Does Women's Soccer Have What It Takes to Stay on Top?

By Erica D. Rowell  ABC News
NEW YORK — Sometimes things that start out small can end up huge.

Common soccer folklore has it that when a small Brazilian boy became so enraptured with the sport, unable to afford a ball but determined to play, he rolled up some socks and began to hone his juggling and dribbling skills. That boy went on to play professionally and became a household name: Pele, the world's most famous soccer player.

This type of passion has been for years part and parcel of the sport's global appeal — as evidenced by the fierce pick-up games played by men on the beaches of Tangier, the greens of Oxford and the streets of Brazil. Now, on lawns and fields across the U.S., American girls have tapped into this love, and in so doing have turned the world's sport of choice into the hottest women's sport in this country.

Ninety thousand "football" fans will flood the Rose Bowl Saturday to watch the final match in the Women's World Cup, which pits America's finest against powerhouse China.

The U.S. women's team is the underdog in some respects, having had to claw its way to respectability in a nation much enamored of men's competition but traditionally dismissive of, or apathetic toward, women's team athletics.

The overwhelming support for the Women's World Cup — only the third ever — has stunned even some of its organizers. Yet many of the game's staunchest supporters are not surprised. As Becky Burleigh, women's coach of the University of Florida Gators Division I soccer team, explains, "Soccer is the sport of our youth right now." And youth includes boys and girls.

Families That Play Together...

More than a generation of Americans has now grown up playing soccer. Its appeal currently spans the familial spectrum from child to teen to parent — a fact reflected in the demographics of stadium crowds.

Bob Talmage, producer of the opening and closing ceremonies, used the notion of family as a "guiding light" when planning for these big events. "There's a young girl soccer fan and her family," explains Talmage. "It's not just a soccer mom; it's a soccer dad. And maybe a couple of brothers and sisters. ... It has become a family phenomenon."

While refreshing, this line of reasoning is no longer novel. The successful Women's National Basketball Association capitalized on a similar type of familial appeal, and is being used as a kind of barometer to gauge the mettle and future of women's soccer.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. was an inaugural sponsor for the fledgling women's basketball league. Lee Antonio, director of the Chicago-based company, explains Sears' interest in and commitment to women's basketball: "70 percent of all products and services purchased at Sears are purchased by the woman (aged) 25 - 54 for either herself or her family. ... And what we found is that our sponsorship of the WNBA appeals to the woman but also to her children. The WNBA is very much a family sport."

But if some of the advertising focus is on family, the main thrust is on the sport. The Web site of official Cup sponsor Hewlett-Packard has everything from a history of "the world's most popular sport" to coaching tips, photos of the women's team and links to other Cup-related sites.

In reaching out to young people, the computer company held a soccer photo essay contest for 12-15 year olds. Such outreach is paying off at the packed stadiums, and the overwhelming support is showing big business that soccer fans, willing to put their money where their loud mouths are, are proof the sport may be viable from a profit-making standpoint.

If You Build It, They Will Come

A new era is dawning for athletes and sports enthusiasts as companies find that women can be spectacles, as well as spectators, in the athletic arena.

Mel Helitzer, author of The Dream Job: Sports Publicity, Promotiod Marketing, puts it like this: "There are only two reasons for professional sports in this country. The first is to make money, and the second is to make money."

And money is certainly being made. Ticket sales for the U.S. games have far exceeded expectations. With a near sell-out of Giants Stadium for the opener and Saturday's sold-out finals, fans are delivering a message — they will pay to watch.

Howard Fienberg, a research analyst for the Statistical Assessment Service, downplays the current WWC fever, explaining that "the current success of women's soccer ... is primarily a phenomenon of female sporting success, which is why it is attracting so much attention." But whether it's the women or the sport that fans are attracted to, the publicity can't hurt either way.

Joe-Max Moore, the third leading all-time scorer for the men's U.S. National Team and a top striker for the MLS's New England Revolution, looks at the Women's Cup games with an eye toward soccer's future in the U.S. "It's got to be a positive thing. ... Most sports fans will agree that there are so many young soccer players out there and eventually ... a lot of them are going to watch soccer or be around soccer."

The question remains, though, whether companies like Adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonald's will keep up the momentum after the Cup has been decided.

Cup Could Be a Watershed

A lot is riding on the U.S. team in Saturday's game.

Helitzer puts it like this: "If the Americans win, soccer becomes a major sport for women's soccer. If they lose, nobody likes second place."

But the longevity of the game will probably ultimately rely on local soccer fields where the sport is continuing to gain appeal across a broad spectrum of players, young and old, male and female.

It's affordable, simple, graceful and at the moment — especially hot. As more and more schools add soccer to their athletic programs, the more momentum the sport gains. For women, this is an especially positive development.

"As far as the psychology of sports and girls goes, girls who are involved in sports seem to have better self confidence ... than girls not involved in sports," says child psychologist Robert R. Butterworth Ph.D.

One of the biggest things that the U.S. Women's team has going for it is its, well, self-confident personality.

As general manager Brian Fleming explains, "These personalities (on the women's team) just come naturally — what you see is what you get with these players. They're a phenomenal group of players. They're a phenomenal group of people off the field."

Moore, who scored the only goal in the recent U.S. men's match against Argentina and who went to Mission Viejo High School in California with U.S. women's player Julie Foudy, says this about the young star: "She's an unbelievable person. I quickly became friends with her once I moved there. She has such a vibrant personality — everybody that ... knew her knew that she was gonna be something special."

It's women like Foudy whom marketers love. If they can find the equivalent to Michael Jordan in a female — as some believe they have in Mia Hamm, who stars with the former Chicago Bull in some sports drink commercials — they can tap into a burgeoning market.

Then, maybe, names like Hamm, Foudy and Moore will be as recognizable as Pele.

Copyright © 1999 Fox News

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