A Cup Full Of Cash

When Marla Messing began organizing the 1999 Women's World Cup three years ago, it seemed like a modest endeavor. Women's sports--particularly that other "football"--were not on Americans' radar screens, let alone their TV screens. So Messing, the tournament's CEO, began with a budget just one twentieth the size of the men's World Cup, and she planned to hold the women's games at small East Coast college stadiums. But then the nation was introduced to the all-American girls at the 1996 Olympics, where the U.S. soccer squad proved to be photogenic, personable--and, unlike the men's team, gold-medal winners. Since then, women's pro basketball has drawn crowds, women's tennis has dwarfed the men's in popularity and soccer has increased its standing as the sport of choice for nearly 8 million mostly suburban girls. Now the Cup, which begins June 19, will play in oversize venues from Giants Stadium to the Rose Bowl, with all 32 games televised on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2. And Messing's once bush-league operation has already sold 400,000 tickets.

Where fans see a good time, Corporate America sees an opportunity. Nineteen companies, including Adidas and Gillette, have ponied up $6 million for sponsorship rights and will spend many millions more on ads, events and new products (like Mattel's Soccer Barbie) tied to the games. Sports marketers, weary of seven-foot egos and Olympic-size scandals, are attracted to women's soccer's wholesome, family-oriented image. Companies like Allstate are betting "soccer dads" will sit down and watch. Already viewers are getting an eyeful of the women who will soon zoom across their screens. In one Bud Light commercial, feisty midfielder Julie Foudy sends a doctor flying across the examination room when he tests the reflexes in her knee. Partners like Sports Illustrated for Women and Lifetime Television are producing a special issue and a TV special, respectively. Says Lifetime sports VP Brian Donlon: "We're staking our claim on the Title IX generation."

Women already buy more sporting goods than men do, and increasingly, they buy for themselves. The sneaker giant Nike says its biggest growth opportunity lies with new products designed specifically for women. To capitalize on the World Cup buzz, the company has launched a new women's soccer shoe--the Air Zoom M9, named for U.S. superstar Mia Hamm, who wears No. 9 and helped design the shoe. A key selling point: the shoe has a more arched heel and is tapered to fit a woman's narrow foot. Nike has also introduced a snug-fitting woman's jersey aimed at replacing those floppier men's uniforms.

For companies used to writing big checks to hire athletes with marquee names, the relative anonymity of the women's team has become an unexpected asset. With the exception of Hamm, a true star, team members haven't spent much time in the spotlight, so they've been gung-ho to promote the event. That's included TV appearances on "Rosie O'Donnell" and MTV, but it's more likely to mean glamourless soccer clinics and autograph sessions for teen fans. "Sometimes you're tired and you don't feel like signing autographs for a half-hour," admits defender Brandi Chastain. "The men wouldn't do it." She's no Dennis Rodman. But for that, the sponsors couldn't be happier.