Women pros search for niche

The Women's Professional Football League finished its fourth season Saturday as the Northern Ice trampled the Florida Sting Rays in Kenosha, Wis. 53-12 to win the league's championship.

Chances are, you missed it.

WPFL games are not televised. Attendance for the final game was about 2,000.

These are not professional players with megabucks contracts. All the women in the league - staff and players - have full-time jobs. The league has no sponsors, and expenses for uniforms and travel fall largely on team owners.

For the past four years, Robin Howington has spent $35,000 to $40,000 a year of her own money just so women could run, pass, punt, and tackle while looking good on the field. Ms. Howington, the WPFL's executive director and owner of the Houston Energy, isn't sure how much longer she can keep on giving.

"It doesn't matter how much you [have to invest]," Howington says, who also runs her own Houston company, which supplies parts to oil rigs. "You can't continue to do this if you keep losing money. That just isn't good business."

While the WPFL is a semipro league, its problems are familiar to those running a women's professional sports league. Five have been launched since 1996. Only one, the WNBA, has survived, largely because of NBA backing. Soccer's WUSA was the latest casualty, hanging up its cleats this fall after it couldn't secure enough funding.

Observers tick off a number of reasons for the woes of women's pro sports, including slow-to-grow fan interest, inadequate corporate funding, and minimal media coverage. All are interconnected challenges in building, marketing, and selling a new sports product in an industry teeming with successful brands.

"We don't have advertisement dollars. The media doesn't give us much attention at all. There's no exposure, so there's no sponsors. Sponsors want [fan] numbers, we can't go get the numbers without money for advertising," says Howington.

WPFL players, who make $1 per game, also work hard to lure fans. She says the 18 women's football teams average about 1,500 spectators a game - hardly enough to attract sponsor dollars or media attention.

While women's sports advocates cry foul against minimal media coverage, sports editors and broadcasters insist they are only catering to what their viewers and readers want.

"If it's something we don't think our fans are going to watch, we don't televise it," says ESPN spokesman Mike Humes. He adds that the sports network relies on focus groups and research studies to determine interest levels of its consumers.

Sports coverage on TV is heavily male. Only 8.7 percent of televised sports is devoted to women athletes, compared with 88.2 percent for men (the remaining 3.1 percent is gender neutral), according to a study by Margaret Carlisle Duncan, a professor in the department of human movement sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

"The [women's] sports that do get a lot of coverage tend to be ones where women wear sequins and do dainty things," says Ms. Carlisle Duncan, adding that women's soccer has made significant inroads in counteracting some of those stereotypes.

But soccer - aside from major events like the World Cup - isn't what many women's sports enthusiasts in the US are watching. According to a 1999 Harris poll, 37 percent of fans who say they watch women's sports rank women's basketball first, followed by figure skating (20 percent), and tennis (12 percent).

For decades, a fairly equal mix of men and women have followed men's sports, says Dean Bonham, CEO of the Bonham Group, a sports and entertainment marketing firm in Denver.

The same appears largely true for audiences at women's sporting events. Attendance at those games is low, Mr. Bonham adds, probably because sports fans are still learning how to embrace new options.

"There has never been a major sports league started in this country that hasn't gone through serious difficulties between the time they started and the time they arrived," he says. "In today's world, if you don't have a broadcast relationship, it's going to be hand to mouth. You just can't survive on ticket sales and parking revenues. It's just not enough ... a broadcast relationship is critical in any league."

But there are signs that women's sports are developing a stronger following. ESPN says that their largest TV audience for a college basketball game - men's or women's - was the women's NCAA final game in 2001, when 3.5 million households tuned in to watch. And basketball's WNBA championship drew a record 22,076 fans last summer in Detroit.

Progress is also being made on other fronts. A new improved professional softball league, National Pro Fastpitch, is set to relaunch in eight cities next year. And WUSA organizers hope to bring back the league in a smaller form next summer.

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