Girls Get Booted, We All Lose

Washington Freedom's Abby Wambach, center, is all smiles as she lifts goalkeeper Siri Mullinix (18) after Mullinix made the save on a penalty kick of Boston Breakers defender Heather Aldama, left, in the WUSA semi-final game in Boston, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2003. The Freedom defeated the Breakers 3-1 on penalty kicks. Celebrating are Freedom players, Jennifer Meier (15) and Casey Ziimny (17).
AP
Women's sports in America, one more time, are getting shafted. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer hopes the WUSA gets a White Knight, preferably in high heels.

The biggest moment of my little life came on the evening of September 6, 1995. That was the night Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's unbreakable streak of consecutive games. Never had I felt so connected to so many people. The cheering, tears, pride, history, awe – the huge crowd felt it all as one person. And I was part of it as I had never been part of a crowd, a mass of people before.

That's what I mean by big.

My second biggest moment (fathers of nine year-old boys learn to rank such things with some precision) was delivered on April 14, 2001. My wife, my daughter, my son and I were among the 34,418 witnesses to the birth of women's professional soccer. It was at the first WUSA game at RFK Stadium in Washington. The home team, the Washington Freedom, won the match.

And it was big.

Now the WUSA is dead, or at best on life support in the hands of a pessimistic medical staff. It was folded up, for lack of money, just a few days before the U.S. would once again host the women's World Cup. What should be a great moment for women's sports, for all sports, is being welcomed with kick in the gut. And it hurts.

I can already hear the chortles and snickers of soccer haters and every guy in my high school class. "Meyer's second best sports highlight was a girl's soccer game, geez, what a goof."

When I told a neighboring colleague what I was writing about she – repeat, she – said, "Who cares? Soccer is for foreigners."

I guess that's part of why the WUSA folded -- it got no respect.

Women's soccer, and the American players who founded the league, deserve immense respect, just for the record.

My respect and my career as a fan began in July 1999, when the U.S. women's team beat China in an amazing overtime shootout to win the World Cup. There were 90,000 people packed into the Rose Bowl, but my family was watching on TV, with 18 million others in America alone. It was the most widely women's team sporting event in history.

My daughter, then 8, watched with her mom and grandmother. Every few minutes they would tell Lily that they had never had the opportunity to cheer for a women's team when they were kids. There had been famous female gymnasts, tennis players, golfers, but a whole team in a real coliseum? Never.

This is what made the WUSA's first game so big. I've been to World Series games and numerous conventions where future presidents accepted their parties' nominations. I've been in the Senate and House chambers as votes on impeaching a president were cast. And Mia Hamm's first game was right up there.

RFK was jammed with families like mine were three generations of women had never been to a women's team sport event where the women got paid, just like men. Teams of pony-tailed girls screamed for two hours. Gay women, Latino men, European diplomats, and Dad's with knees creaking from old football injuries all felt the same thing. It was history. It was big.

And that is exactly what we are losing if the WUSA goes know the tubes.

Women's pro soccer will die because the crowds and TV audiences were not large enough to draw advertising dollars. This is America and the market always gets its way, so don't argue. "There is no oughts and shoulds in sports television," said Neil Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, quite perfectly. "It's whether you can generate revenue."

So, yes, WUSA's numbers wouldn't crunch. But would it have been different if big American companies – advertisers – had been willing to invest in the league up front? The leaders of the WUSA, led by John Hendricks who invented the Discovery Channel, begged for corporate sponsors. Only Johnson & Johnson and Hyundai answered the call. The endorsement money Lebron James will make before ever taking a shot in the NBA would save the league. But no.

Allow me to do the futile and violate Pilson's "no oughts and shoulds" proclamation: corporations should have invested more in the WUSA and if they had, the league might have had a fighting chance to woo fans and build a following and make a buck someday.

American companies are all to happy to prey on young women as fashion victims, as potential smokers and beer drinkers, as consumers of botox and breast implants, as dieters, hair-dyers and ditzs. But not as athletes.

Mia Hamm, arguably the best soccer player in the world, took a salary reduction to help save the league, from $80,000 to $60,000 a year. Her boyfriend, Red Sox shortstop, makes about $64,800 a game. I don't begrudge him that gargantuan reward. I just wish the women of WUSA, nearly all college educated women dedicated to bring the world's sport to America, got a little respect.

And I wish girls who will be going to college someday could cheer them on.

Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, is based in Washington. For many years, he was a political and investigative producer for The CBS News Evening News With Dan Rather.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer