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‘It’s a Sight to See’

Frenzy over U.S. women’s soccer team surprises even the faithful--92,000 of whom are expected at World Cup final.

They have always traveled by bus, only now that bus travels with a four-motorcycle escort, weaving its way slowly through a gantlet of screaming girls and boys and overheated teenagers.

One by one the members of the U.S. women’s soccer team disembark, ready for another practice session at Pomona College in preparation for Saturday’s Women’s World Cup final at the Rose Bowl. They are welcomed with a swelling roar, many of them singled out on a shrieking first-name basis.

Mia!

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Michelle!

Tiffeny!

“It’s a sight to see,” says Richard Finn, director of public relations for the Women’s World Cup. “I don’t know if it’s the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys or the Beatles or what.”

It is one of many sights during the last three weeks that have had to be seen to truly be believed.

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An international women’s soccer tournament barnstorms its way across the country, with the hosts playing in front of 79,972 spectators in East Rutherford, N.J.; 65,080 in Chicago; 50,484 in Foxboro, Mass.; 54,642 in Landover, Md.; and 73,123 in Palo Alto. And a sellout crowd of 92,000-plus is expected for Saturday’s U.S.-China final, which would be the largest gathering ever to witness a women’s sports event.

Members of the 5-0 American team--from mercurial forward Mia Hamm to tenacious defensive midfielder Michelle Akers to quick-striking goal-getter Tiffeny Milbrett--have become bedroom-wall poster heroes; young boys showing up at U.S. matches wearing replicas of Hamm’s No. 9 jersey are a common sight.

Talk-show host David Letterman has become an unabashed fan, christening the photogenic Americans “Babe City,” offering to “sponsor” the team and devoting a recent top 10 list to the “Top 10 Slogans for the U.S. Women’s World Cup Team.”

Samples:

* “Come Watch Hot Women Take Out Their Aggressions on Belgians.”

* “It’s Like a Backstage Brawl at Lilith Fair.”

* “We Make the Men’s World Cup Team Look Like a Bunch of Knuckle-Dragging, Mouth-Breathing Humps.”

More than 2,000 media credentials have been issued for Saturday’s final, with NBC’s Tom Brokaw already having flown in to tape a piece on the U.S. team, CBS’s Dan Rather scheduled to interview Women’s World Cup President and CEO Marla Messing today and “Good Morning America” having contacted the U.S. team for a Monday morning appearance should the Americans win the title.

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Sunday’s U.S.-Brazil semifinal telecast on ESPN drew a 3.8 rating, the cable network’s largest audience for a soccer broadcast of any kind, men’s or women’s. ABC is expecting bigger numbers for the final.

Messing, who has devoted the last three years to the planning, organization and promotion of the Women’s World Cup, has been an optimist from the beginning, but admits even she has been taken aback by the tournament’s success.

“As big as I thought this event would be,” she says, “it is bigger than I ever thought. We have created a world-class, stand-alone event unlike any other for women’s sports.”

Tony DiCicco, coach of the U.S. women’s soccer team, had an inkling of what was possible long before the first ball was kicked in the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

“Bottom line,” DiCicco said at a Los Angeles kickoff luncheon nearly three weeks before the tournament opener, “we could turn this into an Olympics-style experience. We’ve all watched the Olympics and know how you can be watching some sport you’ve never heard of, and then the Americans start winning and you get caught up in it and suddenly you’re on the edge of your seat. That’s what we can accomplish here.”

Then, the logical points of reference were the 1998 U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team and the 1996 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, gold-medal winners that grabbed and held the nation’s attention for a month or two.

By early July, however, Messing was so swept up in the Team USA lovefest that she dared to mention the team in the same breath with the legendary 1980 “Miracle on Ice” men’s Olympic hockey team.

“This U.S. team has captured the public’s imagination unlike any other since the 1980 Olympic hockey team,” Messing said at a Wednesday news conference. “People are coming out to the stadium who have never seen a soccer game before. People have fallen in love with this team.”

