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This won't be a party like it was in 1999

The Women's World Cup returns to U.S. on short notice and must compete for attention.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003

Check your calendar. It is 2003, not 1999. It has been four years - more realistically light years - since one of the United States' greatest moments in soccer.

The FIFA Women's World Cup is back in the United States but don't expect Rose Bowl redux.

No matter how magnificent these matches, no matter if the U.S. team repeats as champion, the tournament almost certainly is going to be a pale imitation of the original.

There is nothing anyone can do about it; it's human nature. When it comes to victory, you always remember your first, and the first always is the best. Ask Charles Lindbergh. Ask Sir Edmund Hillary. Ask Doug Waechter.

"Nineteen ninety-nine was catching lightning in a bottle," said Randy Bernstein, chief marketing officer of Major League Soccer, marketing this tournament as well, and senior vice president of the 1994 men's World Cup in the United States. "Nineteen ninety-nine can never be replicated."

This second Women's World Cup in the United States is here by happenstance. The tournament was supposed to be in China but the SARS virus intervened. FIFA (soccer's world governing body) pulled it from China and on May 26, four weeks later, gave it to the United States - Australia and Sweden also sought it - and awarded the 2007 Women's World Cup to China.

The 1999 U.S. women's team was the incarnation of the 1980 Olympic men's "Miracle on Ice" hockey team. Everything aligned perfectly. The World Cup final ended in front of a frenetic Rose Bowl crowd of 90,185, a world record for any women's sporting event. And it ended with Brandi Chastain kicking home the winning penalty shot and tearing off her jersey in celebration.

How do you top that?

"I don't believe that you need to top that," Bernstein said. "And I don't believe FIFA, U.S. Soccer and promoters of the event, as well as the WUSA (women's pro soccer), have any intentions of trying to do so. My belief is that they are trying to perpetuate the growth of the women's game. And this is the pinnacle of a platform to do that.

"Comparing this (tournament) to '99, that's just setting yourself up for failure. I believe it will exceed expectations of those people who have realistic expectations."

FIFA, the USSF and organizers of the 1999 Women's World Cup had about three years to prepare for and promote that tournament. This year everything had to be done in about three months.

"This was under completely different circumstances than '99," said Mark Noonan, MLS executive vice president of marketing and fan development. "That one was the first (women's) World Cup on U.S. soil, with the amount of time available to plan and schedule it, and all the hype and excitement building steadily."

Further, the 1999 women's tournament was played in June and July when the American sports calendar has vacancy written all over it. This year's begins Saturday and Sunday on a calendar loaded with college football and NFL games. The Oct. 11-12 semifinals and championship also run up against football ... and a weekend of baseball playoffs ... and the start of the NHL season and NBA preseason.

"I think you can expect a lot of people not watching (matches) until the quarters, maybe the semis, because of all the other stuff," said Larry Gallo, senior associate athletic director at the University of North Carolina, a soccer hotbed. "A lot of people won't watch until the final four because they figure we (the U.S. team) are going to get there anyway."

Said Noonan: "It doesn't take a genius to recognize that this is a busy time on the sports calendar. But the World Cup, men's or women's, is a major event, and America loves big events."

If there seems to be a bit of perspective missing here, it's this: It is the World Cup. Whether or not the U.S. team wins, the world will be watching.

"Say Germany and China make it to the semifinals," Bernstein mused. "In those countries the TV ratings will go through the roof.

"This is international competition. If the United States gets knocked off it means another country will benefit from it. The crowds will still be fairly good because all the tickets will be presold. But we won't have that incredible anticipation."

The semifinals and final are a guarantee sellout. The 1999 site, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., seats 98,636; this year's site, Home Depot Center in Carson, another Los Angeles suburb, seats 27,000.

"They've marketed it properly in going to smaller venues," said Beth Mowins, WUSA national TV broadcaster. "With the Home Depot Center, they don't have to be concerned about drawing 90,000 people. It's a tough ticket (to buy) and the atmosphere is going to be great."

The Women's United Soccer Association was born in the afterglow of the '99 World Cup and began play in 2001. Two years later, attendance and ratings have declined.

"We're looking for a boost from this (tournament)," Mowins said, "and I think the U.S. has got to at least get to the final game for the WUSA to benefit."

Perhaps, but only temporarily. There won't be another World Cup here for probably 12 years. After China (in 2007), FIFA probably is going to want to move the tournament to Europe.

"Even if this gives the WUSA a little bump in excitement," Bernstein said, "I believe over the long run - and that's the only thing that matters - the WUSA is going to have to succeed or fail on its own."

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