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Womens Soccer League Signs Up TNT, CNN/SI

In a move to establish itself as the pre-eminent women's pro-soccer organization, the upstart Women's United Soccer Association last week secured cable deals and announced additional financing and the formation of eight teams.

League executives are confident its recent moves will earn it sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation, although the WUSA may still face a challenge from Major League Soccer, which has announced plans for its own women's league.

The league-owned and financed by several MSOs and cable executives-reached a four-year cable agreement with Turner Network Television and CNN/SI to distribute a combined 22 games per year, including playoffs and the championship game, when the WUSA launches in 2001, officials said.

While terms of the deal were not disclosed, Turner Sports president Mark Lazarus said the deal works for both parties. "We complied with their business plan in a way that allows them to meet their goals and that allows us to achieve goals that we have," Lazarus said, declining to offer specific financial terms.

The WUSA deal marks the first major pro-sports agreement for CNN/SI, which currently has 15.8 million subscribers, 6.1 million of them from cable. The network recently teamed up with TNT to acquire cable rights to the prestigious All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club Wimbledon Championships.

"We are confident that our television, Internet and print resources will combine to showcase these outstanding athletes and the new league," CNN/SI president Jim Walton said.

The deal comes just one month after a group led by Discovery Communications Inc. chairman John Hendricks announced the formation of the WUSA. Other principals include former Continental Cablevision Inc. chairman and CEO Amos Hostetter, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp.

The league-which initially pledged an investment of $5 million per team-also said last week that it will launch with at least eight franchises, each controlled by at least one of the principal investors.

Time Warner Cable will run the New York and Tampa-Orlando, Fla., franchises, while Cox will operate the San Diego team. Hendricks will be a 50-50 partner with Hostetter and Comcast in the San Francisco and Washington, D.C., franchises, respectively.

Comcast will control the Philadelphia team, and Hostetter will oversee the Boston franchise. Cox Enterprises Inc., a major shareholder in Cox, will run the Atlanta team.

The WUSA also disclosed getting additional investment commitments totaling $20 million from the WUSA investment group and other investors hoping to land future franchises, Hendricks said.

The league could expand to as many as 12 to 14 teams during its first five years, and has identified 16 potential expansion markets, including Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles; Miami; Detroit; Portland, Ore.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and St. Louis.

The announcements came as U.S. Soccer makes progress toward sanctioning a professional women's soccer league.

Along with the WUSA, the federation will consider a bid from MLS, but has already said it will only recognize one pro league when it makes its final decision sometime this summer.

While a women's league can operate without the federation's blessing, its players would lose the ability to compete for the women's national team, which could deter the country's best athletes from joining. Already, members of the USA Women's World Cup championship team have committed to playing in the WUSA.

While Hendricks said he was "confident" the league would meet U.S. Soccer standards, he confirmed that he was talking with MLS in an effort to reach some compromise with regard to the women's league.

There might be some cross-promotional and other scheduling and marketing agreements the two leagues could work out, Hendricks added, although he ruled out an equity partnership.

"We're fully ready to cooperate," he said. "But we think it's important that our investment group has its sole focus on the women's game."

MLS commissioner Don Garber also confirmed talks with the WUSA. He said a "combined effort would be better for soccer as a whole and that together, we can achieve far more than either could working separately."

Nevertheless, the MLS plans to send its own proposal to US Soccer by May 1.

Steve Donohue contributed to this report.