A staredown between the US womens national team and US Soccer over the 1999 squads victory tour changed the relationship between the team and their boss forever
On the morning after the national team won the 1999 World Cup, the celebrations continued. While the players were off to do a victory parade at Disneyland, officials from the US Soccer Federation opened the sports pages of local newspapers, eager to see the coverage of the victory.
The Los Angeles Times used the headline America the Bootiful alongside a large photo of Briana Scurrys penalty-kick save. Some of the US Soccer brass probably cracked a smile at the pun. But when they turned to page 5, they saw a different headlineone that would touch off a bitter dispute and mark a permanent change in the relationship between the players and their boss, the federation. It was on a full-page advertisement for an indoor victory tour the national team players had scheduled for that fall.
Hank Steinbrecher, the secretary general of US Soccer, was shocked. The players were calling themselves the All-American Soccer Stars but essentially planned to travel to 12 cities as the World Cupwinning US national team to play exhibition games against an all-star team of world internationals. Robert Contiguglia, the president of US Soccer, was furious.
But the players had already asked US Soccer how the federation planned to capitalize on hosting the Womens World Cup on home soil. The answer they got back, essentially, was that the federation wasnt really thinking about that.
We pressed them on it and said, Hey, what are you doing? What are the plans? remembers Julie Foudy. They said we were going to Africa. We were like, Africa? We need to grow the game here. Why are we going to Africa? We had never even been to Africa.
Yes, for some reason, US Soccer president Robert Contiguglia and secretary general Hank Steinbrecher wanted to send the players on tour in South Africa and Egypt after the 1999 World Cup, when interest in the team at home would be at an all-time high.
To this day, the players dont understand what US Soccers higher-ups were thinking. To say the federation lacked foresight or ambition to help the national team keep up its momentum is to put it mildly. There was no strategy to grow interest in the sport from the federation responsible for it, to say nothing of cashing in and hosting games that would sell lots of tickets. It was a strange response from the federation that only deepened the teams mistrust of their boss.
They had nothing for us, Kate Markgraf says. They had no plan. They didnt think the World Cup would be what it was.
So the players started talking through the details of a tour they could put on themselves. They agreed to hire event-marketing firm SFX, which could handle logistics of the tour. But it wasnt done in secret behind US Soccers back, as the federation later made it seem.
Langel and the players sent letters to US Soccer notifying the federation of their plans, but officials just ignored their messages. The team attempted again just before the Womens World Cup to see if US Soccer wanted to have anything to do with the tour.
They just kept ignoring us, Langel says. I said, Look, were going ahead with this. Do you want to do it with us? But they didnt believe we could get it off the ground. They essentially told us: Try. So we decided to go ahead with the tour on our own.
For the national team, the tour represented a unique opportunity to make some real money: a guaranteed $1.2 million for the 12-city tour. Most importantly, it was income shared equally among all the players, $60,000 each, because the top playersthose like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudyinsisted it be that way.
It was another step toward securing financial independence as more individual players started to earn their own endorsement deals and didnt need to rely on US Soccer as much. By then, Nike had expanded its footprint in soccer beyond Mia Hamm. Theyd added Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry, Tiffeny Milbrett, and Tisha Venturini to their roster of sponsored athletes and featured all five of them in advertisements that promoted the Womens World Cup. Nikes expansion into womens soccer was a game-changer for the players who benefited from it.
Soccer was my side hustle. There was no money in it originally. But I came right when Nike came in, and I started to get a little bit of money, says Briana Scurry. It was impeccable timing because if it wasnt something that would allow me to pay my bills, I wouldve had to stopwe all wouldve had to, and that wouldve really been a shame.
Not everyone had that same opportunity for sponsorship, but now, with this collective group effort to launch a tourby the team and for the teamfinancial freedom was available across the board. It was a payday for all players.
And in another sense, the players were doing the federations job for them. The tour allowed the national team to play in front of fans who did not attend World Cup games, which would grow a fan base at home in America. Yes, it gave the players money, but it also spread the gospel of the Beautiful Game, as soccer is known around the world. It did everything that US Soccers haphazard plan for an African tour would not.
As Julie Foudy put it in a press statement after the tour was announced: The one thing weve learned recently is that our fans want to see more of us and more of soccer. Were answering their call.
So there were Hank Steinbrecher and Robert Contiguglia opening their newspapers on the morning of July 11, 1991. They were shocked by the tour the players warned them about and furious the players werent going along with the African tour, which wouldve certainly pushed the national team back into relative obscurity.
