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New women's soccer league has some players daring to dream again

SRJC women’s soccer coach Tracy Hamm played two seasons in the Women’s Professional Soccer league, which folded last year.

CONNER JAY/ The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 11:14 p.m.

It may seem like a small thing, an inconsequential thing, hardly worth mentioning. It's not. Katie Woodrum now has been given the chance to dream.

“I do it (dream) now pretty much every day,” said the Montgomery soccer midfielder.

Woodrum has been dreaming since last Thursday. The National Women's Soccer League announced Fox Sports Media Group would televise one game per week in the final six weeks of the season and then three playoff games. The NWSL was formed in December but no sport is elevated to national relevance until it is televised.

Dreams are not the privilege of the young but they indeed are the most flavorful at that age, when the long-term future is still a wondrous blank page. Woodrum, a First Team All-Empire Large School player headed to USF in the fall, is thankful to get her dream back.

“I thought it (professional women's soccer) was gone permanently,” Woodrum said.

The NWSL is the third attempt in 12 years at forming a sustainable women's soccer league in America. The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) lasted three years. Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) lasted five years, folding last year. If it's true one learns from one's mistakes, the NWSL should be around through the next century.

“We joked that maybe we should go on Oprah or Ellen to get the word out,” said Tracy Hamm, the women's soccer coach at SRJC who played in the WPS for a year each in San Jose and Atlanta. “Soccer is the most popular women's sport in America, but I don't think anyone knew about us.”

Distinctive personality sells tickets, whether that personality is goofy, obnoxious, loquacious, arrogant or bathes in motor oil in a pregame ritual. In a sport with no established national identity — no New York Yankees pinstripes or Dallas Cowboys star here — persona creates and sells the sizzle.

Unknown equals unloved in sports and no love means no money.

And oh if that were enough, making the bad times go away by pushing photogenic billboards and charismatic television spots and unforgettable quotations.

It's about the money. Ever since someone thought they could make a buck on a sport, there's been someone else who didn't think it through, who mismanaged ticket prices, salaries, travel expenses, equipment purchases. By the way, that explains those failed eight years of women's professional soccer.

“A team would pay Marta (the great Brazilian player) $1.5 million for three years,” said Hamm, 29, an outside defender in college for Cal. “And then charge $12 a ticket and see 2,000 people show up.”

A financial disconnect existed. Revenues weren't matching, much less surpassing expenditures. Where was the common sense? Heck, where were the accountants? The soccer owners in 2001 thought there would be a natural and never-ending transferring of interest spawned by USA's magical World Cup championship in 1999. Presto, the soccer women had to be NFL stars, as if somehow they attained Mount Olympus status overnight, forgetting it took decades for the NFL to reach that level. And as long as we are mentioning the NFL ...

“In WUSA's early years,” Hamm said, “they would treat the players like NFL stars. They would fly in private planes everywhere, would stay at the best hotels. It was great.”

Except for one thing.

“They didn't have a following,” Hamm said.

So why should the third time be a charm? Because those failed two leagues provided a teaching opportunity. The NWSL has the American, Mexican and Canadian soccer federations paying the most expensive players in the eight-team league. That's roughly one-third (seven) of a roster, with most of them being international and/or Olympic players. That's a huge salary load removed from each team.

In addition U.S. soccer will fully fund the staffing and operation of the NWSL office.

“Three teams are on the East Coast — Buffalo, New Jersey and Washington,” Hamm said. “They will be taking buses to games, not flying.”

The message given to the players that was welcomed, Hamm said, contained more common sense than has ever been given to the pro sport in the past 12 years.

“Women's pro soccer needs to build a strong foundation,” Hamm said. “The players understand that. They love the sport so much, they would play for free.”

Critical decisions still need to be made. There isn't a 2013 WNSL team in California. How can a sport reach true prominence and financial stability without at least one representative from the nation's most populous state? It can't.

“Transportation costs from the East Coast and Midwest to and from California are a big issue,” Hamm said.

Hamm estimated a “75 percent chance” the WNSL will succeed and establish permanent roots in this country. Though she didn't say it, one got the sense this third effort at women's pro soccer in the U.S. is not just the best but quite possibly the last attempt to do so. The tidal wave-sized momentum created from that Brandi Chastain-inspired USA win in the 1999 World Cup largely has been squandered.

It's now up to NWSL to see how it takes advantage of the buzz from the 2012 Olympic gold medal the U.S. women won in London. Realistically, how much is that one worth? Remember, winning is not a novelty anymore for American women soccer players. This is their third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Enthusiasm, however, is not a novelty for any athlete. It's necessary. It is the heartbeat of every sport, felt first by the players, then transmitted to the owners and then the fans and before you know it you got a 100 years of football, basketball, baseball, hockey and people making all kinds of money.

It's the enthusiasm of young players like Katie Woodrum that will make it happen.

“I'm dreaming big,” Woodrum said, “but I want to play soccer for as long as I can.”

So Woodrum will dream that dream and in four years she would like to do something with that dream.

Will the WNSL be around then to satisfy that itch? Woodrum hopes so. In the meantime, she will keep her feet on the ground.

“I'm going into nursing,” Woodrum said, “as a backup.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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