for one of the teams to be in the D.C. area), but more importantly, I want to see that league succeed. Dreams are nice, but if the work isn't put in beforehand, then this latest attempt at a league will end up like the others. And that would be sad.
Jon Worley is still peeling from his week at the beach.
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