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WUSA Folds After 3 Years / Women's league doesn't attract the corporate bucks to continue

Its phone still not ringing to offer anticipated corporate

support, the Women's United Soccer Association yesterday pulled the plug on its

three-year project, just five days shy of the wildly successful event that

originally spawned the league and its high hopes of commercial success.

The suddeness of the unanimous decision to suspend operations, reached

during an afternoon meeting of the WUSA's board of governors in Manhattan, was

all the more stunning with the 2003 Women's World Cup poised for kickoff to its

three-week tournament this weekend.

For weeks, WUSA officials and players talked of World Cup synergy as a

potential boost to fading interest in the league. Because concern over the SARS

epidemic had prompted international soccer officials to hurriedly move this

year's World Cup from China to the United States early this summer, there were

expectations that the tournament's return to its 1999 site would re-energize

fans and - more importantly - sponsors.

But league founder and board chairman John Henricks yesterday pointed to a

$20-million shortfall in this year's WUSA operating budget. He said an

additional 20,000 fans per game (in a league which features only one stadium

capable of seating that many) would be needed to close that gap, "so you can't

get there by ticket sales."

More to the point, Hendricks admitted being fooled by how directly

corporate support of the '99 World Cup would translate into financial backing

of an eight-team, five-month league.

"I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in the '99 World Cup and all the

sponsorships surrounding that event," Hendricks said, "and mistakenly assuming

that that would come over to the league."

Early projections of crowds and TV ratings for the WUSA were modest and

fairly realistic following the smash '99 World Cup numbers, when an average of

38,833 attended the games - including 90,125 at the championship final in the

Rose Bowl.

Still, Hendricks believed that he would be able to sign eight major

corporations to ante up roughly $2.5 million apiece to close the league's

budget gap, and instead got only two companies to pitch in a combined $2.5

million.

League salaries were slashed this past season from an average of $46,000 to

$37,000, with a top salary of $60,000 compared to the first-year ceiling of

$80,000 for the WUSA's 20 "founding players" - U.S. veterans of the '99 World

Cup.

Attendance dwindled, from a first-year average of 8,116 per game to 6,667

in the 2003 season. The local franchise, the Uniondale-based New York Power,

remained last in league attendance throughout, drawing a mere 4,249 per game

this year.

When league officials failed to hear from potential sponsors by a Sept. 1

deadline, "we decided to give it further time to develop," Hendricks said. But

the ongoing silence from corporate executives led to yesterday's meetings and

the decision to close the WUSA shop immediately.

There was overwhelming agreement that the WUSA's eight teams - Atlanta,

Boston, Carolina, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose, Washington and the Power -

featured the best female soccer players in the world, representing 14 nations.

Fifty-six WUSA players are on rosters of the World Cup's 16 national teams.

Hendricks said there is a "glimmer of hope" the league could be

re-launched, though national team preparations for the 2004 Athens Olympics,

which will follow shortly after the World Cup, likely would put off any WUSA

reappearance at least until 2005.

A Brief History of Women's United Soccer Association

The Founders

The United States won the 1999 Women's World Cup at the Rose Bowl before a

crowd of 90,125. All 20 players of that team became the founding players of the

Women's United Soccer Association. All played in the league, except Michelle

Akers, who retired in 2001.

The founders: Akers, Brandi Chastain, Tracy Ducar, Lorrie Fair, Joy Fawcett,

Danielle Fotopoulos, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Shannon MacMillian,

Tiffeny Milbrett, Carla Overbeck, Cindy Parlow, Christie Pearce, Tiffany

Roberts, Briana Scurry, Kate Sobrero, Tisha Venturini-Hoch, Saskia Webber, Sara

Whalen.

Average attendance slipped from more than 8,000 the first season to about 6,700

a game last season.

WUSA History

2001: Bay Area defeated Atlanta, 4-2, in penalty kicks after tying 3-3 in

regulation, in Founders Cup I. Tiffeny Milbrett, recently of the New York

Power, was the MVP.

2002: Carolina defeated Washington, 3-2, in Founders Cup II. Marinette Pichon

of Philadelphia was the MVP.

2003: Washington defeated Atlanta, 2-1, in overtime, in Founders Cup III. Maren

Meinert of Boston was the MVP.

New York Power

The Power played home games at the Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale. The

Power made the playoffs in the WUSA's inaugural season but wound up with the

worst overall three-season record (19-33-11).

2001: 9-7-5, third place, lost to Bay Area CyberRays, 3-2, in semifinals

2002: 3-17-1, last place

2003: 7-9-5, fifth place

COMPILED BY MARSHALL LUBIN

New York Sports