Commentary

State of uncertainty for women's sports

Ten years after the Brandi Chastain moment, women's pro sports are struggling

Originally Published: July 24, 2009
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

It was, from the outside looking in, an appropriately confusing turn. In the first few days after a player coup last month resulted in the toppling of LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens, a list of possible replacements was assembled. One of the names on that list was the respected president of the WNBA, Donna Orender.

Bivens' ouster, while no simple thing to explain, ultimately was tied to the understanding that the women's golf tour was hemorrhaging sponsorships, goodwill and solid events.

[+] EnlargeBrandi Chastain
Hector Mata/AFP/Getty ImagesTen years ago this month, Brandi Chastain's celebration seemed to signal a turning point for women's sports.

Donna Orender? Well, she heads a women's basketball league whose flat-lining average attendance of less than 8,000 has left it in a position -- so says one of its most prominent alumnae -- to be shuttered or abandoned entirely. Yet Orender's qualifications to interview for the LPGA job are considered not merely sufficient, but impressive. After all, she spent 17 years with the PGA before trying to run a league on her own.

No one, though, holds the WNBA's struggles particularly against Orender. The reason: It's happening all over the place.

And thus rests, ever so uneasily, the state of women's professional sports in this extraordinary time, the summer of 2009.

In one of those coincidences too powerful to ignore, this marks the 10-year anniversary of the entertaining, profitable, heavily attended and artistically successful Women's World Cup soccer event, which the U.S. punctuated by defeating China on penalty kicks to win it all at the Rose Bowl in Southern California. The image of Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey in exultant celebration that day was one of raw emotion, strength and vitality. It was the visceral suggestion of a sea change for women in high-profile, elite-level sports.

Ten years after that 1999 dreamscape, the reality is less inspiring. The soccer league that sprang up in the wake of that World Cup, the Women's United Soccer Association, died after three seasons and $100 million in losses. The WNBA, backed by NBA parent franchises when it began in 1997, spent most of the next decade struggling in vain to gain traction, to the point that former star Rebecca Lobo worried out loud recently about the future of the league.

Issues and Answers

What's the greatest challenge for women's sports right now? What's the greatest opportunity? Who is the face of women's sports today? Watch the roundtable on ESPNEWS on Friday at 6:30 p.m., ET, as these and other questions are put to a panel of experts.

The Women's Tennis Association, while holding its own relative to other suffering organizations, was buffeted by the recession in the same manner as any event that relies on corporate sponsorship. Despite a nice pre-recession run-up in sponsorship and prize purses over the past several years, it also failed to establish itself as a go-to choice with many viewers because of a cyclical absence of marquee rivalries.

And while much of the LPGA's turmoil can be blamed on Bivens' noted lack of people skills and ham-handed operation, the shock of seeing the oldest and most successful women's professional sports organization in such disarray has left many wondering whether it will ever fully recover. As of this writing, only 14 of the LPGA's 29 events from this season have been secured by sponsors for 2010 -- a nightmare scenario that the new commissioner will inherit.

Whether this all adds up to a historic meltdown of women's sports is the kind of question only time -- and plenty of it -- will answer. For one thing, it is impossible to separate much of the conversation from its proper context: one of the worst financial downturns in modern American history. For another, some of the leagues in question (the new Women's Professional Soccer, for example, which replaces the defunct WUSA) are so young that a realistic assessment of their viability is comically premature.

But what the difficult times have revealed, without question, is that there aren't enough marquee athletes to go around. Women's pro sports still rely heavily on individual stars whom the leagues can market, and when the star power is found wanting, so are the leagues. The rubric is surprisingly simple.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
AP PhotoSerena Williams has been at or near the top for years, but women's tennis suffers in comparison to the Federer-Nadal buzz in the men's game.

It's instructive that tennis's problem is not a lack of talent, but rather too uniform a distribution of it. Whereas perhaps 10 years ago Serena Williams' current dominance would be met by a phalanx of high-visibility, headline-grabbing sluggers such as Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova and Monica Seles, Williams this year polished her Wimbledon trophy against her sister, Venus. Nothing wrong with that, exactly, but it didn't escape notice that Venus reached the final by absolutely crushing the world's No. 1-ranked women's tennis player, Dinara Safina. Was it really that easy to knock off the supposed queen?

In fact, since Justine Henin retired last year, five different players have held the No. 1 spot, a quandary for a sport that needs individual identity to make its collective product go. It stands in sharp contrast to a men's tour riding the global popularity of Roger Federer's great rivalry with Rafael Nadal.

In so many ways, the Women's World Cup triumph in 1999 was a classic case of an individualized "team" success, the kind that many sports leagues -- male and female -- rely upon. The winning came first, or at least concurrently, but Mia Hamm was a bona fide star. Michelle Akers was a star. Chastain instantly became a star. Goalie Briana Scurry became wildly popular.

It was a distinctly American success -- and that, too, matters. One of the tangential issues facing the LPGA, for example, is that although it includes many young, attractive and high-quality U.S.-born golfers, its actual champions list is increasingly dominated by foreign players. Many of these champions speak little English and are more difficult to market to U.S. audiences.

Bivens' attempt to deal with that culture gap was to force English upon the members of the Tour, a mistake that landed with a noisy thud last year. But the reality didn't change just because Bivens met it clumsily: Of the 72 players who made the cut at this year's U.S. Women's Open, 20 were from South Korea alone, including the eventual winner, Eun-Hee Ji, who needed an interpreter to accompany her to her news conference.

[+] EnlargeEun-Hee Ji
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesSouth Korea's Eun-Hee Ji wom the U.S. Women's Open earlier this month, but she isn't yet a marketing attraction here.

The modern women's pro sports movement has proven dangerously vulnerable to market conditions and scandal, in ways that the major men's sports organizations could never fathom. A bad couple of seasons can push a franchise or a league to the brink. Marion Jones' fall from grace in track and field left a huge void in the superstar category. The WNBA was rocked at the end of last year when the Houston Comets, winner of the league's first four championships, folded. Now, says Lobo, "if NBA owners are having financial difficulties, what's the first thing they're going to look to shed?"

Answer: a WNBA franchise that isn't making money in the first place. Never mind that a full WNBA payroll still works out to less than the NBA minimum salary for a single player. The NBA has buzz. The WNBA has Candace Parker, returning from maternity leave -- and she can't regain her superstar form soon enough.

Women's leagues have traditionally been dicey propositions; individual sports such as tennis and golf, though cyclical in global popularity, have always had a stronger hold on the wallets and purses of fans. The summer of '09 has brought that notion into bold relief -- and now the LPGA is reeling, buffeted by mismanagement and in many ways still looking for the next Annika Sorenstam.

Whether it's Michelle Wie or Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis or Brittany Lincicome, may she arrive soon. An entire movement may not depend on it, but some good old-school success just might.

ESPN.com contributor Mark Kreidler is the author of the books "Six Good Innings" and "Four Days to Glory." Contact him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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