The 1999 Women’s World Cup transformed Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and the National Team into celebrities overnight. They used their newfound fame to launch the world’s first women’s professional soccer league: WUSA, the Women’s United Soccer Association. But mismanagement and tension with the U.S. Soccer Federation put the league’s future in jeopardy. This is the story about how the stars of the ‘99 World Cup Team built a league from scratch and fought to keep it alive.
JODY AVIRGAN: Hello and welcome to 30 for 30 podcasts. My name is Jody Avirgan. Now we’re trying something a little different this episode — usually we bring you our stories in seasons, in batches, a couple times a year, but here we’re rolling out a brand new doc all on its own, because we think this is the moment to listen to it.
In the summer of 1999, women’s soccer was everywhere. That’s when Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and the stars of the ‘99 World Cup team brought women’s soccer to the mainstream for the first time.
It’s a story a lot of us remember, and a story we’ll be hearing a lot about this summer, but there is a deeper history. Behind-the-scenes, these women had been fighting to grow the game for decades, and I will note that this fight is not over, it continues to this very moment.
But the wild success of ‘99 gave the U.S. women a launch pad to build the world’s first fully professional women’s soccer league. And that’s what this story is all about. It’s brought to us by producers Andrew Helms and Meradith Hoddinott. Here’s Meradith bringing us the story of “Back Pass.”
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TONY DICICCO: Julie?
JULIE FOUDY: Sup coach?
TONY DICICCO: So nice to have you with that damn video camera every time somebody walks out.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Julie Foudy was always recording on her camcorder. And she was rolling as the National Team bus headed to the opening game of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
LAUREN GREGG: Hi Julie!
JULIE FOUDY: Hello…
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Julie was co-captain, a star midfielder, and the team’s un-official cinematographer.
JULIE FOUDY: Brandi, turn around, the three of you. Give me a few words about this World Cup.
CARLA OVERBECK: One game a time baby!
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Spirits were high that day as the team went to Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Julie wasn’t that worried about the game, the team had been training for months … but she was worried about empty seats.
JULIE FOUDY: Like oh shit I hope people come. Am I allowed to cuss? Probably not. Oh I am. You know, shit what if people don’t come?
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The country barely noticed when they won the first ever Women’s World Cup in ‘91. That day on the bus, they wondered if anyone would pay attention this time.
USWNT PLAYER: Holy cow!
MERADITH HODDINOTT: And then they hit traffic. Julie and goalkeeper Briana Scurry watched as the Jersey Turnpike turned into a parking lot.
JULIE FOUDY: And we’re like, “Oh my God, what is this? This is crazy. We’re not gonna get to our game.”
BRIANA SCURRY: I remember thinking, “We’re going to be late.” Late to our own wedding, basically, which is not good.
JULIE FOUDY: And then we realized like it’s all cars with like you know, “We love Mia! Go U-S-A!” They were all coming to our game.
BRIANA SCURRY: And we’re pointing at these girls and they’re pointing at us. And we’re waving at them, and they’re waving at us. We were like little schoolgirls in the bus.
JULIE FOUDY ARCHIVE: How cute is she! I know she’s darling.
JULIE FOUDY: Aaron Heifetz, our press officer, standing on the bus as we’re driving to the first game. And he says you know, ‘I want to announce you know today’s game is a sell out!’
AARON HEIFETZ: “It will be a sellout” [Cheers!!]
JULIE FOUDY: And we had no idea. We like, “Whaaaat?” The whole bus goes crazy.
JULIE FOUDY: That’s when I think we realized huh. All right. We might be onto something here like this is, this is bigger than even we dreamt it could be.
ABC NEWS: World Cup fever has hit the United States.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The U.S. crushed the competition, they racked up win after win and sailed past Brazil into the final.
SEMIFINAL ANNOUNCER: “That’s it! The USA is going to the final of the World Cup!”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The team’s run captivated the country
NBC – ARCHIVE NEWS: “This event is a lightning rod not just for soccer but for women’s sports”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Finally, women’s sports could fill the biggest stadiums in the country.
NBC – ARCHIVE NEWS (CHRISTINE BRENNAN): “We’ve never seen anything like this in the history of the planet”
ABC Sports – (ROBIN ROBERTS): “Welcome everyone to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California for the much anticipated final between China and the United States.”
SHANNON BOXX: The Rose Bowl was packed. It was crazy. Everybody was hooked on these women winning a World Cup.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Shannon Boxx cheered from the stands with her face painted red-white-and-blue.
SHANNON BOXX: Oh it was blazing. It was so hot. And on the field, I remember them saying, it was like over 100 degrees.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Shannon had graduated from Notre Dame a few months earlier. She was a top college soccer player and had dreamed of playing for the United States. But she was always just below the National Team level. After college there was nowhere for her to play, no women’s professional league, and no way make it to the National Team.
SHANNON BOXX: Man, I really wish that like, could have been something for me. I really wish I could’ve made it to that level.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: 90,000 fans filled the Rose Bowl and millions more tuned in from home. The final match against China was the most watched soccer game in American history at that time. The nation held its breath. First half —
ANNOUNCER: “…Michelle Akers guns it long! But it’s right at Gao Hong
MERADITH HODDINOTT: No goals. Second half.
