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Washington among 8 starting new league; Launch date next April; first women's pro league backed by cable, Internet


Washington was named yesterday as one of eight cities -- six on the East Coast -- to get teams in the first American women's professional soccer league, which hopes to begin play next April.

John Hendricks, chairman of Bethesda's Discovery Communications Inc., will have half-interest in two teams -- Washington and San Francisco -- in the Women's United Soccer Association he has helped organize, bankroll and promote since last summer's Women's World Cup.

The "single-entity" league owns all teams but has investors underwriting each franchise.

Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp., Cox Enterprises and Cox Communications have corporate ownership positions in six franchises. And Amos Hostetter, who founded Continental Cablevision, a descendant of which is about to merge into AT&T;, will own a team outright in Boston and split the backing in San Francisco with Hendricks.

Hendricks, whose affluent cable outlets include the Discovery, History and Learning channels, and Comcast will be 50-50 partners in Washington. He also will be the league's chairman.

The five other cities are Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Orlando-Tampa and San Diego. Another eight cities were named as alternates, with two possibly being added for the initial season: Chicago, Columbus, Ohio; Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Portland, Ore., Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and St. Louis. League headquarters will be in New York City.

Hendricks' group also announced that more than 100 U.S. and foreign players, including all 20 from the U.S. national squad that won last summer's third Women's World Cup, have committed to the WUSA in writing. Foreigners include Brazil's Sissi, Australia's Julie Murray, Nigeria's Patience Avre and Canada's Charmaine Cooper.

"It's like Christmas -- all these exciting things happening," said U.S. co-captain Julie Foudy, referring particularly to the TV, Internet and promotional clout represented by WUSA's angels.

A national TV deal also was outlined yesterday for the league's first 80-game season, a package that includes 22 games on TNT and CNN/SI cable channels, mainly on weekends. Regional TV coverage is being negotiated. Comcast will be the carrier in this part of the country, Hendricks said.

Investors are paying $5 million for each inaugural franchise. Plus, Hendricks said television rights for the national games have been committed. A $3 million fee per team for television rights has been rumored.

Lee Berke, a marketing consultant to the new league, pointed out that involvement by media ownership in pro sports is increasing, citing, among others, Fox (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Tribune Co. (Chicago Cubs).

The league faces at least nominal competition. Major League Soccer, the top men's league, says it will propose a women's league by May 1, the bid deadline the U.S. Soccer Federation has set for its official sanction. But MLS, backed heavily by several wealthy families, has offered no details and, in its fifth season, is unprofitable despite success in many of its dozen markets.

Hendricks said WUSA has offered to work together with MLS, under separate ownerships, in coordinating schedules, telecasts and on upgrading or even building soccer-specific stadiums in markets where MLS has franchises.

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