WORLD CUP USA 1994 : COMMENTARY : Behind the Scenes, Not Everything Has Been a Success

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four years ago, a wink on the World Cup time line, West Germany won the Cup and returned in triumph to a country that began to clamor for something else. They had won the World Cup, now they wanted the World Cup .

At the time, it was hardly a secret that the American organizational efforts, begun in 1988 after FIFA had awarded the United States the 1994 World Cup finals, had been sluggish at best. The one contract landed by the organizers--a TV deal--had been rejected by FIFA.

There was a real concern that the United States, which had been so successful with the 1984 Olympic Games and other major events, would fail to adequately organize the World Cup. Other countries were suggested as alternates. Something had to be done.

With FIFA working behind the scenes, Los Angeles attorney Alan Rothenberg was elected president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and became head of the World Cup Organizing Committee. He impressed FIFA with his energy and sophistication and promised to put on the best World Cup ever and leave a legacy for soccer in the United States.

With 50 games having been played in nine U.S. cities, after a record heat wave and record attendance, how will the organization of this World Cup be judged?

The Germans, who so coveted the event four years ago, appear pleased. Egidius Braun, president of the German soccer federation, had nothing but praise.

"It's a sensation," he said. "It will be very difficult for any other country in the world to do it the same way in the future. It can't be better."

From the perspective of the participating teams, the tournament will be viewed as one of the best.

The estimated economic impact of the World Cup in the United States is $4 billion, with a projected $623 million generated in Los Angeles. Rothenberg has estimated that the World Cup, whose budget has never been disclosed, will generate a $20-million profit.

By most accounts, the organization of the World Cup has been excellent. The biggest potential nightmare--hooliganism--was averted when England failed to qualify. Security, although present at a level most American sports fans find uncomfortable, has been effective and successful in heading off problems.

Concerns about fans' overzealous celebrations outside the stadiums haven't been borne out, either, even though Americans seem to have caught World Cup fever to a degree that few would have predicted. Attendance is at an all-time high and the nearly full stands are a welcome departure from the sparse crowds in Italy in 1990.

Also unlike Italy, no new stadiums had to be built. If the nine World Cup stadiums aren't specifically soccer-friendly, they are more than adequate.

Memories inexorably linked to this World Cup are of the murder, in his own country, of Colombian player Andres Escobar, and of the incredible heat that rendered playing conditions inhumane through much of the first round. Neither factor was under the control of World Cup organizers.

But behind the festive scenes, there have been some problems. Sponsors, fans, the media and others report awful interaction with World Cup officials, who are perceived as arrogant and greedy. They represent the United States to the rest of the world and are charged with maintaining any interest the World Cup generates.

A legacy of ill will?

Nye Lavalle, chairman of the Dallas-based Sports Marketing Group, told the San Jose Mercury News that the World Cup organizers' abrasive style will not soon be forgotten.

"They have burned bridges beyond recognition," he said. "A lot of people don't want to work with them anymore. When you start alienating key constituencies, how much support can you get for your efforts in the future?"

Among the problems:

* Tickets.

Easily the most widespread ill will has been generated by the botched handling of some of the World Cup tickets.

The first ticket offering was to the "soccer family," including fans who had written or called World Cup seeking tickets. They were offered tickets at a discount, as many as 10 strips. A deadline date was announced and the prospective buyers were told all orders would be processed, that it would not be a matter of first come, first served.

But the World Cup Organizing Committee vastly underestimated demand, and the program quickly became oversubscribed. The promise that all orders would be honored was not kept. It was first come, first served. Rothenberg's response was that this indicated interest in the games and was the kind of problem that the World Cup wanted.

There were many more. The high-end Premiere Ticket program was mishandled, and at one point orders worth more than $40 million were backlogged.

