Kick Me, I'm Dreaming
From high school to college, female soccer jocks have a
new goal to shoot for -- going pro.
by Kelly Kennedy
2000-07-07Amy McMenamin stood outside Portland, Oregon's Civic Center and ached for an
autograph from the ever-popular Mia Hamm.
   One of the millions of young, female soccer fans who made last summer's World Cup champs
household names, Amy, 15, was there in person to watch the U.S. team continue its domination of
women's soccer with an 8-0 creaming of Mexico in the first round of the Nike U.S. Women's Cup
in May.
   "Some people are still like: 'Women's soccer? Who cares,'" she said. "But it's growing."
   She's right. An estimated 1.5 million high school girls and college women play soccer today
(compared with 11,534 in 1976), and there is continued fan support of the U.S. women's team as
it prepares for the Olympics in Sydney this September.
   The U.S. players consistently hold up their end of the bargain and just win, win, win. On July 3,
the team captured the Gold Cup with a 1-0 win over feared Brazil in front of 20,123 fans in
Foxboro, Mass.
   The women have racked up a win-loss-tie record of 17-3-3 since the beginning of the year.
   And now, for the really devoted fan, there's a women's pro league on the way.
   Talk of launching a league in the United States quickly followed the excitement of the Women's
World Cup win last year, Brandi Chastain's shirtless victory whoop and the media's crowning of
the U.S. players as hometown heroes.
   The Women's United Soccer Association and Major League Soccer were vying for the chance
to capitalize on this newfound interest. The players, however, tipped the scales this spring when
they declared they would only play professionally for WUSA.
MLS then pulled its proposal out of the running and agreed to work with the favored group. MLS,
which currently has 12 men's teams around the country, will provide additional sponsors and
publicity as well as stadium space.
   "The team is absolutely happy about it," team spokesman Aaron Heifetz said of the new plan.
"This is exactly what they hoped for."
   The promise of the pro league makes high school players like Amy happy, too, and the buzz
among fans speaks to the growing opportunities for females in sports.
   "We had softball and volleyball, but nothing like this," said Rachelle Cook, 28, at the Nike Cup
tournament, which the U.S. ultimately won with a 4-0 score over Canada.
Cook said she started following women's soccer after the national team won the gold medal at the
1996 Olympics. "When we were in high school, sports were what you did for fun. For women, it
wasn't a career choice," she said.
   Megan Kanagy, Amy's teammate, is already thinking big. "We have the chance to play in a pro
league when we grow up," she said. "That was not the case for my mom's generation."
Megan has kicked the ball around in practice with national team members Tiffany Milbrett and
Shannon MacMillan. "The women are like our heroes," she said. "They're really, really grounded,
cool people."
   She said her room is wall-to-wall women's team posters.
   "I've got the T-shirts," she said. "I've got the autographs. I'm a hard-core fan."
   It's that sort of enthusiasm the new pro league is banking on. But it remains a question whether
pro women's soccer will be able to sustain a steady fan base that will make it a success.
WUSA will launch the league next April with eight teams-in New York, Boston, Philadelphia,
Washington D.C., Atlanta, Orlando, San Diego and San Francisco.
   Each team will have a salary cap of $800,000. The world champion players will make salaries
in the six figures, and those recruited fresh out of college will make considerably less.
   In addition to the commitment of the big-name stars, WUSA also has the support of a $40
million start-up fund raised by Discovery Channel owner John Hendricks, a television deal with
Turner Broadcasting and a consulting agreement with former national team coach Tony DiCicco.
   The MLS connection is helpful because it is already running a men's pro league, albeit a
struggling one, and has contracts with major stadiums around the country. It's an arrangement
similar to the one between the NBA and the WNBA.
   There is plenty of excitement within the industry. Joe Bradley, general manager of the Boston
Renegades, a member of a women's interregional league, said starting a women's pro league is
"just a smart thing to do."
   "Our team gear-stuffed mascots, tattoos and jerseys-is selling like crazy, and we expect 2,000
people at our opening game of the season," he said. "We see soccer moms and dads as well as a
lot of young boys and girls. This is going to get big."
   It already has.