Friday, September 19, 2003

The law of diminishing returns is likely to see a full flourish amid the 2003 Women’s World Cup, starting today in Philadelphia.

Despite a return of all of the key players from America’s dramatic triumph in the 1999 World Cup, including Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, organizers, promoters and broadcasters are beginning this World Cup with more modest expectations in terms of attendance, TV ratings and overall fan interest.

The sentiment is not a surprise. The SARS outbreak forced the relocation of the tournament from China to the U.S. earlier this year, requiring a furious last-minute switch of the entire tournament schedule. Instead of midsummer, the World Cup is occurring during the NFL regular season and baseball’s regular season and postseason. And just this week, the sport received a major body blow when the Women’s United Soccer Association folded after three years.

“Expectations have to be tempered a bit for this event,” said Mark Noonan, executive vice president of Soccer United Marketing. The entity, controlled by Major League Soccer, holds the English-language TV rights for the Women’s World Cup and sold most of the corporate sponsorship as well. “The 1999 Cup was a very special moment in our entire sports history. To make comparisons between 1999 and 2003 is really unfair.”

The 1999 tournament peaked with the American victory over China at the Rose Bowl with more than 90,000 in the stands and 40 million watching at home, a U.S. record for soccer on network TV. Chastain became a national icon by ripping off her jersey following a tournament-winning penalty kick. And six months later, the entire team was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsmen of the Year, beating out cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and his first Tour de France victory.

“All of the conditions are different this time,” said Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, whose RFK Stadium will play host for the tournament’s opening ceremonies tomorrow. “There just hasn’t been time to have the same kind of buildup and promotion. I still have great confidence that we’ll get to Oct.12 and the final game and look back on this as a great success. It will just need to be a different kind of success.”

Despite the numerous obstacles before this latest World Cup, several positive indicators do exist. SUM has sold more than 75 percent of available TV ad time and did so without needing to offer ratings guarantees or selling packages of time involving only the U.S. team. About half the 600,000 tickets available have been sold, including more than 60,000 total for three doubleheaders at RFK, generally in line with the downgraded internal projections.

The 1999 tournament, by comparison, sold out every game and registered more than 660,000 in total attendance.

The switch to American soil for the tournament increased the overall TV coverage from 11 of 32 total games to 18 games and put those games in much more palatable time slots for North American viewers.

Most soccer pundits predict an upset-filled tournament in which the U.S. team is by no means guaranteed victory. That, in turn, is a double-edged sword. While ESPN and ABC, broadcasting the tournament via a deal with SUM, are openly rooting for American success, a series of Cinderella stories also could spike some interest.

“I’m still picking the Americans to win, but the parity in this field is absolutely fantastic,” said Tony DiCicco, former U.S. coach, WUSA commissioner and now an analyst for ABC and ESPN2.

ABC and ESPN executives said this week they likely will not address the WUSA’s demise in much detail during Cup coverage. The folding of the league amid more than $100million in fiscal losses has cast a pall over several of the competing national teams and has players wondering where they will play after the World Cup and next year’s Olympics.

And any hope of reviving some national pro soccer for women in the U.S. requires, along with many other things, another thrilling performance by the Americans.

“Our job is to cover this tournament,” said Bill Graff, ESPN and ABC coordinating producer. “I’m not sure if [the WUSA folding] is an overwhelming story line we’ll be developing.”

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