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Mechelle Voepel

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Tuesday, September 16
Updated: September 18, 5:19 PM ET
 
From the valley to the peak in 24 hours

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

Loved "Cagney and Lacey'' in the '80s. When the female-buddy cop show was on, it would have taken a natural disaster to have gotten me away from the TV.

Swin Cash
A day after the WUSA shut down, the WNBA had one of its best, with record attendance and a fantastic final.
There was the two-part episode where Lacey is getting honored for rescuing a kid but at the same time, she's worried because Cagney is drinking herself into oblivion after the death of her father. Everything is going right in Lacey's life, while Cagney is devastated.

Lacey muses, "These are the good times for me ... but it's the worst time for Chris.'' To which her husband replies, "Nobody ever said it would be equal.''

And that came to mind with the juxtaposition of the WNBA ending its season at the same time the WUSA was ending operations. The women's pro soccer league said Monday it did not have enough sponsorship support to go on to a fourth season. The announcement was nightmarish in the timing, as the Women's World Cup begins this weekend.

Then Tuesday, the WNBA had its biggest-ever crowd of 22,000-plus to watch Detroit beat Los Angeles in the decisive Game 3 of the finals. The game was exciting, well-played and went down to the wire. A new champion was crowned. It was a perfect night for the young league.

Yes, it was just one night, but that's significant. There has been enough raining on the WNBA's parade. Pessimism can shut up and sit down for at least a little while after this great game.

Still, it was hard not to temper the surge of optimism for the WNBA with the sadness of what happened to the WUSA.

Women's soccer in the United States has been blessed with a group of longtime players who are not only athletically gifted but pretty amazing people as well.

Covering the 1999 Women's World Cup was one of the highlights of my career, and the two people who stood out the most for me during that competition and since are Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain.

They are smart, funny, likable and boundlessly energetic. They are experts in dealing with the media -- both the idiots they have to endure and the intelligent journalists who've come to depend on them for insight into many topics.

They both "get it'' in regards to women's sports: They are passionate idealists who also understand the crueler realities and will not let those crush them. Foudy, president from 2000-2002 of the Women's Sports Foundation, served on the recent commission that "studied'' Title IX. And along with commission member Donna deVarona, she provided a steely support for both the letter and spirit of the legislation.

Foudy, Chastain, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett are among that core group that has been involved in U.S. women's soccer since they were teenagers. They've always had the dream of a U.S. pro league, and it's particularly hard on them that the WUSA fell.

Meanwhile, the WNBA reached a collective-bargaining agreement with the players' union this spring. And it would seem the WNBA, under the shepherd of the NBA, is part of the long-term pro sports landscape.

But I hope current and prospective WNBA players will take a somber look at what happened Monday. Because the WNBA lives in the same financial and social climate that the WUSA died in.

It's a lot easier for corporate CEOs to be "socially conscious'' and "visionary'' when the economy's good. When it's bad, like now, they fear the balloon might be plummeting and look for ballast to toss. And it's all too easy to throw out sponsorship of women's sports.

Julie Foudy
Women's soccer has been blessed with players who are athletically gifted and pretty amazing people, including Julie Foudy.
The WUSA could have used more fans. But its most immediate need was sponsorship money. And that dried up.

That is partly just the reality of business, which exists to make money. But it's also a particular reality of sports entertainment, which is an overall risky business.

Lots of "major'' leagues have failed or been swallowed up in the last few decades. The American Football League was in business through the 1960s before merging with the NFL in 1970. The World Football League, the United States Football League and the recent "Xtreme'' Football League all lasted three seasons or less.

The American Basketball Association disbanded after nine seasons, sending four of its teams to the NBA. The World Hockey Association played seven seasons before merging with the NHL.

The North American Soccer League survived for 18 years, although much of that was in relative obscurity and with constant financial problems.

Women's hoops tried and failed a few times, too, most recently with the American Basketball League, which folded after two seasons.

Any sports-league venture has its perils. But the concept of women's pro teams sports in the United States is an especially unproven commodity.

So is men's soccer in this country, but MLS is surviving thus far because of its billionaire owners and the single-entity ownership concept that regulates salaries. MLS has enough people with money who believe in the league. The WUSA didn't.

The WNBA, of course, also has something the WUSA didn't: a parent organization that supports it. The WNBA exists because NBA commissioner David Stern wants it to. He is savvy enough to understand all the ancillary benefits of controlling the women's basketball pro market.

