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Women’s pro sports leagues have trouble staying in the game

Women’s pro sports leagues have trouble staying in the game
Phoenix Mercury forward Charde Houston celebrates with fans following her team’s victory over the Los Angeles Sparks in Game 3 of their WNBA playoff series at Staples Center. Although the WNBA has loyal fans, many clubs struggle to turn a profit.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE / Getty Images)

Lauren Lappin’s resume is deep: two Olympic teams, two World Cup championships, a Pan American Games title and three times an all-conference selection in college.

A Major League Baseball player with similar accomplishments would travel in comfort and bank well into seven or eight figures annually.

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Lappin, who plays professional softball, takes long road trips on steamy buses and draws a salary just above minimum wage.

“It is very frustrating to think every woman on the four teams in the league would be making millions of dollars if we were male,” Lappin says. “And we don’t even need millions of dollars. We just want to have a viable professional option for women.”

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That remains an elusive goal for women who compete in team sports in this country. Although top-level softball, soccer and basketball accomplishments have made household names of Olympic champions such as Jennie Finch, Mia Hamm and Lisa Leslie, women’s professional leagues in the United States have failed to gain a foothold in a crowded sports landscape.

Lappin plays in National Pro Fastpitch, which is softball’s third attempt at establishing a women’s professional league in the U.S. In nine seasons, women’s pro softball has yet to be profitable.

The National Women’s Soccer League, launched last year, follows two attempts that ended in debt and political bickering among the owners.

Basketball has at least been relatively stable. The WNBA is about to begin its 18th season, though it’s unlikely the league would have survived without substantial support from the NBA, which owns half of the league’s 12 teams and brokered a national broadcast deal with ESPN.

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However, as last month’s collapse of the L.A. Sparks under a $12-million mountain of debt showed, even the WNBA is on less-than-solid ground.

“We all jumped up and down and celebrated the anniversary of Title IX,” National Pro Fastpitch Commissioner Cheri Kempf says of the landmark legislation that mandated equality for female athletes at the college and high school levels. “But we’re not there. Women’s professional sports, particularly team sports, are nonexistent in this country. And it seems to be something that nobody’s recognizing or really fighting for.”

Part of the reason is that women’s leagues, with the notable exception of the WNBA, remain largely invisible on television — a curious truth given that soccer and college softball have done well on TV.

For example, the 2011 Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan drew a U.S. TV audience of 13.5 million — the largest for a soccer match in ESPN history, nearly doubling the ratings the American men got for their most-watched World Cup match from 2010. And during the 2012 Olympics, the final 30 minutes of the U.S. soccer team’s overtime win over Canada was seen by a half-million more NBC viewers than watched the men’s basketball team the same night.

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Yet the National Women’s Soccer League, with rosters that include many World Cup participants and Olympians, wound up streaming most of its games over YouTube.

“There’s no doubt you have to have the media exposure for people to really appreciate the talents of these young women,” says league Commissioner Cheryl Bailey, whose league is funded largely by the national soccer federations of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. “But it’s a step at a time. We’re having those opportunities each year. We’re going to build upon that.”

That model hasn’t worked for softball. ESPN averaged 900,000 viewers for each of the 14 College World Series games it aired last season, but the professional league, featuring rosters filled with former Women’s College World Series standouts, has never had a broadcast deal.

Carol Stiff, a content executive with ESPN, predicted that it would be only a matter of time before women’s sports drew a television audience large enough to make the leagues profitable.

“I’m going to build the rest of my career on this answer: Yeah, I think it will succeed,” she says. “We just have to be very smart and strategic and build a great business model. We’re only 40 years in with Title IX and I see the talent level is just getting stronger and stronger.

“We’re only in the first inning. I definitely feel that we will have professional leagues excel.”

Once a sport makes it on TV, it’s up to the leagues to offer a compelling product — as women’s tennis has accomplished. Team sports have traditionally failed that test.

The WNBA, which had a national TV deal from the start, saw attendance drop to a low of 7,457 a game in 2012. And even though ESPN2’s national WNBA audience grew 28% in 2013, average viewership was only 231,000 a game — much lower than poker, which drew an audience of 1.234 million, and bowling, which averaged 671,000 viewers last year.

The league has also had six teams fold and three others relocate since 2002, and half of its 12 teams lost money in 2013, according to WNBA President Laurel Richie.

For growth, Richie points to double-digit improvement by the league’s website and an online increase of 24% for WNBA LiveAccess. She also was buoyed last week when Dodgers owners Mark Walter, Todd Boehly, Bobby Patton and Magic Johnson stepped in to save the Sparks and pledged to make the team profitable.

“As with all professional sports leagues, growth is a process and we look at a host of metrics to gauge how we’re doing,” Richie says. “All of those metrics were trending up and heading in the right direction.”

Although women’s professional leagues have struggled in the U.S., they have survived, even thrived, in other countries.

Lappin played two seasons in Japan, where crowds were small and TV coverage minimal but salaries for the best players can top $100,000 because all of the league’s 12 teams are sponsored by large businesses. Lappin played for Honda, which provided its players part-time office jobs and used the teams to increase organizational pride, much as U.S. colleges do.

“The difference is that the corporate sponsors here are looking for financial kickback. They’re looking to invest their money in a commercial [relationship] and to make money off their product,” Lappin says. “In Japan there’s some of that, but really they have these sports teams to boost employee morale.”

Top American soccer players such as Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, Whitney Engen and Tobin Heath have played for deep-pocketed teams in France, Sweden and Australia, with Rapinoe reportedly earning $14,000 a month from her French team. That’s more than double what some players made all of last season in the fledgling U.S. professional league.

Sparks star Candace Parker reportedly made $1.2 million — plus perks such as charter flights, a four-bedroom apartment and a driver — playing basketball in Russia, which is why nearly three-quarters of WNBA players compete abroad in the off-season.

Those salaries came at a price, though. Athletes who compete overseas have to leave their homes and families and put much of their personal lives on hold. The alternative: “Keep playing and make very little here,” softball commissioner Kempf says.

It’s a dilemma far fewer male athletes must wrestle with and one the commissioners of the women’s leagues hope to erase for their athletes as well.

“We’re all going to take a good, hard look at what’s going to allow us to be successful and attract fans to our particular sport,” says Bailey, head of the fledgling professional soccer league. “The opportunity we have through social media now — with YouTube, with different ways to be able to put the sports out there and market the brand — is very different right now.

“That’s going to take time to be able to develop. The men have about 100 years on us.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

melissa.rohlin@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Twitter: @melissarohlin


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