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Taking a sober step back for a moment, it bears mentioning that the 1999 women’s soccer team was the tournament favorite coming in, expected to roll over every opponent on its way to the final. By contrast, the 1980 men’s hockey team was a mishmash of no-name collegians who had no business beating the mighty Soviet powerhouse or contending for a medal of any color, let alone gold.

Should Team USA beat China on Saturday, there will be as much relief as joy in the locker room afterward. This is a trophy the Americans were supposed to win. That scruffy 1980 hockey outfit? Two decades later, people still scratch their heads over how they managed to pull off that one.

Yet an American summer frenzy over soccer--women’s soccer, no less--would seem to qualify as some kind of miracle on grass. In truth, the success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup is the product of cagey promotion, wall-to-wall marketing and at least one sizable leap of faith by Messing and her staff.

After the United States received the bid in May 1996 to host the World Cup, FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, had plans for a low-profile, small-scale tournament, with matches to be played in 5,000- to 10,000-seat stadiums.

Messing, who helped organize the successful 1994 men’s World Cup in the United States, campaigned instead to run the women’s tournament along the same lines as the men’s, with matches played in massive football stadiums such as the Rose Bowl, Giants Stadium in New Jersey and Soldier Field in Chicago.

“It was a huge risk,” Messing says. “We would have looked silly if we had only 3,500 people show up to these matches and we were in 80,000-seat stadiums. There was a huge risk, but the risk paid off. At the time, it was a choice between sealing the fate of the tournament--knowing that in the best of all possible worlds, we were only going to get 5,000 or 10,000 people--or letting the tournament reach its potential.”

The on-the-field performance of the U.S. team has been crucial, but so has the marketing of the team by such corporate sponsors as Nike and Gatorade, which filmed clever, eye-grabbing television commercials featuring Hamm going one-on-one with Michael Jordan and American players in a dentist’s waiting room, ready to stand up and take two fillings in support of a cavity-stricken teammate.

The tournament now stands to make a profit, after original estimates projected a break-even scenario at best. FIFA spokesman Keith Cooper has described the tournament as “stupendous,” and there is talk that several countries interested in bidding to host a Women’s World Cup in the future might be scared off by this event, considering it “too successful” and having set standards that might be impossible to match.

“I have heard that,” Messing says. “But I think if a country wants to host the event, they’re going to host it and nobody is going to expect it to be quite like it was here in the United States.”

” . . . We all have been a part of history here. There won’t be another like this one, but hopefully we can continue to build the property.”

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A Guide to the Rose Bowl

GETTING THERE

Spectators are urged to arrive at least two hours early because heavy traffic is expected. The stadium gates will open at 8:30 a.m. Seats are sold out.

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No motor homes, campers or recreational vehicles will be allowed to park in the lots adjacent to the Rose Bowl.

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From the north or east: Exit the Foothill Freeway (210) at Berkshire-Oak, Arroyo-Windsor, Lincoln or Mountain-Seco.

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From the south: Take Golden State Freeway (5) northbound to Glendale Freeway (2) northbound to Foothill

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Freeway (210) eastbound. Exit at the offramps listed above.

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From the west: Take Ventura Freeway (134) eastbound to Glendale Freeway (2) northbound to Foothill Freeway (210) eastbound. Exit at offramps listed above.

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Police urge motorists not to use the Pasadena Freeway (110) for access.

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Parking: All Rose Bowl parking lots will be open at 6 a.m. and charge $10. Cars will be parked bumper-to-bumper so it may be impossible to leave until the crowd disperses.

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Alternate lot : Ralph M. Parsons Corp., on the corner of Walnut Street and Fair Oaks Avenue, $4. Motorists should be able to leave this lot at will, and a free shuttle will provide transportation to the Rose Bowl. Parking is not permitted on residential streets next to the stadium. The fine is $200.


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