When it was time, in early June, to send tickets to the fans, that was bungled too. Some never received their tickets. Some asked for tickets to games in Chicago and got tickets to games in Detroit. Some asked for two seats together and got one on one side of the stadium, one on the other. The most common complaint was from fans who had bought Category I tickets and found themselves behind the goals.

In at least one case, legal action has been taken. A class-action lawsuit in Chicago is seeking a multimillion-dollar judgment from the WCOC on behalf of fans around the country who believe they were ripped off.

Then came the final indignity. Travel agents and tour operators, who paid a 20% surcharge for tickets and a licensing fee, looked on in horror as World Cup flooded the market with cheap tickets.

* Sponsors.

Sponsors of events the size of the World Cup pay millions of dollars for the right to use the official logo and reach a vast audience.

Most companies believe the money they spend on the event also buys them a certain deference from the World Cup organizers--or, at least, the sense that they too are "on the World Cup team."

Sources say that domestic sponsors signed by the WCOC and international sponsors, who made their deals with FIFA's marketing agent, are annoyed with what is described as the WCOC's arrogant and abrasive attitude in dealing with company higher-ups.

Some World Cup sponsors are angry not only with the organizing committee but with each other. No company spokesman was willing to speak on the record, but McDonald's and electronics giant JVC are particularly miffed. Both contractually agreed to supply a certain number of meals and televisions to WCOC, and in both cases the organizing committee went back and asked for more.

In the case of two other sponsors, MasterCard and Sprint, a lawsuit included the WCOC. MasterCard paid about $20 million to be the official credit card, then Sprint paid about $10 million to be the official telephone charge card. MasterCard believed the same rights had been sold twice. A U.S. District judge agreed.

The entire World Cup promotional effort benefited from the performance of the U.S. team. No one loves a bandwagon more than the American public, unless it's the American media. The excitement generated by the U.S. team's advance to the second round propelled the World Cup into living rooms and bars where the sport had never been considered.

What promotional effort was made by World Cup? Some sponsors have griped that rather than spending the millions it takes to promote its own event, the WCOC instead piggy-backed off the advertising and marketing campaigns of its sponsors and relied on them to raise public awareness. The World Cup newspaper advertising that did run was provided on a trade-out basis with major newspapers that were regional sponsors, such as the Los Angeles Times.

* Accommodations.

There has been price gouging by the World Cup Accommodation Bureau, the contractor awarded the right to sell hotel packages to fans and journalists.

There also was a problem with overbooking. About 50% of the rooms blocked for World Cup were released back to the hotels when it became clear that tourism surrounding the event was not going to be at the level projected by World Cup.

Additionally, hotels complained that the Accommodation Bureau was charging guests rates that were far too high.

"It looks like greed and smells like greed," said Roland Baumann, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Crystal City, 10 miles from Washington's RFK Stadium.

* Broken promises.

The WCOC has stated, admirably, that among its goals were educational programs for children and outreach to minority communities.

Nickerson Gardens was to have been an example of minority outreach. Rothenberg and other World Cup dignitaries were present and available for the photo opportunity when the WCOC and Rebuild L.A. announced a major plan to install a soccer field and lights at the Watts housing project.

Work would begin immediately, Rothenberg said.

Was anyone at the WCOC embarrassed when, a year and a half later, the same World Cup group arranged a different photo opportunity at Nickerson Gardens, all the while standing next to the muddy and pockmarked field that had never been upgraded?

Community organizers have complained about lack of outreach from the World Cup, which is perceived to have a natural constituency in many ethic communities.

One local leader on an L.A. radio program recently asked World Cup's managing director, Elizabeth Primrose-Smith, why the WCOC has failed to work with some community groups. Primrose-Smith responded that the WCOC was a nonprofit organization and, as such, employed a limited staff. They would like to get to every worthy group, she said, but there would have to be priorities.

True, but if World Cup was strapped and had no money for community work, why was there $5 million available to "lend" to a for-profit company for the formation of the proposed professional soccer league?

Where's the priority there?

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