Jumping over cones and sprinting across the grass during practice for her San Diego Surf soccer team, 13-year-old Stephanie Kranz is talking big.
"I'm going to be the next Briana Scurry," the curly-haired goalkeeper declares before diving to the ground to save a shot.
In soccer-talk that's no small assertion, with Scurry being one of the most recognizable faces of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team. Kranz's future plan is something like a neighborhood kid looking for affirmation that he'll one day be a first-round draft pick in the NFL.
This kind of sporting confidence was scarce for little kids back in the early '70s when Scurry was born, especially for little girls. Since joining the U.S. National Team in 1994, however, Scurry and her U.S. teammates have virtually built a women's soccer dynasty. Win after win established U.S. soccer dominance over the perennial world powers in China, Norway, Brazil, Sweden and Germany. A 1999 World Cup Championship win in front of 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl (and a bulbous TV audience) secured that very same women's team a spot on the throne as undisputed American darlings for the new millennium.
Spurred by a feat U.S. men's soccer had never even grazed and buoyed by promises of corporate sponsorship, the Women's United Soccer Association was born. Made up of eight franchises across the country-the Atlanta Beat, Boston Breakers, Carolina Courage, New York Power, Philadelphia Charge, San Jose CyberRays, Washington Freedom and San Diego Spirit-the WUSA adopted the short and sweet motto, "Play."
In 2001, on the heels of the 2000 Olympics, San Diego's first professional women's soccer team took to the turf for their inaugural WUSA game with more than $40 million backing their league's endeavor. In its first season, the WUSA drew 726,677 fans, an average of 8,295 per game. TNT and CNN/SI televised 22 games nationally, attracting more than 5 million viewers. San Diego Spirit players-who had become accustomed to half-filled college stadiums and no-pay semi-pro leagues-were suddenly local celebrities.
Spirit defender Kim Pickup, who gained notoriety with her quirky personality and style of play-she's known for a "throw in" so powerful she literally summersaults-told CityBeat from her Northridge home that she loves the fame that comes from playing professionally. "Even if it is [among] just 5-year-old girls."
But by 2003, the San Diego Spirit and the WUSA were no more.
Pickup says she and her teammates appreciated the fans, but, in the end, the opportunity for women to play at such a high level of competition was the ultimate prospect.
"This is a dream job," Pickup says. "I will not accept that it's over."
Patron soccer saints: The strength of San Diego soccer
During the run of the WUSA, more players called San Diego home than any other city in America. The Spirit's Julie Foudy, Jennifer Nielson, Shannon MacMillan and Allie Sullivan were born here. At the suspension of the league, out of 90 American-born WUSA players, 29 were from California. Fine weather and well-kept fields provide a year-round opportunity for San Diego kids, who would otherwise be bundling up for winter, to play the sport.
Quality youth clubs in San Diego also raise the bar. Kranz's soccer club, the San Diego Surf, has placed a team in the Snickers Youth National Cup Championship in each of the past five years and won the title three times. With such a solid foundation for the development of talented female players, it's no wonder that the WUSA placed one of its flagship enterprises in town. While most soccer bigwigs recognize San Diego's soccer prominence as helpful in breeding talent, former U.S. National Team coach and WUSA Commissioner Tony DiCicco said it was not only helpful, but also absolutely instrumental to the initial success of the WUSA.
"San Diego has a diverse soccer community," said DiCicco from his Connecticut home. "It's got outdoor soccer and probably one of the legendary indoor teams of all time in the San Diego Sockers. San Diego also has a great Latino population that adds to the diversity. That fanfare was what the WUSA was looking for."
After the Spirit settled into their new home-University of San Diego's intimate 7,000-seat Torero Stadium-and began planning for their first season, WUSA chief operating officer Kevin Crow said he recognized San Diego's soccer savvy by watching the fans. Crow began his WUSA career as the Spirit's general manager.
"I thought that the Spirit did a good job of ingratiating themselves in the community in San Diego," Crow says, "and they had a great investor-operator in Cox Communications that provided a lot of local support and resources to make it work. But at the end of the day it was losing just as much money as all the other teams even when it was filling Torero Stadium."
