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 Tuesday, April 11
League will begin play in April 2001
 
Associated Press

 NEW YORK -- Parlaying deep-pocketed investors, a strong television presence and the popularity of the World Cup champions, a women's professional soccer league plans to begin play next spring.

The Women's United Soccer Association said Monday it approved teams for eight cities: Atlanta, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Orlando-Tampa, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington.

Listed as alternates were: Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Portland, Raleigh-Durham and St. Louis. Any of those cities might be selected if one of the original eight drops out. Also under consideration are Milwaukee, Denver and Houston.

The league begins in April 2001 and has letters of intent to play from all 20 members of the 1999 U.S. world championship team.

"We want the focus entirely on the women's game," said Julie Foudy, co-captain of the 1999 U.S. team. "We all know how difficult it is to get a league off the ground.

"With all the resources these companies have and all the promotion you can have, we feel you need that directed focus and energy that is solely behind the women's game. We are totally committed to playing for just the WUSA and hoping that is the league that gets sanctioned."

WUSA envisions stadiums with capacities of 6,500 to 10,000 for an 80-game schedule, far smaller than Major League Soccer sites. It might not find those venues immediately, and could temporarily emulate the MLS, which has many teams playing in NFL stadiums.

"We need to get one season behind us so we know our exact venue needs," said John Hendricks, chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications and WUSA's board chairman.

The keys to success are signing the best players and hooking up with television. TV coverage would be on TNT and CNNSI, mostly on weekend afternoons.

The U.S. Soccer Federation set a May 1 deadline to submit business plans. The WUSA, with a four-year TV contract with Turner Broadcasting and such heavy corporate backers as Time-Warner, Comcast and Cox Communications, already has met that deadline.

"The official U.S. Soccer standards require each team with a minimum salary level of $400,000," Hendricks said. "From the investor side, to get the absolute top players involved, we needed to double that budget.

"The soccer federation has a standard for guaranteed funding for a minimum of three years. We wanted to go longer and we have lined up funding for a full six years: a development year as well as five years of league play."

Each of the initial eight markets required a $5 million investment.

MLS also has expressed interest in forming a women's league and spoke with Hendricks as far back as December about combining efforts.

"We believe we can achieve far more working together than alone," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "A combined effort would help us position ourselves vs. the other sports as opposed to cannibalizing on the support of either leagues. Collectively, we would ensure the women's viability, which is important to us."

Hendricks said his group sent a cooperation agreement to MLS that covers venue development, scheduling and cross-promotion. He made it clear, however, that shared control of a women's league -- or any league -- would not work.

"You need an investment group solely behind the women's game as its main priority," he said. "The MLS focus is on the men, the WUSA on the women and it provides a chance to build the sport of soccer throughout the United States."

The WUSA has letters of intent from the top Americans, plus such international stars as Sissi of Brazil, Charmaine Hooper of Canada, Julie Murray of Australia and Patience Avre of Nigeria.

Star players would be spread among the eight teams, meaning at least a half-dozen would be on the field for each game.

"It would be unfortunate if that league is not sanctioned," said Carla Overbeck, the other captain of the World Cup champs. "We feel that would be the premier league for women's soccer, solely women's soccer, and the marketing and promoting of the women's game."

But Garber thinks those letters of intent would be meaningless if MLS is approved as the women's league organizer.

"Our assumption is if US Soccer approves our application, we would have players who would want to play in our league," Garber said. "Our hope is our plan will be exciting for all women soccer players in this country and they will want to play for the league that has been sanctioned by the U.S. federation."