ANNOUNCER: … she can’t break through the U.S. defense
MERADITH HODDINOTT: No goals. Overtime…
ANNOUNCER: …Saved off the line! Rebound was cleared!
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Still no goals.
ANNOUNCER: The referee has just looked at the watch. That’s it! The winner of the 1999 Women’s World Cup will be decided on penalty kicks.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: It all came down to just one kick.
ANNOUNCER: Chastain will take it …
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Brandi Chastain approached the penalty spot, put down the ball, and stepped back. Team captain Carla Overbeck was standing behind her at midfield.
CARLA OVERBECK: I’m a little superstitious and I couldn’t watch. I’m looking down because I knew if she missed I would hear the crowd go “oooh.” And I knew if she made it I would just hear craziness. And so I wasn’t watching and then all of a sudden.
GAME ARCHIVE: [Ball in net, cheers]
CARLA OVERBECK: The entire stadium just erupted.
GAME ARCHIVE: The United States has won the Women’s World Cup!
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Brandi rips off her jersey and falls to her knees
NBC – NEWS REPORT – KATIE COURIC: Without a doubt, this is the lasting image of the World Cup. Brandi Chastain on her knees, waving her jersey instead of wearing it.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Brandi and the National Team were everywhere.
NBC – TODAY SHOW: “Get ready for the girls of summer…”
NBC – TODAY SHOW: “…the nationwide victory party continues today….”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Magazines, commercials, morning shows, the White House…
President Bill Clinton: “We want to welcome this remarkable team, their triumph has surely become America’s triumph.”
First Lady Hillary Clinton: “By creating the largest women’s sporting event in history, they have exploded the myth once and for all that women’s sports can’t attract fans, and it is about time that that has happened!”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: They were stars and their popularity kept rising. Julie and the rest of the team realized that this was the moment to chase their dream and build the world’s first women’s professional soccer league.
JULIE FOUDY: I just remember thinking like is this a reality? Like, we’re actually going to pull this off.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: A pro league would build on the energy of ‘99 and grow the game for future generations. To start a league, they needed approval from the U.S. Soccer Federation – the governing body of the sport in America. But there was a problem.
JULIE FOUDY: We had no trust with our Federation. I mean, it was. The relationship was torn. It was bad.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The National Team had been fighting with US Soccer for years.
NBC NEWS – BRIAN WILLIAMS: The 20 women on the US soccer team are paid between $15,000 and $35,000 a year. More of a stipend.
CARLA OVERBECK: We didn’t want to make millions.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Co-captain Carla Overbeck
CARLA OVERBECK: We just wanted to be able to survive and not have to get outside employment to play the game we loved.
CNN — (MICHELLE AKERS): “We’ve been on this team 10-12 years, and yet our salaries are squat, you know. It doesn’t seem fair.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The fights had escalated after Julie met tennis legend Billie Jean King. An icon. A leader in the fight for gender equality in sports. Julie told Billie Jean about the team’s struggle with U.S. Soccer.
JULIE FOUDY: I say to her, “We’ve been going through this for years now and we’re tired. What do we do?” And she looked at me and said, “Well, what are you doing?” I was like, “What? What do you mean?” She said, “What are you doing Foudy? Like you, as players, what are you doing?” And as Billie Jean does she goes into this kind of roar like, “You have the leverage! You change it.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: By the time of the ‘99 World Cup, the players had gotten more organized and hired a lawyer. The fights were brutal and the women’s success in ‘99 only amplified the tension just when they needed the Federation’s support to start a new league
JULIE FOUDY: There was there was not a player on that National Team that felt like the Federation wanted a woman’s league.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The women believed the Federation saw their success as a threat to the new men’s league, Major League Soccer. U.S Soccer had invested millions to help MLS get off the ground.
JULIE FOUDY: We felt that they thought it was competition. It was like “That market’s crowded. We’re already struggling in it. Get the hell out!”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: U.S. Soccer asked MLS to submit a plan for a women’s league. That scared Julie and the National Team who felt like a women’s league under MLS would be an afterthought, a sideshow to the men’s main event
JULIE FOUDY: And we felt that any effort by them was simply an effort to impede.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The women wanted a league independent from MLS. And for the first time they had another option.
JOHN HENDRICKS: That team represented something very special on the American stage.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: John Hendricks and his family loved the National Team.
JOHN HENDRICKS: The heart that they played with, they never, ever gave up. And so, for those of us who have daughters, we want them to experience that. And so that was a very powerful motivation.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: John Hendricks wasn’t just any fan. He was the multi-millionaire founder and CEO of the Discovery Channel. John had heard about the women’s idea for a pro league, and he saw a business opportunity.
JOHN HENDRICKS: It was a chance to do something good and and try to build a business as well, And so I started calling my friends.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: One by one, John reached out to his buddies at Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox Enterprises. They were the giants of the cable industry, executives who called themselves the Cable Cowboys. One of his first calls was to Jim Kennedy, the chairman and CEO at Cox.
