By NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

The marquee sponsorships are in place and advance ticket sales promise to make it the most well-attended women's sports event of all time.

But with less than two weeks to go until kick-off, the question is whether the Women's World Cup Soccer tournament can draw a significant television audience.

"Women's team sports are a tough sell, but women's soccer has a lot going for it right now," said Marla Messing, president and chief executive of the Century City-based Women's World Cup Organizing Committee. "There's a surge of popularity in the sport. Women are playing it, identifying with it, and advertisers are realizing this is a growing medium to reach."

The competition commences June 19 for a three-week run in eight cities, including the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The committee has a budget of $30 million, with $3 million coming from a television contract involving all 32 games. Two games will be broadcast on ABC, nine on ESPN, and 21 on ESPN2.

The ratings could be helped by the fact that the U.S. team won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

"Having it in the States gives it a brighter light with the U.S. audience," said Scott Guglielmino, programming manager at ESPN Inc. "And having a team as a powerhouse, we're a firm believer of where it's going. As to how high the ratings, we're not sure what to expect. Certainly, there will be a disparity between match-ups. It could be in line with men's soccer."

Those ratings are rather anemic. Televised men's soccer games are watched by an average of 200,000 to 400,000 households. By comparison, tennis matches routinely attract 2 million to 4 million households.

"That's not a grabber for advertisers to line up," said Bill Croasdale, a media buyer at Western Initiative Media. "You can have all the sponsors in the world, from equipment and sneakers to restaurants, but you can still be unsuccessful in attracting a viewing audience."

Thus far, the organizing committee has signed 19 sponsors, including Adidas, Coca-Cola Co., Time Inc., and Allstate Insurance Co., many of which are looking for new ways to reach women.

Guglielmino said advertising sales for the games are strong but declined to reveal rates. Croasdale estimated the cost will fall in line with men's soccer broadcasts.

"Typically, men's soccer pulls in $2,000 to $3,000 per 30-second spot on ESPN and $1,000 to $2,000 on ESPN2. Conceivably, with the publicity, Women's World Cup could get that or even more," he said.

Croasdale said part of the problem stems from soccer's rules of play. There are two 45-minute halves that don't include routine timeouts allowing for commercial breaks.

As is true with all its soccer telecasts, ESPN and ABC Sports will deal with that problem by having the logos of sponsors superimposed on the screen during play. Commercials will air during pre-game, half-time and post-game segments. But some say that's not enough.

"That really doesn't sell a message for a business," Croasdale said. "It just identifies you as a sponsor of a telecast and doesn't enable you to sell a service. That's a hurdle."

But sales aren't the only thing sponsors are hoping to generate. For Allstate, involvement with the tournament represents its first major sports marketing sponsorship in its 67-year history.

"At first we thought we should be sponsoring golf, but the Women's World Cup is more consistent with our audience families with younger children," said Jill Weaver, vice president of advertising and brand communications for the North Brook, Ill.-based firm. "Will the ratings be higher than golf or tennis? Probably not. But at this point, we're looking for exposure at the event that has plenty of fan contact."

Attendance at the games shouldn't be a problem. To date, the tournament has sold 400,000 tickets, shattering its initial goal of 300,000. It's already the most tickets ever sold for a women's sporting event and the number could reach the 500,0000 mark. (Ticket prices range from $20 to $110.)

Clearly, the Women's World Cup is riding on the fiscal and emotional success of the men's World Cup in 1994. That event sold 3.5 million tickets in stadiums across this country and attracted more than 32 billion television viewers.

And amateur soccer continues to be a growing sport in the United States, attracting 18.2 million participants in 1998, an 18.4 percent jump over 1997, according to the Soccer Industry Council of America. Roughly 42 percent of those players were women.

"We're seeing a connection between participation and viewership in women's soccer that should positively impact its ability to grow," said Sandra Krush, a partner in the entertainment and media practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. "It seems to be a natural combination since women have had less recreational options (than) men, who grew up with more sports to play and watch, from football to hockey."

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