It's the Birth of a Notion

For the second time in 10 weeks, America has seen the birth of another professional sports league, only this time, the women are on the playing field and not in the hot tub.

There are other, more subtle differences between the XFL and the newest rookie on the block, the Women's United Soccer Assn., which made a rather restrained debut Saturday in Washington D.C.

(That, for the record, is the first time the XFL and the word "subtle" have appeared in the same sentence.)

In the WUSA, when players try to out-sprint each other and slide and lunge and get their legs tangled together, they're trying to win a game--not determine which team will receive the opening kickoff.

In the WUSA, the announcers are knowledgeable, reasonable and well-prepared--and not one of them has ever ripped open a turnbuckle to pound Hulk Hogan's face into a bloody pulp.

In the WUSA, no one trashes the other, more established league because there is no other, more established league.

In the WUSA, which features players from Brazil, China, Germany and Norway, everyone on the field is not completely familiar with the English language. And in the XFL . . . which features a player from Western Kentucky . . . who wears a jersey with a personalized message on the back . . . "HE HATE ME". . .

OK. So the XFL has the same problem.

Down the road, future promoters of the Extreme Lacrosse League and the Women's Full-Contact Figure Skating Assn. will have quite a choice of case studies as they set about plotting their start-up strategies.

Do you carpet a country's consciousness with an earth-scorching marketing plan, promise Mt. Everest when you know you can't deliver an anthill, pump up the noise, overrate your product, underdress your cheerleaders, send in the clowns with their microphones, annoy and/or offend every viewer old enough to remember the Carter presidency and blow your whole program on an over-the-top grand opening just so you can say the TV ratings once reached double digits before free-falling to 1.5 territory?

Or do you debut under the radar, split your game-of-the-week telecasts between a couple of cable networks not named ESPN or USA, put your inaugural pregame show on another cable network known for its nature shows about deadly reptiles and hidden treasure, think small at the outset, hope for gradual drop-by-drop growth and place the future of your product in the hands of that old-time standby, word of mouth?

To know the when and whereabouts of Saturday's inaugural WUSA game between the Washington Freedom and the Bay Area CyberRays, you either had to be a wired-in soccer aficionado or a TV guide obsessive. The game itself aired on TNT, which will televise weekly WUSA games until June, when CNN/Sports Illustrated takes over until August, when TNT takes over again. An hour-long show examining the formation of the WUSA, "Inspired to Win: Women's Soccer Comes of Age," was aired on the Discovery Channel--the night before kickoff.

Similarly, the print media's interest was scattered. USA Today and the Washington Post featured prominently displayed advance coverage--but the Post had a local team playing in the game. Sports Illustrated, which is owned by a major WUSA investor, AOL-Time Warner, did not preview the league in its most recent issue. This paper made no mention of the opener in its Saturday sports section--except to print an incorrect starting time in its TV listings.

Instead of talking heads analyzing the CyberRays' backline, TNT opted for Tom Hanks and Rosie O'Donnell as their Saturday morning lead-in programming. The movie "A League of Their Own" preceded the WUSA telecast, an appropriate choice that underscored not only the challenge facing this latest group of female pioneers but also the fundamental differences between soccer and baseball.

There may be no crying in baseball, but there is in soccer.

Julie Foudy, midfielder on the U.S. national women's soccer team and charter member of the WUSA's San Diego Spirit, told TNT's Craig Sager that the opening ceremony at RFK Stadium was so emotional, she and her U.S. teammates "started crying a little" as the reality of the moment hit them: " 'Yes, it's here!' "

Now that the opener is in the books--Freedom 1, CyberRays nil, game-winner scored on a penalty kick after Brandi Chastain took down Mia Hamm near the right goalpost--the pressing question facing the WUSA is: How long will it last? Saturday's crowd of 34,148 was an encouraging start, but from here, the league moves to a 5,700-seat stadium in North Carolina and a 7,000-seat facility in San Diego and the no-luster grind of run-of-the-mill midseason games.

As TNT play-by-play announcer JP Dellacamera observed, "this league is not going to be judged on one game. It's a marathon, not a sprint." Gearing up for a difficult run, the WUSA can play one card not available to Major League Soccer: This is the best women's pro soccer league in the world. All of the top Americans, plus the likes of China's Sun Wen and Brazil's Sissi, have enlisted with the WUSA. The American sports fan appreciates quality, which is why the MLS has labored hard for more than five years, burdened by comparisons to the elite pro leagues in Europe.

On the flip side, the great majority of the WUSA's 180 players are still no-names on the American sporting landscape. There are only so many Chastains and Hamms and Foudys to go around. TNT analyst Wendy Gebauer had it right when she said, "For this league to succeed, other players have to step up."

And fans have to notice. To aid the education process, TNT ran player factoids called "Personal Sides" on the bottom of the screen. CyberRay goalie LaKeysia Beene, we learned, led Notre Dame to the 1999 NCAA final and "enjoys body-boarding and likes Mexican pizza." Beene's backup, Jennifer Mead, was a house painter before joining the WUSA.

These were useful get-to-know-the-player tidbits. Although when we were told that CyberRay midfielder Ann Cook "is nicknamed 'Cookie' and sleeps with a Willie Nelson doll," that was more information than we wanted to know.

One more difference between the WUSA and the XFL: In this league, only the player's last name is printed on the back of the jersey. There is no "SHE HATE ME" in the WUSA.

THEY WATCH ME?

Come the dog days of August, the WUSA can only hope.

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