JIM KENNEDY: John said, “Hey I have this idea. I think the time has come for us to have a women’s league here in America.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: He pitched them on his vision of the W-U-S-A, the Women’s United Soccer Association. A league with eight teams in eight cities across the country. WUSA would be a business built on the stars of ‘99. They were the key to reaching a growing demographic of soccer moms in their minivans…
GATORADE AD HAMM-JORDAN: “Anything you can do I can do better!”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Like Mia Hamm selling girl power and Gatorade alongside Michael Jordan.
MIA HAMM: “Had enough?”
MICHAEL JORDAN: [laughs] “Let’s go!”
JIM KENNEDY: It wasn’t unreasonable to think these women could really be the face of soccer in America, not just women’s soccer.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: John asked the cable companies to put in $5 million dollars per team. Start-up capital to launch the league and keep it going for five years. Altogether they put in $40 million dollars to capture the magic of the ‘99 World Cup.
JOHN HENDRICKS: They were pre-sold. Everybody was in love with the U.S. Women’s National Team. It was fairly easy. They all said, “John, if you’re in it, I’m in it, and let’s give it a shot.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Julie Foudy was thrilled when she heard that a bunch of millionaire cable executives wanted to fund a women’s league.
JULIE FOUDY: We almost saw it as a way out from underneath U.S. Soccer. We were like, “Freeeedoooom! Let’s get out of this place. We’ve got someone else finally.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Carla Overbeck felt the difference between U.S. Soccer and John Hendricks.
CARLA OVERBECK: It was just refreshing because so many other meetings with the Federation, it was a fight. And here this man of this magnitude had an appreciation for what we did and what we could possibly do starting a league.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: For the first time in their careers, soccer could be a fulltime job for these world champions.Some of the players on the National Team were just scraping by on $15,000 dollars a year. Now, WUSA was offering these same players an $80,000 dollar salary and a five-year guaranteed contract.
JULIE FOUDY: You know, we were basically like, “Where do you want us to sign? What do you need us to do? We’re in.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The National Team and cable company investors worked together to get approval from U.S. Soccer. After months of delays, the Federation signed off. And Julie Foudy announced the start of their new league at a launch event in November 2000.
JULIE FOUDY ARCHIVAL: What an awesome day. What an awesome day. We have dreamt and talked about it. You know, “How cool would it be to not only start a league in this country, but to have the best league in the entire world. And we are doing just that!” [applause]
MERADITH HODDINOTT: To spread the magic of ‘99, the 20 World Cup stars joined teams across the league. Mia Hamm signed with the Washington Freedom. Brandi Chastain with the Bay Area CyberRays. And Julie Foudy went to her hometown team, the San Diego Spirit. That left a lot of open spots on teams around the country, and Shannon Boxx wanted in.
SHANNON BOXX: I was like, well, “I want to be a part of this!” The national team is for the rare few but I can play in a professional league and be a professional soccer player. Most women couldn’t say that they were a professional athlete at that point.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Shannon had thought her playing days were over. She was 23 and lived at home with her mom. She was considering grad school and worked at California Pizza Kitchen to make ends meet.
SHANNON BOXX: Barbecue chicken chopped salad. Yum. [laughs] And it was free lunch! [laughs]
MERADITH HODDINOTT: This new league was her chance to get back on the field. And she was not going to let that opportunity pass her by.
SHANNON BOXX: And I actually reached out to Tony DiCiccio. And said, “I’m interested, hey don’t forget about me.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Tony DiCicco had been the head coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team during the ‘99 World Cup. And he was in charge of recruiting players for the New League. He wrote back to Shannon right away and invited her to tryout at the combine.
SHANNON BOXX: I remember walking off the plane and being like, “Here I go. This is my opportunity.” But I was really nervous.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: In December 2000, over 170 women travelled to South Florida to fight for a spot on a WUSA roster. It was a who’s who of international and collegiate soccer talent.
JACQUI LITTLE: It was like a giant reunion, too. And at the same time I remember like seeing players and being like, “Ugh they play for UNC.” Or, “Ugh she played for Notre Dame.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Jacqui Little had just graduated from Santa Clara University – a powerhouse program. She had five days to impress the coaches and the competition was fierce.
JACQUI LITTLE: There was a gnarly injury during one of my games where a girl literally broke her ankle and it popped out. It’s not like just college and it’s you’re fighting to get drafted into the first ever women’s league. I mean, it was intense for sure.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Thom Meredith was a few fields away. He was the VP of operations for WUSA, the logistics guy.
THOM MEREDITH: Every company, every team has to have somebody that wants to have the trains run on time and I like, I like to be the guy that does that.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Thom planned every detail from booking travel to buying soccer balls. And he knew what his part of the combine had cost, but there were a lot of last minute expenses from the league office like camera crews that needed power.
THOM MEREDITH: And I’m like, “Did you get the generator? Did you have power that you need that’s 400 feet away?” OK. You need a generator. Well there’s only one in town and I got it. But it’s costing me twice what it should have.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: John Hendricks came down to the combine. Thom picked him up in a golf cart and drove him around the fields.
THOM MEREDITH: And he sees the cameras, and he sees the people, and then he gets a sense for the size of this thing. And John said, “Thom, how much is this going to cost?” And I said, “John I have no idea.”
TONY DICICCO: “It’s a morning of dreams”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: After a week of tryouts, all the players could do was wait and hope to hear their names called.
