When Jack Kent Cooke Stadium was chosen as a site for 1999 Women's World Cup matches, tournament organizers were aware of their daunting mission. Selling tickets for women's soccer games was difficult enough, but to do it at a location in the Washington area other than RFK Stadium would be a bigger challenge.
RFK had hosted the men's World Cup, Olympic soccer, Major League Soccer's championship game and several other international events. Cooke Stadium's soccer history consisted of an informal U.S women's team workout last year.
But as last-minute preparations are made for tonight's Women's World Cup games at Cooke Stadium, local and national officials are pleased with their sales after a slow start. Crowds of 15,000 and 20,000 are expected for the first-round doubleheaders tonight and Sunday, respectively, and more than 27,000 tickets have been sold for a July 1 quarterfinal doubleheader that likely will include the popular U.S. team against Germany or Brazil.
The biggest crowd for games not involving the U.S. squad was about 23,000 over the weekend at San Jose's Spartan Stadium.
"I'm sure people had some questions about whether Jack Kent Cooke Stadium was the right place for the Women's World Cup," tournament president and CEO Marla Messing said. "But we have no doubts about our decision to play there. People are going to be surprised what they see."
Cooke Stadium, which opened in September 1997 as home to the Washington Redskins, has been transformed into a major soccer facility for the next two weeks. Goals have replaced uprights. Penalty areas and center circles have replaced yard marks. In-stadium advertisements have been covered with banners.
Four locker rooms have been created. Giant soccer signs have been assembled in the parking lots and an interactive center has been built. Sections in the upper deck, where no seats are available, have been decorated with cutout soccer balls.
"There's still a lot of Redskins stuff around," venue director Heather Quinn said, "but it definitely has a soccer feel to it."
Before tonight, the only sports event to take place at Cooke Stadium other than Redskins games was a Navy-Notre Dame football game on Nov. 14, 1998.
Both Cooke and RFK bid to host Women's World Cup matches, and because of its rich soccer history and modest capacity (about 55,000 compared to Cooke's 80,116), RFK was considered the favorite.
RFK officials were eager to host the opening game and ceremonies or the final. That probably would have happened if FIFA, soccer's world governing body, had decided to stick with its initial plan of staging the tournament at small- and medium-capacity stadiums on the East Coast.
But when FIFA decided to play games nationwide in large facilities -- based on the big turnouts for women's soccer at the 1996 Olympics -- RFK's chances of getting a premier match virtually disappeared.
Women's World Cup officials offered first-round games and a quarterfinal to RFK, but "that's not what we bid for," stadium manager Jim Dalrymple said. "We felt Washington deserved the final. To us, it made no sense to take those other games. They won't draw and they won't do anything for us. It's just a very poor investment."
In a last-minute move, Women's World Cup organizers offered the games to Cooke Stadium, which gladly accepted. The opening game and ceremonies were given to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and the July 10 final will be played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
"Part of the process of selling tickets in Washington has been educating people about Cooke Stadium," Messing said. "People are accustomed to going to RFK for soccer. It has a great history and is a great setting for soccer. But with Cooke Stadium we have a state-of-the-art facility that represents the future of sports."
It's not perfect, though. The width of the playing field is at FIFA's minimum requirement of 68 yards and there isn't much space for advertising boards in the corners, where the retaining wall bends in toward the field. The U.S. players who worked out there last year complained the turf was too soft.
Also, the seating capacity is much more than needed, which means the stadium will be about 75 percent empty for first-round doubleheaders. Only seats in the 100 and 200 levels were available to the public; club seating was opened for those who sit there during Redskins games.
The downsized capacity for the first-round games is 26,757. With the availability of the club seats for the quarterfinals, capacity increases to 41,110. Officials will not sell tickets in the upper deck for the quarterfinals, even if advance sales approach that mark. The cheapest tickets ($30 for behind the goals) are sold out.
CAPTION: Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in Landover opened in 1997 and does not have much of a soccer history, but "people are going to be surprised by what they see," says Maria Messing, the tournament's president/CEO.