NEW YORK — When the US women's soccer team beat China for the gold in the '96 Olympics, it wasn't afforded live showcase TV coverage. The women's success, however, propelled them forward. In the summer of 1999, the third-ever Women's World Cup (WWC) will be held in the US for the first time, and the women are determined to be front and center this time.
The United States Soccer Federation will host the tournament, for which 70 teams will be competing to qualify for 16 slots over the next year. The US, as host, automatically qualifies. The Women's World Cup Organizing committee, led by Donna de Varona - Olympic swimming gold-medalist, sportscaster, and co-founder of the Women's Sports Foundation - hopes the tournament will be a breakthrough in the way women's sports are marketed and perceived.
Encouraged by the early successes of the Women's National Basketball Association, tournament organizers are aiming for profits and attendance. The 1994 men's World Cup held here drew an average 68,600 spectators per game. The women's team played before 76,489 fans in the final Olympic game against China. Outside the Olympics, the largest crowd for a US women's game has been 17,000. Officials are hoping for crowds averaging 25,000 for the WWC.
The US national women's soccer team has been around since 1985, but it was only in 1991 that the first WWC was held under the auspices of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). The US team won that championship, then came in third at the second one in Sweden in 1995.
When the team won the Olympic gold in Athens, Ga., fans, advertisers, and the US soccer community looked at the women's team in a new light. Although NBC's coverage of the Olympic gold-medal game was limited to highlights, the platform gave those involved an opportunity to recognize they'd missed something huge, says de Varona. Because of the team's Olympic success, US Soccer expanded plans for the WWC from small northeast venues to larger stadiums.
Now there is speculation that as Olympic successes boosted the WWC, success could pave the way for a women's pro soccer league.
"Timing is critical," says de Varona. "It would be a pity to do it too soon." Alan Rothenberg, president of US Soccer, predicts the time might be ripe in 2001, after the Sydney Olympics. First priority is to make sure the WWC is a success. "Then," he says, "you could lock up deals with sponsors."
Sponsorship, after all, is a key to success for a pro league or for an event like the WWC. On July 8, members of the organizing committee for the WWC unveiled its logo and launched its corporate identity program. Their budget is $20 million; they hope to raise $8 to $10 million through corporate sponsorship. Organizers hope to make enough in sponsorship deals and ticket sales to cover costs and make profits, though no women's team sport has yet managed to do that.
The WWC will probably "inherit" sponsors such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's, which support FIFA and thus indirectly support the WWC. Cup organizers also plan to bring in direct sponsors, including the manufacturers of such women-oriented products as cosmetics and household items.
"This will really be a chance to bring in companies that are not traditional soccer sponsors," including telecommunications and technology firms, says Dawn Umemoto, director of marketing for WWC.
"In the past, sponsors weren't really sure that showcasing a female athlete would translate into women buying the product," but recent studies indicate they would, de Varona says. Even signing autographs after games is part of a marketing strategy.
And hopefully the sponsors will bring the fans. At past Women's World Cups, the FIFA sponsors have done little to promote the event; Umemoto hopes that the market potential of the US will prod them to be more active in promotion.
Although participation in women's sports has grown tremendously in the past 25 years, women's sports still get far less attention than men's. Soccer, however, has started out in the US on a more equal footing than most sports.
Internationally, American women soccer players do much better than their male counterparts, who are 100 years behind most other countries in their soccer tradition.