TONY DICICCO: “Welcome to the inaugural global draft of the WUSA, the Women’s United Soccer Association”
LAUREN GREGG: “The clock will be running for Atlanta Beat The clock is running for Philadelphia Charge. For the Washington Freedom.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Shannon Boxx was in a hotel conference room watching the draft on TV.
SHANNON BOXX: And I was chatting, I don’t even think I was paying that much attention and all of a sudden I heard my name, and I was like “What?” Like I just got picked?”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The San Diego Spirit drafted Shannon in the third round, 19th pick overall. She was going to make a living playing soccer.
SHANNON BOXX: I was shocked. I really was shocked. I remember walking out of that room and grabbing my phone and shaking and crying and like calling my best friends, being like I just got picked. I just made it.
LAUREN GREGG: “Tempest, the clock is running.”
JACQUI LITTLE: And then you know the end of the fourth round and then the fifth I’m like okay I can get drafted now any time please.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Jacqui could finally breathe in the 6th round when she was drafted by The Bay Area CyberRays.
JACQUI LITTLE: Oh my God. This is so cool. This is my job. Like how cool is this. This is my job.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Jacqui Little, Shannon Boxx, and over 100 other women were now professional athletes.
Interviewer — Can you put the whole experience in perspective just the whole forming of the league and now this is all a reality ?
Player #1 — When college is over it’s kind of like soccer is finished, too.
Player #2 — I just get to play the game that I love and make a living do it.
Player #3 — This league is like the best thing to happen to women’s soccer.
Interviewer — Great, thanks a lot. Congratulations
Player # 3 — Thank you.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: WUSA had its players, and the rest of the league was taking shape too. In DC, John Hendricks needed someone to manage his team, the Washington Freedom. John didn’t have many connections in the sports world, but he was well connected. So he hired Katy Button from First Lady Hillary Clinton’s office.
KATY BUTTON: I mean he knew I didn’t have any sports management experience. I think he wanted someone who could manage the politics of soccer, which is a big part of navigating this.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Katy Button had to get ready for the opening game… a showdown between the league’s two biggest stars.
ANNOUNCER: Mia Hamm. Brandi Chastain. Former teammates turned opponents in a new professional soccer league.
MIA HAMM: Did you get bangs?
BRANDI CHASTAIN: Yeah.
MIA HAMM: Cute. [whistle sound]
KATY BUTTON: There were signs all over the city for Brandi versus Mia. You know it was like if Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan were playing against each other.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The league spared no expense promoting the opening game. On April 14th, 2001, almost 35,000 fans filed into RFK Stadium. All the founding National Team players were there. They lined up at midfield to celebrate the opening of their league, their legacy.
KATY BUTTON: Everyone was crying, it was the culmination of all of this effort. And so it felt like we’d given them this day they deserved.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: And Julie Foudy brought her camcorder.
JULIE FOUDY: This is it! We did it. We’re here. I cannot believe it.
JULIE FOUDY: I recall shooting Billie Jean at the game and saying you helped us be part of this. This is happening Billie. This is happening. Right now. We’re living this, and the crowd of 35,000 behind her.
BILLIE JEAN KING ARCHIVAL: “You waited a long time for this baby. We did it. You did it. This is history baby. History.”
JULIE FOUDY: You just felt like, okay, we did it. That was one of those moments where you’re like pinch me. Is this happening?
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The dream of a league came to life as games kicked off across the country.
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: “Fotopoulous pulls the trigger and scores”
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: “big save by Scurry!”
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: “Hamm lets it go and scores an incredible goal!”
SHANNON BOXX: I remember the first time going up against Mia Hamm, and she was running at me, and I was trying to defend her, and I’m like okay, wait, focus. I’m actually defending Mia Hamm at this point.
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: A nice little one-two, Hamm draws two defenders.
SHANNON BOXX: I still can picture it. Like I was on the left side, she was dribbling down, we were almost at the 18 and I was like don’t screw up, Shannon, don’t screw up, Shannon.
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: Boxx is there. She continues to battle
SHANNON BOXX: She beat me and I was like ugh. Every single game was so exciting because you’re literally playing with and against these players that you looked up to all these years.
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: Shannon Boxx. Can she go up for the header? A goal! Shannon Boxx with a brilliant header.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Shannon moved out of her mom’s house and got her own apartment.
SHANNON BOXX: It was actually the first time that I felt like a true adult. I was doing something that I loved to do. I had a passion for it and I was getting paid to do it. It was a lot more money than CPK. [laughs]
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Jacqui Little was also amazed that soccer could pay the bills.
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: Goal! Jacqui Little puts the Cyber Rays in front!
JACQUI LITTLE: I don’t think it actually hit me until like, my first paycheck where it was like, oh my God, I’m getting paid to do this?
MERADITH HODDINOTT: And her first paycheck went to groceries.
JACQUI LITTLE: You know I remember the first time someone came up to me in the grocery store. They’re like “can I get your autograph?” I look behind me like, who, me? There’s this little kid this little girl who just thought that like, I was someone she wanted an autograph from. And having people look up to you and like want to be like you. I don’t think a lot of people get that opportunity to be that for somebody.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The league had turned players like Jacqui Little into role models, but its biggest assets were still the National Team stars, who could command a national audience. Like Brandi Chastain on The Late Show with David Letterman.