Crow says there was only one solution to this scrape:
"If people truly want soccer leagues to work and to succeed, they have to be willing to buy a ticket. Week after week after week it has to happen. And it didn't. In San Diego there are more than 100,000 kids playing soccer and we couldn't [regularly] fill Torero Stadium. If people want this to succeed they need to be willing to financially support it."
Without full fan support, a fledgling league like the WUSA desperately needs contributions from off-the-field players, such as corporate sponsors, which in the end failed to come through. While players doted on young fans and preached the ever-present "opportunities for women," the frustrating bottom line will always be money. And while parents know that this is a business, they also wish that corporate honchos weren't the ones telling their daughters whether or not they can have their WUSA.
In a world where Soccer Mom has become an insult hurled at conservative mothers to broadside them with their own timidity, the Spirit clung to the one last thread of sporting hope in the country and stared down doubters with steel-balled fury. This was soccer with astonishing concentration.
Daniel Preston, a 43-year-old father of two and an avid Spirit fan, said he felt a connection with these players like no other mainstream sport. When the league announced suspension of operations, Preston said he had to leave the room for fear of public tears.
"What am I going to tell my daughter?" Preston asks. "Life ain't fair? I told her that she could do whatever she wanted in her life-not that she needed corporate sponsorship to accomplish anything."
In the current state of American soccer, and specifically with WUSA and Major League Soccer fans, frustration is rampant. Frustration over the United States' recent third-place World Cup finish. Frustration over the lousy TV timeslots. Frustration over the lack of knowledge among Americans about the sport. Frustration over the American mentality that if it isn't NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, it's not worth watching.
Frank Deford has seen this all firsthand. A seasoned journalist and commentator with Sports Illustrated, CNN and National Public Radio, Deford says the state of soccer in America is in transition.
"Soccer fans are sort of on the defensive, American soccer fans are, because soccer is so much more popular everywhere else so it frustrates soccer fans of the United States," Deford says. "It upsets them and annoys them that other people don't like soccer as much as they do. They tend to be very prickly with the subject. Soccer fans are much more self-protective."
Unraveling the naught: How the WUSA died
On Sept. 16, when the WUSA suspended operation, Dawn Riley, President of the Women's Sports Foundation-a national charity organization formed in 1974 by Billie Jean King to initiate sports leadership opportunities for women and girls-set the tone by issuing a statement: This is not the end of the world.
"The Women's Sports Foundation commends John Hendricks and the other investors of the WUSA for their leadership in establishing the first women's professional soccer league in the United States," her statement read. "We cannot forget that professional sports leagues are difficult to take hold. It took nine tries for the NFL to become successful. We hope that the disappointment felt by the little girls across the country is minimized and we look forward to the next iteration of women's professional soccer. It will happen."
Riley's comments were a rare bit of buoyancy amid a bleak outlook for the WUSA.
The league has become the most recent martyr in a sports market that has done little to welcome the female sex. The WNBA is struggling-propped up by its big-money male counterpart-and women's leagues in indoor volleyball and softball folded before their 2003 seasons.
Original WUSA investor Hendricks spoke publicly on Sept. 16 and sounded injured: "I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in '99, and I mistakenly assumed that level of [corporate] support would flow over into the league. We've made a real good go at it as an independent operation, but we just fell a little short. It's heartbreaking for all of us."
Deford says the league's folding didn't surprise him. "I don't think I ever [watched] one game, and I think in that regard I've got a lot of company," he says. "I don't think I ever knew where it was [on TV]. It was on such an obscure channel that I'm not so sure that unless you were looking for it, unless you were a dyed-in-the-wool soccer fan, I think you would run it down."
It was the PAX channel that ended up televising WUSA games, where they garnered a paltry rating of 0.1.
While it was nice to see the league begin with a bang, it might have served the league better to take a page from the book of conservative economics before beginning the trip on the long road to debt. Less than a year after it began, WUSA executives figured they'd need eight major corporate sponsors to survive. They ended up securing only two-Hyundai and Johnson & Johnson.
During each year of its existence, the WUSA spent close to $35 million and brought in a paltry $15 million in return. That's $20 million left unaccounted for. Actually, scratch that-the investors and owners accounted for it, finally, and shut things down.
