- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

The Women’s World Cup is returning to the United States. Now comes the hard part.

Moved from China because of the SARS outbreak less than four months before games are to begin, the Women’s World Cup is now a blur of activity. Television and travel schedules must be rearranged. Venues must be selected and booked. Tickets must be sold. Corporate sponsors must be wooed. Even the competition schedule is incomplete.

The event, one of the highlights of 1999 thanks to the thrilling victory of the American squad on home soil, remains under the lead of FIFA and now the U.S. Soccer Federation. But Major League Soccer, and particularly sister company Soccer United Marketing (SUM), will have a dominant role in how well the latest Women’s World Cup is run, attended and perceived by the sports fan masses.

SUM already owns the English-language TV rights in America and last week picked up the bulk of the corporate sponsorship and signage sales responsibilities as well. As a result, most corporate involvement in the Women’s World Cup, and in turn the overall financial health of the tournament, will pass through SUM.

SUM also is assisting with ticket sales and game operations. By lending MLS’ existing management and sales force to FIFA and U.S. Soccer, it has created expectations that all or most of the venues will be ones currently home to MLS teams.

That means fans likely will see games played at places such as RFK Stadium, Columbus Crew Stadium in Ohio, New England’s Gillette Stadium, Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif., and Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., is a leading contender for the Cup final, tentatively scheduled for Oct.11.

“There is a great deal to do in a very short period of time, and we’re certainly thrilled to be taking such an active part in this,” said Mark Abbott, MLS chief operating officer. “But, really, the entire soccer community is pitching in. This was a very unusual circumstance that created this switch. Now we’re working to make the very best of it.”

More than simple logistics and lack of full preparation time, however, stand in the way of MLS and FIFA. Part of the great success of the 1999 Cup owed to its placement squarely in the late June-early July dead zone of the American sports calendar. Most schools were out. The NFL and NHL were nowhere to be seen. Baseball playoffs were months away. In short, it was rather easy for America to become familiar and then enamored with the varied personalities of the U.S. squad.

That all changes this time. With a tentative schedule of Sept.23 to Oct.11, the Cup faces conflicts galore, particularly on TV, including the NFL, baseball playoffs, and the heart of the college football schedule. The potential date of Oct.11, a Saturday, for the final is most daunting, with competing college football matchups that include Miami-Florida State, Texas-Oklahoma and Georgia-Tennessee.

Moving that soccer game and other weekend action to Sundays is a possibility, but that would bring in the NFL juggernaut as direct competition for viewers and ticket buyers.

“Nothing is set. We’re still waiting on a [game] schedule from FIFA,” said ESPN spokesman Mac Nwulu. Games will be aired domestically on ESPN and sister network ABC.

“Once we know that, we will work in as many games in as we can given our existing contractual responsibilities,” Nwulu said. “But one of our key assets, and one of our main reasons to remain confident about this, is our ability to shift things around between ESPN and ESPN2.”

More broadly, MLS and FIFA are also facing the challenge of managing expectations for the 2003 Cup. By all accounts, the stars aligned in 1999. The U.S. team won under dramatic circumstances in front of packed, patriotic home crowds. Even the weather was great. The event went so well the U.S. team won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsmen of the Year Award and sparked the creation of the Women’s United Soccer Association.

No such guarantees exist this time. But MLS, particularly through its fairly deft handling of the American broadcasting and marketing of the 2002 men’s World Cup, believes success can come again. Even though FIFA and U.S. Soccer are projecting some type of loss for the Women’s World Cup, depending in large part on SUM’s sales efforts, SUM itself will most likely end up in the black on the event through its broadcast rights.

“When we set up SUM, this is exactly the sort of situation we envisioned, being directly involved in the biggest events this sport has to offer,” Abbott said. “We learned lot from our World Cup experience last year. And I think people have the right perspective and recognize that this can and will be a successful event, but that 1999 was really a once in a lifetime event.”

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