DAVID LETTERMAN: This league has done everything right. The XFL, they did nothing right! They said that you and your teams…
BRANDI CHASTAIN: I don’t know about that. I don’t know about that.
DAVID LETTERMAN: … said it’s a very smart approach to soccer, and it’s working pretty well isn’t it?
BRANDI CHASTAIN: Well we knew that we would only have one opportunity to do it. And if we’re going to do it, we better do it the right way.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: But behind-closed-doors, the WUSA investors were realizing that the league wasn’t doing as well as they thought. In July 2001, the WUSA board met in Atlanta to look over the league’s finances. John Hendricks travelled to be there in person.
JOHN HENDRICKS: The tone of the room was a little, um, tense. You know, that that was a key meeting.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Lynn Morgan was the general manager of the Atlanta Beat.
LYNN MORGAN: And so I was invited to attend and I was curious to kind of learn what they were learning. They all knew this was gonna be a meeting to talk about you know where they were financially, but no one expected what they heard.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: CEO Barbara Allen laid out the numbers. In total, the cable companies had invested $40 million dollars. $40 million dollars to launch the league and carry it through five years. And now just halfway through the first season all the money was gone.
LYNN MORGAN: It was shock. It was, “What did you just say?”
JULIE FOUDY: I remember thinking, “How did we do this?”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Julie Foudy was a player representative on the board.
JULIE FOUDY: “How did we allow this to happen? Right? How did we not see this coming?”
JIM KENNEDY: There’s a saying with enough thrust, anything can fly. And we thought we had the thrust.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Jim Kennedy and Cox Enterprises had put in $10 million dollars to fund two teams.
JIM KENNEDY: We thought with the success of the World Cup, the athletes we had. We had enough thrust that anything was going to fly.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: That confidence had propelled the league to throw millions into national advertising and expensive Manhattan office space. And that’s not even counting the additional $24 million dollars they spent on renovating stadiums.
JOHN HENDRICKS: We wanted a professional level experience, and we were kind of gambling to make this big on the U.S. stage.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: But the problem wasn’t just over-spending. Early on it was clear to Katy Button that the investors had signed off on a flawed business plan.
KATY BUTTON: What was budgeted was a joke. I mean that business plan was a joke. It didn’t include rent, it didn’t include any renovation that had to happen at stadiums. It didn’t include marketing for the opening game, which worked, you know, but it cost money.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The WUSA investors had built the league they wanted, not the one they had budgeted for. And that day in Atlanta, it was clear: The dream of building of women’s professional soccer was going to need a lot more money. The investors had a choice: put in millions more, or pull the plug.
JOHN HENDRICKS: And all of us said look, if there’s two or three of the owners that don’t want to do it, it’s not going to go. And so it had to be a unanimous decision.
LYNN MORGAN: I think they probably all felt a little sucker punched.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Lynn Morgan knew the league might not live to see its first championship game if the investors pulled out.
LYNN MORGAN: So that was a very pivotal moment for many of them. But there wasn’t an investor in the room that was ready to walk away. Not at that point.
JOHN HENDRICKS: Around the table, we all agreed that we would pony up for the for the second year. But it was clear we had to see progress.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: After season one, the board scrapped the business plan and started from scratch. They needed a new CEO to slash spending and they picked Lynn Morgan.
LYNN MORGAN: When my name came up it was like you’ve gotta be kidding. Wow. It was a no-brainer. It was like of course I’ll do it.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Lynn took over shortly after the first championship game. She didn’t come from the soccer world, but during the first season she had fallen in love with the league.
LYNN MORGAN: I developed such a relationship with the staff and the players and everything else. I mean you really become a very, very tight knit family. And whatever it takes to keep this thing moving, we’ll do that.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Lynn’s confidence reassured Julie Foudy and the rest of the board.
JULIE FOUDY: And what was so great is Lynn walked in. Lynn has this swagger to her, right? She had this confidence of all right, we’re gonna get this done.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Lynn got expenses under control. She cut staff and moved the league’s headquarters from midtown Manhattan to Atlanta. In the second season, the soccer was still the best in the world.
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: “It’s back to Foudy, the header, Julie Foudy goal!”
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: “Milbrett coming through, it’s in the net! It’s in the net!”
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: “That’s it! The Carolina Courage win the Founders Cup!”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: But after the second season, the board demanded even more budget cuts.
LYNN MORGAN: And that’s when those really tough decisions had to be made.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Lynn proposed a pay cut for the players in the top income bracket. The stakes were huge. The board wasn’t going to fund a third season without these cuts.
JOHN HENDRICKS: It really was the last thing to cut because I wanted the players to feel like this could be a real profession. I knew we were now cutting into their expectations. You know, we were now playing with the dynamics of being a professional.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: News of the pay cut reached the players.
SHANNON BOXX: I was pissed. It was just, I was just mad.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Shannon Boxx had just been traded to the New York Power. She had packed up her life in San Diego and moved across the country. Then she heard her salary was on the chopping block.
