Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Whatever happened to professional women's soccer in the US??

My mom remembers exactly where she was when Kennedy was assassinated. All of us probably remember where we were when we heard about the September 11 attacks...

...and I remember exactly where I was when Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey after scoring the winning goal as the US Women's team beat China in the 1999 FIFA World Cup.

What an incredible moment. Those women played before a crowd of 90,185 rabid fans, making it the most well-attended women's sporting event in history. An estimated 40 million viewers tuned in to watch the game on TV. Even President Clinton was convinced that it would change the world as we knew it, saying "It's going to have a bigger impact than people ever realized, and it will have a far-reaching impact not only in the United States but also in other countries." (FIFA website). In one word, this game was epic.

In the wake of that 1999 season, women's soccer in the US got a huge burst of momentum. Teenagers dragged their moms out to the mall to purchase their own Nike bras (the one that Brandi exposed to the world was not released to the public until a few weeks after the game, and the sales were off the charts), and there was a general vibe in the US that the times, they were a-changin'.

In 2001, the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) celebrated its inaugural season, with many of those players from the 1999 team dawning WUSA jerseys for one of 8 teams across the United States. Professional women's soccer had finally arrived in America at it was full steam ahead. Stadiums would be filled, women's soccer players everywhere would finally get those fatty pay checks and endorsements, and Mia Hamm would be a household name like Michael Jordan. Everything was gravy.

Only it wasn't.

The league's financial backers quickly realized that they were losing on their investments. The stadiums were not being filled and companies were not throwing millions of dollars at the players (except maybe Mia and Brandi) to market their products. By 2003, WUSA had to shut down.

I don't remember where I was in 2003 for the FIFA World Cup (Germany won it all, the US took home the bronze). I had transformed from "teary-eyed, goosebump-covered soccer fan" to "ignorant busy-body" without even realizing it. But now, five years, later, I couldn't help but wonder what went so wrong with a sport that had the world wrapped around its little finger in 1999.

WUSA may have failed, but don't think they would give up that easily. Turns out a lot of people were pretty devastated by the collapse of WUSA, so they put together a "Reorganization Committee" to learn from its mistakes. They created a new non-profit, Women's Soccer Initiative, Inc. (WSII), to enable "sports participation and healthy active lifestyles for girls and women." And WSII's baby? Bringing back women's professional soccer...for good. Everyone is a-buzz with the announcement of Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) , a new professional league for our ladies, launching in the Spring of 2009.

Of course, it didn't hurt when two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and Yahoo! President and COO Jeff Mallett decided that the new league was worth their investment and became part owners of the league. Wait...did I say Steve Nash? Yep. A little online research revealed that Nash dabbled in soccer before his basketball days (and by dabble, I mean he played on the Canadian National Team as a teenager). He also has two little girls who are athletes, just like their daddy, so he has an emotional investment in the league as well. Don't you find it incredibly refreshing to see two normal guys, one Silicon Valley Tech Guru and one regular ole' NBA dad, supporting women's sports in the US?

I also think it didn't hurt that the WPS Commissioner, Tonya Antonucci, launched Yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Fantasy Sports and probably had a coffee break or two to chat with Jeff about getting involved with the WPS venture. Tonya might deserve a blog post of her own based on glancing at her bio. She's one of those women who has been putting blood, sweat, and tears into sports since she was old enough to walk (she was a high school soccer All-American, a 1984 US Junior National player, and followed that with a four year varsity soccer career at Stanford. She went on to coach at Santa Clara and Stanford--two perennial women's soccer powerhouses--while she got her MBA). She was CEO at WSII for two and a half years before being named WPS Commissioner on September 4, 2007. Let's hope that her lifetime dedication to this sport, along with her exceptional professional background, will be the winning combination for WPS.

Now, for you fans out there. If you happen to live in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, LA, NJ/NY, St. Louis, or DC, you're in luck. These are the cities who are already committed to having their own WPS teams next Spring. Go buy season tickets and watch the WPS take the world by storm. And if you're in Philly or San Diego, hold on tight and wait for the league to expand to you next.

For those of us without a local team, I recommend showing your support by telling everyone you know about WPS. Tell your teammates, moms, daughters, coworkers, brothers, dads, and friends. I'm not sure if you realize it, but WPS is kind of a big deal. I can't wait to see the league launch (and let's be clear--Ms. Antonucci insists that it's NOT a re-launch of WUSA, but a whole new venture without the baggage of the past weighing it down). I'll be hoping that fans are filling the stadiums while WPS executives work behind the scenes to make this league a permanent fixture in this country.

If you want to check out more about WPS, go straight to the source.

Or check them out on Facebook and MySpace. They're tech-savvy and ready to tackle their fan base with grassroots passion and a commitment to using the newest, *bestest* strategies to broadcast WPS to the world.

I'll continue to follow WPS and keep you updated on its progress.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Purpose of "Not Afraid to Flex"

The purpose of this blog is simple. Over the past 35 years, the number of girls participating in organized athletics has exploded. Why? When Title IX legislation was passed 35 years ago, it was the beginning of a movement. Girls were (supposed to be) able to access athletics in a way they never had before. Women's athletics were (supposed to be) protected by the law, and not merely subjected to the whim of male administrators in the Athletic Department. We've made enormous progress since then and we've celebrated it along the way. And yet, the world of women in sports continues to struggle. The WNBA fights to make a slim profit (compared to the monstrous success of the NBA), WUSA tanked just three years after its conception, and women's sports teams and organizations everywhere battle to stay afloat.

I want to shed light on past, present, and future issues for women in sports. I want to explore more than just the athlete...I want to know about the people, the money, and the strategies behind these athletes and their organizations. What about that small number of women with the title "Athletic Director" on their resume? What about those women who sell the tickets and monitor the press releases for a WNBA team? And why do girls keep tearing their ACL's? Why haven't we seen a woman coaching a men's university basketball team yet? Which organizations are successfully supporting women's athletics...and on the other hand, which ones are failing miserably? What have we actually accomplished in these 35 years, and what is the next step for women everywhere who aspire to make sports the focus of their lives? In other words, now what?

Some of you may have been out on the field sprinting in full length dresses before "woman" and "athlete" could be uttered in the same sentence. Others of you may have been activists on the front lines who pushed Title IX legislation through to success. Some of you waged less visible battles at home to encourage your daughters to get out and play, even when there weren't any other girls out there. And still others (like me) were born at just the right time--growing up in the aftermath of this legislation when girls were given more opportunities than ever before to follow their passions on the court, on the field, on the track, and just about everywhere else.

I hope that this blog can be a resource for you, whether you're an athlete, CEO, coach, Athletic Director, soccer mom, or fan. I want to uncover past mysteries, keep you posted on current events, and begin to bridge connections that span across all the issues related to women in sports. I want this blog to educate, enlighten, and empower everyone who has an interest in understanding the real progress that women have made. I want these stories to remind all of us, from the 6-year-old soccer player to the 6-figure sports executive, that we are "Not Afraid To Flex."