US Soccer went apoplectic, Langel says. They immediately hired a Chicago law firm, and they sent a complaint to my law firm that theyre going to go into federal court to get an injunction.
An injunction, if granted, could have stopped the tour in its tracks. John Langel and his legal team worked through the night to prepare their responses to try to stop the federation from seeking a court-ordered moratorium on the tour. Then came two days of marathon meetings between Langel and Alan Rothenberg, the head of the 1999 Womens World Cup organizing committee. Rothenberg, who had been the president of US Soccer through 1998, played a sort of mediator role.
They had achieved success and popularity, and they had to properly take advantage of that, Rothenberg says. But to go around on tour as a unit, no matter what they call themselveseffectively as the national teamthat right belonged to the federation.
In a panicked move to retake control, US Soccer offered $2 million to essentially buy out the tour from the national team and send them to Africa as planned. Even though this would be more money than they had ever been paid for playing soccer, the players were having none of it.
We were like, You havent spent any time on this. You expect us to jump ship and go with you guys? Foudy says. After this marketing group invested in us, not even knowing if the World Cup was going to be a success or not? Theyre the ones who believed in us, and you never did. No, screw you.
Negotiations with US Soccer became incredibly tense and acrimonious. It was as if everythingcontract disputes, lack of communication, and perceived slightswas finally coming to a head. When Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and John Langel met with US Soccer president Robert Contiguglia and federation counsel John Collins in Washington DC, the players were ready to stand up.
At one point during a meeting, Contiguglia was dismissive of the planned victory tour and accused the players of adulterating the sport by playing at indoor venues. Mia Hamm threw the comment right back at him.
You used the word adulterate, Hamm said. Well, Ill use the word adultery because we feel like you cheat on us all the time.
Contiguglia was taken aback. The players, who felt like US Soccer was too worried about the mens team, had had enough, and they werent going to back down, even under the threat of a lawsuit.
If you sue us, Im prepared to never play for US Soccer again, Hamm told Contiguglia. Then she turned to her teammate.
I dont know about you, Julie, but I feel pretty good about what weve done with our careers, Hamm said. I won a World Cup in 91, I won a World Cup in 99, I won an Olympics in 96. Ill call it a day.
Yeah, me too, she replied. Im pretty happy walking away from the game.
Im sure Nike will like that youre walking away from the game, too, Foudy said to Hamm. Foudy was deftly calling out the federations coveted sponsorship with Nike, which was then worth about $15 million per year.
Asked about these specific negotiations now, Contiguglia says he doesnt remember them, but he does recall that over the years, the relationship between the federation and the players was hostile. At one point, he admits, I did lose my cool, but he adds: The last thing I ever wanted was an adversarial relationship with our athletes.
Thats what happens in collective bargaining when you dont have a relationship of mutual trust, Contiguglia says. It was a horrible, horrible environment. It was not healthy, but I blame lawyers.
While the federation was certainly unhappy the players defied them by moving forward with the indoor tour, there were other practical considerations behind their opposition to the tour. The federation had its own sponsors at the time, and if the national team was going on an unsanctioned tour where they used a competitors equipment or wore another companys uniforms, it could damage US Soccers existing business relationships.
After two days of meetings in DCand some sharp-tongued exchanges between the federation and the playersthe two sides worked out an understanding: The tour would incorporate all of US Soccers existing sponsors. The tour the players had worked on was going to happen after all.
After that concession, the players and Langel were fired up. They knew they had some real leverage for the first time. Outside the second meeting, Foudy and Hamm joked with Langel: Whos driving the bus? Were driving the bus! Thats right, were driving the bus!
The tour belonged to the players, not US Soccer, and it gave them a new collective revenue stream that wasnt controlled by the federation. It was set to earn them $2.4 million over two toursone after the 1999 World Cup and one again after the 2000 Olympicsand, in addition to the ticket sales, the team also signed balls and photos, which generated another $250,000 to be shared. Eleven of the players appeared in a Chevrolet commercial together. The players were finding financial freedom they had never experienced before.
As part of the final understanding to make US Soccer happy, the players gave the federation the opportunity to take over the tour afterward if they wanted to do it again. Now, it is built into the national teams contract, and to this day, after major tournaments, the team still goes on the same victory tour. It started with the 1999 team and a shocking full-page ad, and it has lasted two decades.
This is an extract from The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer by Caitlin Murray.
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