SHANNON BOXX: I just came all the way out here. I can’t, I can’t do this. If I’m going to have to give up money, I’m not going to continue playing this year. I’m going to go back home and I’m going to apply to school and I’m going to be done.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Carla Overbeck gathered the founding National Team players.
CARLA OVERBECK: I was just like listen like this is our league. And as sort of ownership in this league that’s our responsibility to take the pay cut. You know you can’t take money from sort of the bottom half of the roster even the middle of the roster because they don’t make that much money. And it’s the right thing to do.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The national team players took a 25% pay cut for season three AND agreed to give up their guaranteed salaries for seasons four and five. In return, the board agreed to fund a third season. Shannon Boxx had already applied to grad school when she heard the news….
SHANNON BOXX: And I remember them coming back to us and having a meeting saying you know what? We chose, as national team players, to take the pay cut instead of you guys. It made me feel special because I felt like maybe they thought that I brought something to this league.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Shannon worked even harder to get ready for the next season.
SHANNON BOXX: The amount of confidence I had going into that third season. It was crazy.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Jacqui Little was also training for the third season, with her new team: The Washington Freedom. After the pay cut, everyone could feel the league was on shaky ground. They weren’t in the boardroom, but the players knew one thing they could do was be there for the fans and sign all the autographs they could.
JACQUI LITTLE: Katy Button would come out with like 30 sharpies
KATY BUTTON: I still have sharpies in like every jacket pocket
JACQUI LITTLE: Yeah, she would stand at the tunnel and be like, “Here are your sharpies.” And you’d sign autographs for 20 minutes after the game.
KATY BUTTON: We’d always tell them to try and hit a different section each game, so they’d see different kids.
JACQUI LITTLE: And when you won, you’d obviously stay out there all day long, but sometimes if you were kind of grumpy about the game or pissed off about something, going and signing the autographs actually got you out of your funk. Because then you’d see this little kid who’s like “I love you! You’re such a good player!” And then you’d say “Okay, these kids think you’re great whether you win or lose” you know? So it just felt like this is the place I wanted to be, and I like want to keep growing this league.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: And the league was growing — slowly. Lynn Morgan’s leadership had stopped the bleeding. League-wide, revenue was up 27% and attendance was stable.
LYNN MORGAN: We were getting closer. We were definitely making some great strides.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: WUSA had lost $100 million dollars over the course of three years, but that was pretty normal for a startup league. Major League Soccer had lost $250 million dollars in its first five years.
LYNN MORGAN: If you compared us apples to apples with some of the other leagues, we were doing pretty well. In a lot of ways, we looked really good.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: MLS had survived thanks to its wealthy private owners, but Katy Button was starting to get nervous that the WUSA investors didn’t have that same commitment.
KATY BUTTON: We were on the right path. We made mistakes. We weren’t perfect but we were on very solid footing by the third year except for our owners.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The cable companies were publicly traded, so they didn’t have the patience to slowly grow a league. They were investing their shareholders’ money — and those shareholders needed to see a return on the investment.
KATY BUTTON: The investors were enormously enthusiastic and proud and happy with what they’d done. So I think they felt caught because they were personally enthusiastic, but it wasn’t their money.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: John Hendricks fought to hold the investment group together.
JOHN HENDRICKS: It was something bigger at stake than just another business. This was part of a, a movement. It was part of gender equality in America. It was part of, you know, making sure that every little girl had role models to look forward to.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: It was August 2003, and the WUSA board was going to meet in September right before the Women’s World Cup.
JOHN HENDRICKS: And I was getting just calls from Time Warner and Comcast of, “Look, you know, we love this. We’d like to go a fourth year, but John we’ve gotta, we’ve got to see progress.”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: John didn’t have much time. WUSA desperately needed cash, so John had to find the money before the next board meeting. That stress followed him all the way to San Diego for the season three championship game.
WUSA GAME ARCHIVAL: “The WUSA on ESPN 2. It’s Founders Cup Three the fans filing in”
JOHN HENDRICKS: It was beautiful blue sky day. But in the back of my mind is, you know, we’re going to have to have this meeting, is there gonna be, a fourth season?
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The Washington Freedom were up against the Atlanta Beat. Jacqui Little laced up her cleats and walked onto the field.
JACQUI LITTLE: This is what you work for this moment, right here. I felt that we were going to win this championship. It was like let’s do this.
WUSA Game Archive — “Abby Wambach with the header for the early Freedom lead.
WUSA Game Archive — Hooper! Goal Atlanta!
WUSA Game Archive — “The next team to score would win it all …”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Katy Button was on the edge of her seat as the game went into overtime.
KATY BUTTON: And then this play developed, Little fed it to our new German player.
JACQUI LITTLE: And then I just played the ball down the down the side
WUSA Game Archive — “Jennifer Meier getting behind the defense … Meier looking far post…
JACQUI LITTLE: And Abby was making a run at the far post, “And I was like oh my god like come on …”
WUSA Game Archive — “Wambach in front. Goal! Abby Wambach scores to win. The Washington Freedom win the WUSA Championship on a golden goal.”
KATY BUTTON: And I remember Mia and Abby just falling into a pile together as soon as the goal was scored.
