After the U.S. women's national soccer team's victory last Thursday at Chicago's Soldier Field, the U.S. players signed the usual rounds of autographs and boarded the team bus. As the bus pulled away from the stadium, beginning its crawl through city streets, players noticed a teenage girl running frenetically behind.
She was shouting "I love you guys!" She was tripping over curbs, stumbling, nearly getting hit by cars. She ran perhaps a half-mile before the U.S. players persuaded the driver to stop.
Forward Mia Hamm, the team's most famous player, offered the breathless fan a pair of shoes. Defender Brandi Chastain, who recently appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman," handed the gasping girl a pair of shin guards.
Long renowned for devotion to their fans, the American players have watched them come out in worshipful droves for the 1999 Women's World Cup. By the time this quadrennial world championship tournament concludes July 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., it is possible that more than 600,000 will have viewed games on 17 dates at eight sites -- far more than the event's organizers had dared to imagine and easily making this the best-attended women-only sporting event in history.
Little girls with replica U.S. team jerseys, shrill screams and parents in tow have been the backbone of the enormous crowds that have lit up three of this nation's grandest sporting venues in support of the colorful, athletic and winning U.S. team. Tonight, the American caravan rolls into Jack Kent Cooke Stadium for a quarterfinal against Germany with a crowd of more than 50,000 expected. If the Americans keep winning, tournament organizers hope to generate sellouts of more than 85,000 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., where the U.S. team would play its semifinal, and slightly less than 90,000 for the final.
"I must say, we are frankly in awe of what has happened so far," said Marla Messing, president and CEO of the Women's World Cup Organizing Committee. "We've tapped into something people didn't expect us to tap into. This whole teenage and young girl market . . . it's taken on a life of its own."
In minivans and sport-utility vehicles nationwide, soccer moms and dads have driven their children not only to stadiums, but to the U.S. team's practice fields and hotels. The frenzy took flight when a sellout crowd of 78,972 appeared at Giants Stadium on June 19 to see the United States open the Women's World Cup with a 3-0 victory over Denmark. Nearly everything went perfectly, from the ever-accelerating pace at which the final thousands of tickets disappeared in the days before the game, to the sport's most recognizable player, Hamm, drilling home the tournament's first goal.
Women's World Cup organizers took a great risk in 1996, when they decided to abandon plans to hold the event in medium-sized stadiums along the East Coast. Instead, they went large and national. They then aimed their ticket sales pitch toward an unusual sporting audience: soccer-playing children -- there were nearly 14 million youth participants in 1997, according to data from the Soccer Industry Council of America -- and their parents. While trying to capitalize on radically changed attitudes about watching and supporting female athletes, the event's organizers also sought to respond to what they believed to be a nationwide craving for new athletic role models.
The undefeated U.S. team has become a sensation, drawing hundreds of fans -- often children with a parent or two in tow -- to their daily practices at out-of-the-way places such as Martinsville, N.J., Downers Grove, Ill., and Wellesley, Mass.
For the team's late-morning training session at George Mason University on Tuesday, about 300 fans showed -- despite the mid-nineties temperatures. The crowd was a mix of parents and kids, armed with soccer balls and soccer jerseys for signing.
"It's important for them to see they can become something, that they can become a success," said Cam Motha, of Chantilly, who brought her 10-year-old daughter, Brittany. "This gives them something to strive for. And with Mia being from this area [she attended Lake Braddock High School in Burke], it makes the dream seem tangible."
Women's World Cup organizers said data from U.S. team matches prior to this tournament indicated that at least half of the attendees were female and nearly a quarter were under 18. The data showed that most fans were from well-off families in American suburbia.
That, therefore, was the group organizers sought to reach in ticket promotions. From the moment Messing became president and CEO of the Women's World Cup Organizing Committee in 1995, she preached about the necessity of reaching the grass-roots soccer community. A new job was created: director of grass-roots marketing. There were advertisements directed toward the nation's soccer dads -- one described the Women's World Cup as every daughter's Super Bowl.
