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 Friday, September 14, 2001 24:18 EST

WMLS? No way, say U.S. women

By Jamie Trecker [Special to ESPN.com]

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Julie Foudy and Sara Whalen, two members of the U.S. women's national team, said in no uncertain terms this week that they will not play for a women's league run by Major League Soccer. "We will not play for WMLS," said Foudy, a sentiment echoed by Whalen: "We will not be forced into playing for anyone."

The World Cup champion women have backed that sentiment up with their pens: they have gone beyond signing a mere letter of intent with the proposed Women's United Soccer Association and signed an exclusive agreement that legally binds them to the WUSA, making any play for the WMLS impossible.

"The [20 World Cup] players have signed an exclusive legal agreement with us," said WUSA advisor Lee Burke from his office in New York on Tuesday night. "We have been involved with them for some time and they are exclusive to us."

The women's stance throws a monkey wrench into a careful, behind-the-scenes effort by U.S. Soccer president Dr. Robert Contiguglia to get the two main applicants for a women's league -- the WUSA group, chaired by Discovery Communications' John Hendricks, and Major League Soccer, headed by Commissioner Don Garber -- to come together in a joint effort to make a women's league a reality.

For the WUSA's part, Burke said that they had recently passed along a "four-point cooperation proposal" to MLS that, in his words, outlined sharing of stadium and scheduling to "prevent encroachment."

However, Garber said the proposal did not go far enough. "We proposed a very deep involvement with the WUSA on the league and club level, they came back with a proposal that was not deep enough. With the right agreement, we would not go forward with our proposal. However, if not, we will go forward."

As a result, the dueling proposals are shaping up to be a grueling fight, with neither side having a clear advantage. While the WUSA clearly has investors, a novel TV deal with Turner Broadcasting that provides for the televising of 88 games over four years on two networks (TNT and CNN/SI), and confidence, without a sanction, they will be hard-pressed to attract international talent.

A WMLS has legitimate reasons to get the nod, too: it has experience and an established infrastructure. It also has a TV deal -- with ABC/ESPN, Telemundo and the regional Fox nets -- and five years of sweat equity. It also also owns stadia (in Columbus and Miami) and is planning to build three more. MLS declined further comment on its proposal, saying that it is following USSF's request not to divulge such details.

In addition, USSF may well be hard-pressed to sanction a league that seems to be unwilling to work as closely as USSF might like with the established pro league.

Speaking from his office in Denver, Contiguglia said that while he was aware of the views of some of the World Cup champion players, that U.S. Soccer would make the decision in awarding its sanction based on factors that are for "the good of the game of soccer overall."

"I am aware of the women's desire to have a league of 'their own,' and I can sympathize with that," said Contiguglia. "But they have to respect our needs as well.:

Contiguglia also revealed for the first time Tuesday that his office has been in daily contact with both parties in an attempt to get the two sides to reach some sort of understanding that would allow for shared marketing and promotion of both the men's and women's leagues.

"There are legitimate concerns that MLS' involvement could hurt the men's league -- in fact, we have hired Price Waterhouse to conduct an analysis of this to provide a recommendation to the committee, chaired by Burton Haimes [commisioner of the USSF Youth Council], that will ultimately recommend which bid should be approved. What makes a league successful are many different components, however; stadiums, marketing, sponsorship, etc., and this is a much bigger issue than just one or two players."

"We have the greatest respect for our players, but the decision will be made by the committee chaired by Haimes, and ultimately, the Board of Directors. We will likely convene an extraordinary congress of the Board prior to our August annual general meeting to choose the candidate."

What has the women antsy is the fact that little is known about the MLS proposal -- in fact, Contiguglia said he knew none of the specifics at all. In contrast, the WUSA group has been holding regular press conferences, and recently released an impressive roster of financiers and a television partnership with Turner that seems to back up their ambitious efforts. Certainly, the players are sold.

