Calorie counters, horoscopes and sex surveys don't a successful IPO make.

With plenty of buzz about niche marketing and mining the untapped female market, the initial public offering of

Women.com Networks

, the female-friendly Web portal, was expected to be a huge success.

But even its Wall Street heavyweight bankers couldn't push Women.com out the door when the stock market turned cold in late July. Women.com's plans to issue 3.75 million shares and raise $45 million earlier this month were postponed indefinitely despite the backing of

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter

,

Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown

and

Salomon Smith Barney

.

For many Net IPOs, the glorious summer has turned into a winter of discontent. So far this month, 29 issues have been postponed or withdrawn on top of 17 IPOs that were pulled in July, according to

CommScan

, an investment banking research firm. But has Women.com missed its chance?

"Looking at the market conditions, it made us think it's probably not the best thing for the company and for the shareholders," says Women.com investor relations manager Anna Yen.

To some analysts, the postponement was unexpected. "I was actually surprised they didn't do it," says Mary Lupo, an analyst with

Renaissance Capital's

(IPOSX)

IPO Plus Aftermarket Fund. "They didn't have any major problems that were much different from any other Internet companies coming out."

Naturally, the company was wallowing in a lake of red ink debt, but that is

de rigueur

for Net companies. Women.com reported a $16 million loss on $3.7 million in revenue in the three months ending March 31, and an accumulated debt of $39.1 million. In its prospectus, Women.com admitted it may never achieve profitability, again on par with what many dot-coms report.

But Women.com may not be able to shake the stigma of postponing its offering in the first place. "

Red Hat

(RHAT)

and

SilverStream

(SSSW)

went up 100%, so is this really market conditions, or is there a problem here?" wonders

internet.com

(INTM)

analyst Tom Taulli. "If it's a great company with great prospects, shouldn't it do well even if the market is bad?"

Its backers insist that women are the biggest untapped market on the Web. And the numbers tell a good story. Women.com has a lot working in its favor. "There's a tremendous market," says

Forrester Research

analyst Ekaterina Walsh.

According to Forrester, a Massachusetts-based research firm, women are adopting the Net at a faster rate than men. By the end of next year, 34% of women will be online in the U.S., up from 29% this year. For advertisers, that's an increase in eyeballs they want.

Cynics say women will go online, but there is no proof that they will go to sites primarily catering to women rather than to general sites or ones aimed at kids or centered on fashion.

The ad industry begs to differ. "The dollars are flowing that way," says Bruce Carlyle, CEO of ad agency

SF Interactive

, which worked on Women.com in 1997 and 1998. According to Carlyle, those dollars are carefully targeted at women who go to the Web for finance information and e-commerce.

Visa

and

John Hancock

mutual funds are among the site's advertisers.

And Women.com has the backing of media powerhouses

Hearst

and

Rodale

, which let it lift content from women's magazines

Cosmopolitan,

Redbook,

Good Housekeeping

and

Marie Claire.

Still, the longer Women.com holds off its IPO, the further it falls behind the more cash-rich competition.

iVillage

(IVIL)

, Women.com's main competitor, went public in March and has already filed for a secondary offering.

"These sites look similar so it's a race to build the empire as quickly as possible, which is what iVillage has done," says Taulli. In new rankings released this week by

Media Metrix

(MMXI)

, Women.com, which had previously held the top spot, was narrowly beat by iVillage in rankings of women networks. In July, Women.com had 4.75 million unique visitors to its site while iVillage managed 5.03 million. "It'll be neck and neck for quite awhile," admits Women.com's Yen.

But iVillage is undaunted by Women.com. "We're very different than just reading articles that are just repurposed

meaning republished from magazines," says iVillage Chief Operating Officer Allison Abraham. Abraham stresses the strength of the community built up by iVillage's message boards. "We crush Women.com in the bulletin board aspect of the medium." (Women.com executives scoff at iVillage's bulletin boards. "Women.com isn't about gabbing and talking," says Yen.)

And then there's

Oxygen Media

. Headed up by former

Nickelodeon

executive Geraldine Laybourne, the company is heavy on talent and backed by

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

and

Oprah Winfrey

. Such powerful backers have given Oxygen instant credibility.

That is why Women.com needs to go out pretty soon if only to make sure institutional investors don't lose faith. But that could mean taking less money from investors. "Maybe they'll have to look at it at $5 a share," says Vincent Slavin, a sales trader who tracks IPOs for

Cantor Fitzgerald

.