The U.S. team players, whose contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation requires them to do about 10 appearances each year, were sent to youth-league soccer tournaments, all-star banquets and youth soccer conventions from coast to coast as a means of reaching out to young players and their parents.
The approach worked. About 15 percent of the total ticket sales so far have come from group sales (an average of 50 per group), suggesting that quite a few suburban soccer teams signed up together. For U.S. team games, an average of more than 65,000 fans have attended. For non-U.S. games, more than 21,000 have attended. By the end of the tournament, Messing predicted an overall average of about 35,000 fans per event. Organizers already have sold 60,000 tickets for the final.
"In my gut, I knew there was a real hunger out there for this type of event," said Donna de Varona, the chair of the Women's World Cup Organizing Committee, after the U.S. team's victory over Nigeria in front of 65,080 at Soldier Field. "This is a whole slice of Americana that's got an appetite for this. This arena was filled not with corporate America, but with families."
Television ratings on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 have not been as exceptional as the attendance figures, earning about the same viewership that National Hockey League playoff games earn.
Much like a popular rock band, the U.S. team seems to be something that is much better when witnessed live.
"I'm a big advocate for women's soccer because my girls play," said Dave Zimmerman, of Long Island, N.Y., who took his 8- and 10-year-old daughters to see the U.S. team's victory last Sunday over North Korea before 50,484 at Foxboro Stadium. "I'm trying to take them to as many venues as I can. They idolize these girls."
The U.S. players are old enough to have grown up without many female role models in sports. Midfielder Julie Foudy idolized Magic Johnson; defender Carla Overbeck loved Roger Staubach. For that reason, the players take their responsibility to their fans very seriously. Hamm and Overbeck each signed autographs for 30 minutes Tuesday rather than grant interviews to reporters.
When Hamm and Overbeck finally left, the crowd applauded them.
The U.S. players have strived to find other methods of saying thanks. After Sunday's match, they lined up at midfield and took a joint bow. Then, they turned around and bowed to the other side of the stadium. Finally, they made their way around the stadium on their now-traditional thank-you lap.
"The attachment between grass-roots soccer and this team, it was just built beautifully," said Alan Rothenberg, the former president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, who was largely responsible for bringing the Women's World Cup to the United States. "They are a unique group of players. I don't think you could have done it with just any bunch of great athletes, without the personas that we have here."
Hamm, who reportedly earned about $1 million in endorsements last year, has this too-good-to-be-true quality that those who know her insist is true. She is so wholesome she demanded that the publisher of her new book, "Go for the Goal: A Champion's Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life," remove the phrase "kick butt" from the back cover, changing it to "have fun" in the second printing.
Ashley Zimmerman, the 10-year-old daughter of soccer dad Dave Zimmerman, wore a No. 9 Mia Hamm jersey to Sunday's game. She said she earned an A+ on a report for her fourth grade class on what makes Hamm a good role model for girls. Besides being a nice person, Hamm is indisputably the most famous player in women's soccer, and arguably the most talented. She is definitely the most sought after U.S. player.
Ask U.S. team public relations director Aaron Heifetz what his official title is, and he will tell you -- jokingly, supposedly -- "I am the official pull-Mia-away-from-screaming-kids guy."
Heifetz, though, stresses that other players also get reams of mail, and plenty of enthusiastic young boys and girls tugging on their shirt sleeves. The team members use aliases when they check into hotels and often get accosted by well-meaning fans on elevators. Michelle Akers, one of the team's most popular players, suffered a minor injury to her right shoulder after Sunday's game against North Korea, when slapping hands with an overzealous fan, who accidentally yanked her arm backward.
Even so, the U.S. players never can get enough of their beloved fans. And they figure treating these fans right could lead to a few more.
"They can't come without their moms and dads," Chastain said. "We've already got the 12-year-old girls. We're working on getting the next tier of fans."
CAPTION: You can color Sally Neilson, of Salt Lake City, a Mia Hamm fan. The U.S. women's soccer team has built a large fan base among youngsters -- and their parents.
CAPTION: Cortay Crisham, left, and Emily Gormick, of St. Paul, Minn., have a devil of a good time rooting for U.S. team at Women's World Cup game in Chicago.