Women's Soccer Timeout

Just as fans were getting used to the idea of women and professional sports for good, the Women's United Soccer Association has announced it is sidelining - for now - its eight professional teams after only three seasons.

This, just a few days before the 2003 Women's World Cup kicks off in Philadelphia Saturday. It was the 1999 World Cup and its stampede of "pony-tailed hooligans" that convinced investors that starting up the league was worth a shot in the first place.

WUSA played its cards right for the most part. Stadiums for the teams were small. Marketing strategies were targeted toward the millions of children who play soccer, with the hopes of raising a loyal fan base.

But perhaps they just didn't grow up fast enough. Or maybe soccer parents grew weary of trundling the gang off to watch professional games.

Then, after concerns about SARS in China, the US inherited the 2003 World Cup like a last-minute prom date. This cup lacks the groundswell of enthusiasm that attracted sponsors' interest in 1999. And now, WUSA corporate sponsors are suddenly nowhere in sight.

It's been a tough year for women's sports in general. First Title IX came under criticism from male coaches who felt their teams were getting short shrift. The Women's National Basketball Association stumbled over salary disputes. Then, Annika Sorenstam teed up with the guys on the PGA tour only to say she's going back to "where I belong."

Is this some kind of foreshadowing? Are women's sports doomed to a short-lived chapter?

People may argue that women's sports just aren't as captivating as men's - they can't leap or kick or drive the way that men can. Explain then, the mass following of collegiate sports where the level of playing isn't the same as professional sports. And explain why, when favorite teams have losing seasons, they still find space above the fold on the sports pages.

The 1999 Women's World Cup established that there is an appetite for women's soccer in the US. But the formula for what will keep the game around as a professional sport is still being tested. A missed goal shouldn't mean game over. Let's hope WUSA, its fans, and sponsors can figure out what it's going to take to keep women's professional soccer on the roster.

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