In the end, the death of the WUSA will forever be attributed to an indifferent American attitude toward the sport of soccer. The prevailing stateside orientation toward soccer was perhaps best captured in an episode of The Simpsons in which the Simpson family is watching a TV commercial for a soccer match to be played in their hometown. The announcer bleeds enthusiasm for the sport with the tagline: "It's all here. Fast-kicking, low scoring and ties? You bet!"
DiCicco has a different take.
"Soccer is a tremendous participant sport, so when people say, "Why hasn't soccer been successful,' I say, "It's just the opposite-soccer has been extremely successful,'" he says. "In some parts of the country, it has threatened the existence of Little League baseball and it dwarfs football, as far as size of leagues and number of participants. You'll hear old geezer sports commentators call the game a "foreign game.' Look, I have four sons, and it is not foreign to my sons."
Ain't over till it's over: Efforts to restart the WUSA
Like any determined world-class athlete, Kim Pickup is working out like the WUSA is in full swing. She's keeping in shape with her regular off-season workouts and training as if the league were coming back tomorrow. Pickup, like DiCicco and Riley, is on the edge of optimism.
Crow, however, talks about league reorganization with a cautious tone and a careful demeanor. Optimism isn't Crow's forte-he's seen the numbers.
"The efforts that you're hearing about to restart the league are really an outside group which encompasses a couple people that used to work at the league, a couple of the investors that are or have been investors in the league in the past, and, obviously, the main group behind it is the players' association with Julie Foudy," he says. "I think by definition it's something that can happen," says Crow. "How it will happen and whether it will happen and what the league will look like and if it does come out in a different format is yet to be seen. This league office is doing everything we can to help them in their efforts because we want it to succeed."
DiCicco's brand of optimism causes him to be concerned with semantics. The league didn't end, he says, it only suspended operation. He is defiant. He is loyal. And damn if he'll admit defeat. The WUSA, he says, will be back by next year with the help of a reorganization committee.
Having to wade through so many opinions on the sport and its dead-or-dying WUSA, it's easy to pass by the grassroots efforts to resurrect the league. Petitions are circulating via e-mail, and communities across the United States are coordinating to gauge interest in the WUSA.
Kids at the recent Women's World Cup games carried signs emblazoned with "Keep the WUSA Alive," "Save the WUSA" and "WUSA AID." The type of response the league has gotten on its website is usually the kind reserved for marches on Washington D.C. or protests for human rights.
And with a few more improvements and a restarted league, this could be the younger generation's success, too. The consensus among insiders seems to be that television success will equal league success. The old TV timeslots that the league was offered failed to attract the target audience, DiCicco said. While a West Coast WUSA kickoff started at 1 p.m., most of the desired soccer demographic was out playing, coaching or watching a youth game away from the television.
The bottom line, reiterated by many who came into contact with the WUSA, seems to be that girls and young women also need to come out to see this sport or it will fail. Deford believes that this will take much longer than a few months.
"I think it would be a mistake to try to restart it now the way they're talking about now," Deford says. "I think it would be better to take a deep breath and get some support and take two or three years off. It's not the end of the world. You didn't see a tremendous amount of interest in the World Cup this year, so I think the World Cup four years ago was kind of an aberration. You've got to be careful reading these tealeaves."
Donna Lopiano, the CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation is more confident than Deford. "I'm very bullish on the future of professional sports for women," she says. "We can't forget that mass participation of women in sport in the U.S.A. is only 30 years old-in its infancy. There will be leagues that make it and leagues that don't, just as there were men's leagues that made it and many that didn't. This is the puzzle that needs to be solved."
Lopiano's foundation is a national charitable educational organization seeking to "advance the well-being and leadership skills of girls and women through sports and fitness." While the Women's Sports Foundation fights the Title IX battles in the schools and educates coaches and players about their rights and abilities, it's peculiar that Deford's cautious doubt echoes much louder than Lopiano's cheerleading attitude.
"These people are always so pessimistic about women's sports in the media," says Preston. "While I understand that this is a business, my daughter doesn't want to watch NFL games from the nosebleeds and she certainly didn't think there was anything temporary about the 1999 World Cup.
"Our daughters deserve the WUSA."