CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Five days before the start of the event that was to provide a needed boost to the 3-year-old women's professional soccer league, its board of governors announced yesterday that a lack of funding had forced the league to suspend operations.
John Hendricks, founder of the Women's United Soccer Association and its board chairman, said he hoped the suspension would provide enough time "to allow a miracle to happen." But chances the league will revive appear minimal.
"It's definitely a sad day for women's sports," said Julie Foudy, co-captain of the U.S. women's national team and a WUSA governor.
Foudy announced the WUSA board's decision to her U.S. teammates 30 minutes before they scrimmaged a team of University of Virginia men's reserves as part of final preparations for the Women's World Cup. The tournament begins Saturday in Philadelphia, and the defending champion United States opens Sunday against Sweden in Washington.
"It's not how you want to go into an event like this," Mia Hamm, the sport's most recognizable female player, said of WUSA's failure. "We all felt the WUSA was ours, not something others set up, and we just showed up to play. Part of you feels you failed, in a way."
It was the phenomenal success of the 1999 Women's World Cup in the United States that led to the creation of the eight-team WUSA.
"I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in 1999, and all the sponsorship surrounding that," Hendricks said. "I mistakenly assumed that would flow over to the league."
After losing some $90 million on an outlay of $100 million from a group of investors, Hendricks said the board decided to suspend operations now so it could pay off debts and provide "reasonable" severance for league employees. League spokesman Dan Courtemanche said the players could expect to receive all money owed in contracts expiring Nov. 30.
"This is not a case that women's sports can't make it," Foudy said. "It's a case that people won't risk financially for women's sports."
WUSA is the second independent women's pro league spawned by the women's sports boom of the 1990s to fail financially, following the American Basketball League. The survivor is the Women's National Basketball Association, operated and supported by the NBA.
Hamm, who played for the 2003 champion Washington Freedom, insisted there still is a future for women's pro soccer.
"We're all sad," Hamm said. "We all invested so much time and energy and sweat equity. We still believe in this. We can't give up. We still have hope."
Hendricks said the league would cease operations in the spring. He suggested a revival in 2005 depended on an influx of money from sponsors who believe in doing something for women's sports.
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