JACQUI LITTLE: And Abby’s laying there and everyone just like dog piles. I mean the bench clears and, and yeah she just laid there and everyone just dogpiled the poor thing.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The stadium went crazy. The Freedom passed around the Founder’s Cup trophy and then partied all night.
JACQUI LITTLE: Definitely drinks were flowing and we were partying and celebrating. And the flight home the next day was long, haha. So everyone’s tired, but just so excited to get home. And we came down the escalators like, there was fans and signs and clapping and cheering. The future was bright, right? It was a start of a long, good future for the Freedom.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: While Jacqui was off winning the championship, Shannon Boxx got a call to try out for the U.S. Women’s National Team.
SHANNON BOXX: Oh my gosh, like, I cannot believe I finally got called in. I was excited. I mean I was like, in my head I was like, I have a chance. I have an opportunity to play in this World Cup.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Four years after cheering in the stands of the Rose Bowl, Shannon had a chance to make the U.S. team for the upcoming Women’s World Cup. But first, she had to prove herself among the world’s best.
SHANNON BOXX: We were doing a shooting drill, and I remember hitting a ball and scoring and hearing behind me being like, “Man, she’s good.” And it was from like Mia, Julie. Like it was those players behind me and I was like, “Did they just say that? Did they just say, were they talking about me?”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The same day the Freedom won the Founder’s Cup, Shannon got a call. April Heinrichs, the National Team head coach, wanted to see her.
SHANNON BOXX: And I sat down and … all of a sudden she goes so, ‘you know, we’ve decided that we’re gonna put you on the World Cup team,’ and I just like looked at her and I was excuse me? I was like what did you say? She just started laughing, she’s like, we’re, you made the national, you made the World Cup team. And I just remember just losing all my emotion and just like I couldn’t even think. And she came and gave me a hug and she’s like you deserve this.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: As Shannon headed to the World Cup, Jacqui headed into the off-season.
JACQUI LITTLE: I just remember having the exit meetings and the physicals and I was like alright well like enjoy your offseason and they will say OK we’ll see you guys in January.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: In Washington, John Hendricks was preparing for the board meeting.
JOHN HENDRICKS: So I knew this next meeting was going to be tough
MERADITH HODDINOTT: He scrambled to find new investors.
JOHN HENDRICKS: We were like, scouring the planet for anybody.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Every potential investor said no. The board meeting was days away. And John had one last play — he turned to U.S. Soccer for a loan to buy the league some time. It was a tough blow for National Team captain Julie Foudy.
JULIE FOUDY: And I think it was so biting because we wanted to prove we could do it on our own without U.S. Soccer, right? That crap we’ve got to go back to them with our tail between our legs and that’s the last thing we wanted to do. Right. We wanted to be like see, we can do this without you.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Now, they needed US Soccer’s help. But the Federation was skeptical.
JOHN HENDRICKS: From their side of it, they had invested so much on the men’s side, I think they had a lot riding on their success. And I think they were always doubtful that the women could make it as professionals.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: U.S. Soccer said no.
JOHN HENDRICKS: They were at the point of realizing well is this fourth season going to be the last season? And that’s the thing, if people can’t see the fifth and sixth season, do you want to be part of just throwing good money after bad?
MERADITH HODDINOTT: John and the board met on September 15th, 2003.
JOHN HENDRICKS: It was a dismal meeting. It was just the worst. It was in New York and we were just at the end of the rope, trying to look at trends that would give us any, any reason at all to to try to keep it going for a fourth season.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: But there were no new investors. No loan from U.S. Soccer. And most of all, the WUSA owners weren’t willing to invest any-more money. The board voted to shut down the league….. just five days before the 2003 Women’s World Cup.
JOHN HENDRICKS: It was, it was a devastating kind of emotional experience to do that.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: John broke the news to the rest of the league.
KATY BUTTON: And I remember sitting in my office and John called and said it’s done. You know we pulled the plug. We’re doing it now so you can pay your staff for another couple months but it’s done. You need to go tell them. And then we gathered in the conference room down the hall and I had to tell everyone and I think as unprepared as I had been they were that times a thousand.
NEWS ARCHIVAL: “Bad news today for a league that was once hailed as a league that was a vanguard for women in sports…the three year old women’s professional soccer league is shutting down…folded after burning through $100M investment in just three seasons…the announcement comes just five days before the start of the Women’s World Cup tournament”
JACQUI LITTLE: Someone called me and they’re like your league folded. And I was like what? And they heard it on the news or something and I was like, “Wait. Seriously?”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Jacqui Little was at home when she heard.
JACQUI LITTLE: It was a very big shock that I got a phone call from somebody who heard the league had folded on the news. And it wasn’t from a coach or a GM or anything like that. It was definitely shocking.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The National Team was training in Virginia for the Women’s World Cup. Julie Foudy called everyone together to deliver the news.
JULIE FOUDY: The vision that comes to mind actually is we are in like a huddle almost like we were praying and I was delivering the news of what had just transpired on this call and what you know what the reality was.
BRIANA SCURRY: The circle we made on the field. Everyone had their heads are down and there was a somberness.
JULIE FOUDY: And it was literally it was just like silence it was as if someone had died, which it really was it was. It was like a death in the family really.