"I trust John Hendricks," said Whalen. "Where was MLS two years ago? What are they offering? When we looked at what the WUSA was offering, it was clear that they met and exceeded our ideas for what a league should be. We need a league, and I just hope that we can come to some arrangement that won't hurt soccer in general.

"MLS just proposed this -- the WUSA found investors, and their efforts show how much heart they have and how much they want to help. The idea of MLS coming in is a little shaky, because they seem a little shaky. In the long run, though, we need to help both groups."

"We've won the war for 20 players," said Foudy, "but now we have to win it for 200. That has to be our legacy."

The women have made it clear that they would be willing to work with the men, but they also seem to be determined to go it alone. In fact, there has been some behind-the-scenes bickering centered around a core group of four or five women players who wish to have nothing to do with the men's game at all. And, as Whalen noted openly, they have watched what has happened to their compatriots in MLS. "I know guys who just aren't making very much money," she said.

More than just a league of their own
The decision the women face could well prove to be the biggest of their career: if WMLS and WUSA cannot work together, U.S. Soccer will be forced to make a wrenching decision that will likely satisfy no one.

"Certainly, both groups bring different strengths to the table," says Contiguglia. "The MLS brings experience and a solid infrastructure. WUSA brings new money and TV. We have to find some way to have an understanding."

But WUSA has been adamant that it will not share a business relationship with MLS, and with perhaps good reason: the MLS has failed to capitalize on the success of its initial season and is now in something of a restart mode, having spent millions upon millions of dollars in startup costs with debatable concrete results. Ratings for MLS are stagnant, press coverage is minimal, and while the quality of play in the league has demonstrably improved, it still fails to attract the core American sports fan. But 2000 has seen the acquisition of two recognized world stars, Lothar Matthaeus and Hristo Stoitchov, to go with an emerging group of American players, and there is reason to believe that perhaps this season will see some teams making a gain at the turnstiles.

That said, the women face issues of their own: they have made a name for themselves as a national team of 20 players, and now face the task of putting together a league of 200 or more, with an attendant drop in caliber of play likely. Also, women's sports have long lagged behind men's sports in this country, and despite the fact that the women's national team arguably are the standard-bearers of the moment for the women's sports movement, they face a long and arduous road ahead in breaking into a crowded sports marketplace.

As a result, if WUSA fails to get the go-ahead, the women may be forced to chose between a wildcat league that they trust -- but that would eliminate them from World Cup play [FIFA bans any non-sanctioned leagues and players who play in them from their lucrative international competitions] -- and a league that might have a solid infrastructure and experience but faces hurdles of its own on the men's side. By any measure, it is a difficult situation.

"I had never really thought about the money when I was growing up," said Foudy, "because there was no national team. A year ago, we still had players struggling to survive, needing help from their parents or friends. Obviously, that's changed. On top of that, we have the platform to promote important issues: Now, people listen to us, and we have to take advantage of that opportunity .

"With the league next year, we'll be in front of the public eye. It's an unbelievable group of investors, but we're realistic about how hard it is. I see a group that is passionate about women's soccer who want to cooperate with MLS in stadiums and cross-promotion. At the end of the day, we in soccer have to work together to succeed."

WUSA will go it alone
WUSA might not share those exact sentiments. Said Burke: "We firmly believe that the MLS should concentrate on what it does best and we should concentrate on what we do best. We are convinced that we must be separate organizations."

Certainly, WUSA has earned the women's trust: Burke organized and promoted the "Toys 'R Us Victory Tour,", the indoor barnstorming event following the Women's World Cup that reportedly netted each player $100,000 last fall. And, while Burke expressed confidence in his group's getting the nod from USSF, he says "we will go forward, in any case."

When asked if his league was prepared to take legal action should it not get the sanction in order to protect individual players' eligibility rights, Burke demurred, saying, "We hope that we will not have to take matters any further."

For MLS' part, Garber hopes the two sides can come to some agreement. But he is not holding out hope.

"I do not have a lot of optimism that this will come together," said Garber.

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