It would be ideal if something that involves high-quality people who are good role models always had somebody paying for it to exist. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Sports leagues eventually have to sell themselves as viable entertainment options. And that takes quite a long time to do. Investors must be in it for the long haul, and need not only to be able to see the pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, but be satisfied with the overall purpose of their investment.

And, lest we not stress this enough, they have to be comfortable enough financially to afford this patience.

Plus, women still have many cultural barriers to success in anything, particularly sports. There, it is a harder climb. They go against the physical reality that men, as a whole, are bigger, stronger and faster. They always have to face that comparison.

They go against centuries of socialization that they're supposed to watch and support, not participate. The "you-go-girl'' enthusiasm is a relatively new concept. And there remain large pockets that range from open hostility and derision to what I call "active and aggressive'' indifference. The sports-media world excels at the latter and still has a lot of the former.

Annika Sorenstam
Thanks to Annika Sorenstam, 2003 has been the best year ever in terms of media exposure for the LPGA.
Finally, there's something else, too, which is the harshest reality for the WUSA's players and supporters: Maybe there just isn't yet a big-enough audience to support the type of pro league that they want.

There is an audience for women's soccer; the World Cup in '99 proved that. But translating that into a full-time business is really difficult.

I thought after the '99 Cup success that women's soccer needed to make its alliance with the MLS and accept a lot of the compromises that would have meant. I don't know how serious MLS was back in 2000 when it floated interest, or if that ever could have come to fruition. But both sides did have something to offer each other.

It might have meant a shorter season, lower pay and the omnipresent sense that the women were second in importance. And those are difficult things to accept when you have visions of something so much bigger.

Initially, the 1999 Women's World Cup was going to be played in smaller stadiums, mostly on the East Coast. But the decision was made not to "settle'' for that, and the risk paid off then with massive crowds for the U.S. team in football stadiums.

With that in mind, it's easy to see how the players and supporters of WUSA did not want to compromise their pro-league dream. But that risk didn't pay off. Or, at least, it hasn't yet. And it might not have worked with MLS, either.

Progress doesn't necessarily move on a linear line. There are steps forward and steps back. In the women's sport world, the last week has had both.

We've mentioned the WNBA. Also in Sweden over the weekend, record crowds attended the Solheim Cup, the women's golf team competition between the United States and Europe. The Golf Channel broadcast the event live and in its entirety. (And, yes, some of us really did stay up all night for three straight nights to watch it all).

Golf is kind of the grandmother of all women's pros sports. A group of talented and committed women -- not unlike the aforementioned U.S. soccer players -- formed the LPGA in 1950. It seems astonishing, in retrospect, that with all the obstacles they faced, they made it work.

They scaled back expectations when they had to. They traveled a lot and worked hard. They didn't get rich. Yet the tour kept going, and all the doom and gloom of the last 53 years hasn't stopped it. In fact, thanks to Annika Sorenstam, 2003 has been the best year ever in terms of media exposure.

Sure, Sorenstam had to play a PGA Tour event for that to happen, and that's irritating. But in the long view, so what? She had the guts to do it, and a ton of people who never heard of her before now know who she is.

Thirty years ago this week, another woman took a risk and greatly elevated her sport. Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of Sexes'' tennis match on Sept. 20, 1973. And while it might seem a little silly now -- because at age 29 she should have beaten the old goat -- that ignores the prevailing mindset of that time.

Which, as King put it, was that any man could beat any woman at any time in anything, meaning women had no real value as athletes.

Things have changed a lot. Many women and men today appreciate women for their athletic ability, personality, character and the inspiration they give.

Annika Sorenstam can't be Tiger Woods. But you know what? Tiger can't be Annika, either. And we don't have to choose. We can enjoy watching both.

I constantly remind myself that when put into the perspective of women's struggles throughout history, the progress during my lifetime made by women in sports and everything else is miraculous.

Still WUSA hit a brick wall, while the WNBA and LPGA had good weeks. And if there are not direct connections between all women's sports, there certainly is kinship, empathy, shared frustration and joy.

The fictional Harvey Lacey was right: Nobody said it would be equal, regardless of how much we wish that it were. But the very real Julie Foudy also was right this week, when she said, "We're not genetically predisposed to giving up.''

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.





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