BRIANA SCURRY: Because to be honest that group of players had never failed at anything. And it was almost as if, it was the first time as a collective that we had hadn’t succeeded even though at the time you didn’t think about it that way. We for the first time had failed.
SHANNON BOXX: Just being, you know, devastated that it was done and, I’m not going to lie, a little bit felt lucky.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: This was Shannon’s first time with the National Team, but she was torn with survivor’s guilt.
SHANNON BOXX: Not lucky that it was ending, but lucky that I got seen before it ended. You know? But it was also something that I also realized it really made me who I was as a player.
JULIE FOUDY ARCHIVAL: “Team on 3. 1,2,3 team… stay, stay real quick.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Julie Foudy had to prep the team as they went to meet the press.
JULIE FOUDY ARCHIVAL: “They’re all over there and they’re going to be asking…
JULIE FOUDY: And, and it just became a thing you had to talk about the whole World Cup too. Right. You had to keep going back to that emotional tank of, you know, yeah, we failed at this.
JULIE FOUDY ARCHIVAL: It doesn’t have to be all smiles. Show them that you care that much about saving this, okay?
BRIANA SCURRY: Now we had to try to win another World Cup. [laughs] Right away. [laughs] Right now, let’s go, you know. So that was really, a really interesting pivot to have to make. And we, we, unfortunately we couldn’t make it. We tried but we couldn’t make a pivot.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: They lost to Germany in the semi-finals.
GAME ARCHIVAL: “Meinert is going to walk into the box. And Meinert will end it. Maren Meinert with a goal!”
BRIANA SCURRY: It just was a very different feeling, that World Cup compared to ‘99 in so many ways.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: The pain didn’t hit Jacqui Little right away. She stayed in DC, took a job remodeling kitchens, and lived with her boyfriend who played for the MLS team: DC United. Months later, her boyfriend went to the first day of pre-season training.
JACQUI LITTLE: And he’s like okay, like have a good day at work. And I was like okay, you have fun at you know training. And then like on my way into work I was like, “Oh my God, this sucks.” Like he’s going to pre-season. And I’m just going into like, my desk job. I just started crying and I’m like oh my God. Like this is me. Like this is me, I’m in a desk job. I’m no longer gonna be a role model for kids. I’m not gonna be doing the sport that I’ve done my whole life and loved and this is like, this is the new existence. I went from being a professional athlete to selling cabinets.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Katy Button found a new job too. She went to work for John Hendricks at the Discovery Channel, but the heartache of WUSA was hard to shake.
KATY BUTTON: There was a sense of hopelessness for sure that can women’s sports ever reach the level that we hoped they would. And I also think we all knew that we’d had an utterly unique moment after the World Cup in ‘99 to do this, with the stature of the players, with the investors, with the attention, and that that moment was never going to present itself again.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: For Katy, this was all so unnecessary. By the end, WUSA was doing so well that even the MLS commissioner was impressed.
KATY BUTTON: After the league folded. Don Garber found out, you know, that we’d lost 16 million dollars that year and he said, “Oh my God. My owners would give me the biggest raise if I only lost 16 million dollars. We lost 75 million dollars this year.” And so we knew we weren’t. It wasn’t like we were operating in another reality. We were operating in the same reality as every other professional sports team we just didn’t have owners who lived in that reality.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Don Garber is still the commissioner. He recently said that he hopes MLS will turn a profit in 2026, thirty years after its founding. The MLS owners have been keeping it afloat all this time by investing billions in the league. Comparisons like these haunt Julie Foudy.
JULIE FOUDY: That’s something we thought about all the time. You know, why is there such an appetite for loss on the men’s side and not on the women’s side? And why is there such a willingness to help the men’s side when they’re struggling?
MERADITH HODDINOTT: WUSA only had three seasons, but it left a lasting mark on American soccer and on the life of one player in particular, Shannon Boxx.
SHANNON BOXX: I definitely was a no name player. And I made it to the biggest stage. And I hundred percent would never have been able to do that being 26 years old, out of college, nowhere to play, if it wasn’t for that league.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Shannon went on to play 195 times for the U.S. Women’s National Team. She scored 27 international goals and won three Olympic Gold medals.
GAME ARCHIVAL: “Boxx steps in, wins it, shoots in in one motion … Shannon Boxx with a killer goal for the US!”
MERADITH HODDINOTT: She hung up her boots in 2015 after winning the Women’s World Cup
SHANNON BOXX: I’m very lucky that I got to end my career exactly when I wanted to. I got to choose when I finished. And I think that’s a rare thing in the professional game.
MERADITH HODDINOTT: Jacqui Little is still selling cabinets. She started her own remodeling business and married that DC United player — now her ex-husband. Looking back, she hates that her soccer career ended so abruptly. She wishes she could have made that choice herself, instead of having it made for her.
JACQUI LITTLE: I would’ve played for as long as possible. And it’s funny because my ex-husband, he’s like, I don’t know maybe I’m thinking of retiring. Why would you retire? Like play until they like, don’t let you back on the team. Right? I mean what are you gonna do afterwards. Get a desk job? I told him until, obviously we got divorced, I was like play until they like, don’t pick up your contract. Play until like, they literally have to like, peel you off the field. Play until you can’t go anymore.
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