Women's team sports in America have been on a roll since the U.S. women's soccer team and the U.S. softball team won gold medals at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. But even with well-heeled corporate sponsors, television contracts and big-name venues, pro women's team sports have yet to attract enough of the hard-core sports fans teams need to make money.
So officials of the 1999 Women's World Cup soccer tournament, which will be played from June 19 to July 10 at eight sites around the country including Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, and the NBA-owned Women's National Basketball Association, which opens its third season tonight, have targeted the American family -- not couch potato guys -- as their main audience. They are selling tickets through youth leagues, and advertising in women's magazines and on family television shows.
The question is whether the Women's World Cup and WNBA can attract enough sports-loving moms and dads, and their athlete children, to compensate for the missing hard-core male sports fans.
"This could be a breakthrough in women's soccer and women's sports," said David Bober, an agent for several top female athletes, including U.S. soccer star Mia Hamm. "Women's World Cup soccer is already a success because of the enthusiasm it has generated, and the WNBA is most likely here to stay. But ultimately their success or failure will be determined by the economics and the television ratings."
1999 Women's World Cup organizing committee president and chief executive officer Marla Messing said more than 400,000 of the 750,000 available tickets have been sold for the event. They are priced from $20 to $110 per seat for the 17 events, most of which are doubleheaders. The tournament starts June 19 at Giants Stadium and concludes July 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Washington World Cup organizers have sold an average of more than 20,000 tickets per event for the doubleheaders at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, June 23, June 27 and July 1. Because of Cooke Stadium's size (80,116 seats), the World Cup organizers have decided to sell tickets only for seats in the club level and the lower deck, or about 40,000 seats.
Messing is hoping diehard soccer fans in the United States will come to the matches, but she isn't counting on it, mostly because many domestic soccer fans are foreign-born men who are not interested in watching women's sports.
The biggest factor Messing has in her favor is the U.S. team, which not only is among the pre-tournament favorites but also has a strong following among American girls who want to be the next Hamm or Julie Foudy. The downside of that equation is that if the U.S. team fails to advance far into the tournament, there may be lots of empty seats in stadiums such as 85,429-seat Stanford Stadium, where the Americans would play their semifinal, and the 92,542-seat Rose Bowl, site of the third-place and championship matches.
"What separates this from men's soccer is that this has more domestic attendance," said Robert Erb, chief of marketing for athletic shoe giant adidas.
Corporations such as adidas, Allstate Insurance and Coca-Cola are hoping to tap into that audience. Adidas is introducing a new line of women's soccer shoes, hoping to reach its target group of 12- to 20-year-old girls. Chicago-based Allstate, the nation's largest publicly held personal property and casualty insurer, filmed a group of suburban Dallas girls playing soccer, hoping to generate a warm feeling about Allstate among the moms and dads who cheer, referee and chauffeur at weekend soccer matches.
"Soccer moms are definitely the target," Allstate spokesman Raleigh Floyd said. "Young families are really our market."
Sports marketer Tom George of McLean-based Advantage International said women's soccer and the WNBA are in their infancy when compared with most U.S. men's pro leagues, which explains the lack of a strong following.
"The men have had 50 to 100 years to capture the fan base," George said.
The WNBA faces many of the same challenges in drawing fans as the Women's World Cup. By emphasizing their family-friendliness and affordability, the WNBA is attempting to develop its own audience.
The atmosphere in the arenas is festive, with players signing autographs at the end of every game instead of rushing for the tunnel leading to the locker rooms, as happens at most NBA games.
"It's kind of like a party," said Bober, the agent.
In addition to NBC and ESPN, the WNBA also broadcasts on the Lifetime women's television network.
This year, league officials will try to broaden the fan base to include more hard-core basketball fans. Only 10 percent of people who attend WNBA games also attend NBA games.
"The business plan was to reach hard-core fans, women and family," NBA spokeswoman Hillary Cassidy said. "As the product develops, we're trying to reach the first group."
With its audience heavily weighted toward women (72 percent of the crowds at games) and a large following among teens and kids, the WNBA has attracted sponsors ranging from the shampoo company L'Oreal to Lee Jeans, Lady Foot Locker, General Motors and Sears.
Beer giant Anheuser-Busch, for example, advertises its Budweiser brand to the male-dominated NBA audiences while selling its Bud Light to WNBA audiences.
Sears is spending up to $10 million over three years on a major WNBA marketing and advertising push aimed at the company's core female customers, those age 25 through 54 who make most household purchases.
"The demographics that attend the game are in line with our core audience," said John Lebbad, director of event marketing and sales promotion at Sears. "The WNBA is very much in line with connecting with our female. The women and families who attend the games are our best customers."
Sears marketing studies show store sales increase following player appearances by WNBA stars such as Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes.
The WNBA hopes to average more than 10,000 per game this season after averaging 9,669 per game in 1997 and 10,868 last year. The Mystics open their season tonight at MCI Center against the Charlotte Sting. They averaged 15,910 per game last year, the highest in the league.
Not everybody is happy, though. Coca-Cola never activated a Sprite campaign in conjunction with the WNBA, although it paid for the right to do so. And adidas said it probably will not renew its three-year contract because the company believes women's college basketball is more effective in reaching women consumers.
Andy Dolich, executive vice president for tickets.com, a computer ticket company based in Newport Beach, Calif., said it's just a matter of time before women's team sports has an audience that can sustain it.
"The junior high school girl who is playing in the schoolyard now is going to be 25 to 28 very soon and be controlling decision-making power and controlling spending very soon," he said.
For now, Women's World Cup organizers must hope that the U.S. team makes it to the final. Or else there may be 60,000 empty seats at the Rose Bowl when Germany and China meet for the championship.
CAPTION: Teens and children make up most of WNBA's core audience. Here, Kish Ford of the Orlando Miracle signs autographs.