WUSA's John Hendricks announces investors and other details, but he leaves plenty out
The unveiling of what might become the professional league for which America's best female players have long lobbied answered some weighty questions. It left plenty more unanswered.
Billionaire John S. Hendricks, who backed one previous attempt to start a pro women's league, on Feb. 15 identified his fellow investors in the Women's United Soccer Association, announced that every member of the Women's World Cup-winning U.S. team was on board and provided a few glimpses into his plan to start play in April 2001.
The choicest details:
- Hendricks, the chairman and chief executive officer of Discovery Communications, raised in less than three months pledges for "a minimum of $40 million" from a heavyweight group of media companies and executives, including Time Warner Cable, Cox Enterprises and Comcast Corporation. The investment - $5 million from each of eight individuals, worth team-operating rights in one market - will provide for "a minimum" eight teams, plus league administration, for five years. Expansion could bring as many as another four teams during the five years, and additional investors could be added.
- The 20 U.S. players who won WWC gold last summer will own equity in the league, and average base salaries for all players will be about $40,000.
- Fifteen venues are under consideration. Those with "substantial cable television distribution by one or more of the investors" and appropriate stadia, of 10,000-20,000 capacity, will have an edge.
- Up to one-quarter of WUSA games will be televised by a network, with a proposal on the table. WWC's big ratings are attractive to all the big hitters - ABC/ESPN, NBC, CBS, Fox and Turner - who apparently will pay to broadcast.
- A projected five-month season, culminating in an August championship game, is envisioned. The business plan calls for average attendance of 6,500, but Hendricks says he expects better.
- An application for Division I sanction has been filed with U.S. Soccer, and approval could arrive as early as August.
Here's what went unanswered:
How long has this been in the works?
Initial talks began a year ago, at the Women's World Cup draw. U.S. Soccer and Hendricks each contributed $100,000 for Mark Abbott, Major League Soccer's chief operating officer, to create three business plans under the auspices of Women's Professional Soccer, LLC, the single entity through which the league will be developed.
Two of the plans explicitly defined a relationship between WUSA and MLS, but investors preferred the third model, which would make the women's league totally independent.
Hendricks embellished the plan, went after commitments from the U.S. players, then used those commitments to sell the project to his fellow investors, mostly cable-television operators. The plan was presented Feb. 11-12 to U.S. Soccer's Women's Professional League Development Committee and the Federation's board of directors. The application has been sent along for review by the Rules Committee, and the WUSA could receive conditional approval by the end of March.
What involvement will MLS have?
Nobody's sure. U.S. Soccer wants a relationship between the leagues, and MLS has expressed interest in being involved, but WUSA officials haven't offered much aside from talk of sharing "synergies" within like markets. "The next thing is to have everyone get together ... and see how they can work together," says Burton Haimes, chairman of the Women's Professional League Development Committee.
If they can't reach common ground, MLS might make a rival application for D1 status, and U.S. Soccer would choose which group goes forward.
What does "minimum of $40 million" mean?
Hendricks announced he has agreements for $40 million, scheduled to be finalized by April 1. He's low-balling. Sources familiar with the plan say $60 million has been committed, and that Hendricks had no trouble getting it. It will allow teams to pay about $800,000 in salaries, guaranteeing that the lowest-paid players make close to what their MLS counterparts earn, about $25,000.
How much will Mia Hamm make?
Top salaries should hit about $100,000.
Have any corporate sponsors signed on?
Not yet. That's one reason for the timing of the announcement - investors hope that sponsors, once they see who's involved, will want to be part of WUSA, too.
What are the differences between WUSA and NSA?
The biggest is timing. The National Soccer Alliance, a proposed Hendricks-backed league that aimed for an April 1998 start, was opposed by U.S. Soccer officials, who wanted to wait until after the Women's World Cup. WUSA's application, Haimes said, has far more substance than did NSA's, which was dropped when investors pulled out.
What venues are possible?
There will be eight or 10 teams the first season, and WUSA investors are looking at the usual suspects - Washington, New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas and Chicago - as well as Raleigh, N.C., San Diego, Portland and Seattle. Division I standards require teams be located in at least three time zones or three of the four U.S. Soccer regions.
The biggest concern is stadia. WUSA officials talked with USISL Commissioner Francisco Marcos about teaming with A-League clubs to upgrade existing facilities. College and municipal stadiums also will be looked at, and it's possible the league might work with MLS on developing soccer-specific venues. If anything might postpone the starting date, Hendricks says, it would be difficulty in finding appropriate facilities. Short-term use of NFL-type stadiums is possible.
Are any soccer people involved?
There are the players, of course. And former U.S. women's coach Tony DiCicco, announced as Hendricks' chief technical consultant. Other advisers include University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance and former U.S. assistant coach Lauren Gregg.
Any other details?
Each team will be allowed a maximum of three or four foreigners, and the world's best players are expected to jockey for jobs. Detractors question whether there's enough talent to staff an 8- or 10-team league, but DiCicco, Dorrance and Gregg say that's not a concern. Affiliation with W-League teams is possible.
by Soccer America senior editor Scott French
John S. Hendricks.
Founder, chairman and CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based Discovery Communications - the parent company of The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and nearly two dozen other cable-television channels - and the key figure behind WUSA.
Amos B. Hostetter Jr.
Founder and former chairman and CEO of Continental Cablevision, now MediaOne, a broadband communications company with 5.1 million subscribers.
Comcast Corporation/Brian L. Roberts and Amy Banse.
Roberts is president and CEO and Banse the VP of programming investments for the communications giant, involved in cable (8.2 million subscribers, QVC, Golf Channel), publishing and sports (NHL's Flyers, NBA's 76ers, minor-league hockey) with $5 billion in revenues.
Cox Enterprises/James C. Kennedy and James O. Robbins.
Kennedy is chairman of Cox Enterprises, which has interests in newspapers, television, radio and the Internet and revenues of $5 billion. Robbins presides over Cox Communications, a broadband subsidiary with 3.8 million customers.
Time Warner Cable/Joseph J. Collins and Fred M. Dressler.
Collins is chairman and CEO and Dressler the senior VP of programming for nation's No. 1 cable supplier (13 million customers). Parent corporation is world's biggest media company, involved in music, film, publishing and major cable networks including CNN, HBO and TBS.