Women's US pro league prepares for launch

DETROIT - At the end of a long season, the U.S. women's soccer team stood at centre field, hugged, shared a few tears then looked forward after a golden year.

A 1-0 victory over China in a friendly on a biting December night in a cavernous stadium in downtown Detroit, a city that has come to represent Ground Zero for the U.S. economic meltdown, would hardly seem the place for happy endings.

In a time of such financial turmoil it would be easier to think back on a giddy season of success highlighted by an Olympic gold medal in Beijing rather than to look ahead to an uncertain future.

But for members of the U.S. soccer team, who would likely have suffered a low media profile until the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics, this year is now bright with possibilities, most of them centred on the return to the country of women's professional soccer.

Next month, the seven-team Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league will enter a turbulent sport market place, replacing WUSA (the Women's United Soccer Association) which disappeared in 2003 after just three seasons.

The re-launch comes at a perilous time when events, teams and entire leagues are disappearing from the U.S. sporting landscape.

WARNING SIGNS

Despite the ominous warning signs, WPS insists the time is right. Armed with a sound business plan it will push ahead with its March 29 launch.

"It's an opportunity to grow off the Olympic momentum but with realistic expectations," WPS Chief Operating Officer Mary Harvey told Reuters. "If we had seen this coming I would have bought gold, a ton of it.

"The situation is what it is and even though that is the case it doesn't change the fact that we have a really committed ownership group; we have a great cash position."

Soccer leagues, men's and women's, indoor and outdoor have come and gone.

They include, most famously, the North American Soccer League which spent millions on ageing icons such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer to grab a brief share of the U.S. sporting spotlight before fading away after 16 years in 1984.

NICHE FOUND

Born out of the hugely successful 1999 women's World Cup, when more than 90,000 spectators filled the Rose Bowl to watch the final between U.S. and China, WUSA looked to have found a niche.

The tournament produced two charismatic celebrities around whom the league would be marketed, Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, whose bra-baring celebration after scoring the deciding goal against China remains the sport's enduring image.

The 2002 hit British film, "Bend It Like Beckham", the story of a girl whose dream was to play in WUSA, brought even more attention but it was not long before the buzz faded, attendances dropped and it folded.

WPS says it has paid attention.

The league's business model is built around an average attendance of 5,000-6,000 per game while players will earn a modest average salary of $32,000.

Games will be broadcast on FOX's soccer channel and a major sponsorship deal with sportswear giant Puma is already in place.

The league will start with seven franchises -- the Los Angeles Sol, Washington Freedom, Chicago Red Stars, St Louis Athletica, Boston Breakers, Sky Blue FC of New Jersey and FC Gold Pride from Santa Clara, California.

It will be cautious about expansion.

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

"We're not going to be playing in these big NFL cathedrals," said Harvey. "We're going to be playing venues where we want to create a real soccer atmosphere and grow from there. We have realistic expectations.

"We want to establish the world's best women's soccer played at the club level in the United States."

While the quality of play has jumped since WUSA folded, the profile of the sport has nose-dived.

A new generation of gifted players has put the U.S. at the top of the world rankings yet Hamm and Chastain, who at 40 is bidding to make a comeback with the FC Gold Pride, remain North America's best-known performers.

The world's top player is no longer an American but a Brazilian named Marta who will try to bring some Beckham-like buzz to the new league.

FIFA's female World Player of the Year for the last three years, Marta will be the centrepiece of the Los Angeles Sol but it is uncertain whether her dazzling footwork on the field will translate into marketability off the pitch.

If WPS is to succeed it will have to promote home-grown talent that its young female fans and sponsors can identify with.

"Women's soccer is growing, it's always growing," said U.S. team veteran Kristine Lilly, who holds the world record for most caps with 340. "It depends on what you compare it to.

"If you're comparing it to the NBA we're not there. But comparing to where the sport was way back when I started to until now, it's growing.

"There are so many young girls playing and now it's more on TV and so people are seeing it and it's becoming part of their lives.

"The evolution is worldwide now."