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Sponsors Kick In for Women’s Cup

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Looking for proof that the 1999 Women’s World Cup tournament that kicks off Saturday at Giants Stadium in New Jersey is a bona fide sporting event? Pay no attention to the talented players running up and down the field during 32 upcoming games, including the championship tilt July 10 at the Rose Bowl.

Keep your eyes on the battle between Adidas Inc. and Nike Inc. for the hearts and pocketbooks of female soccer players. Adidas, the longtime soccer force, weighs in as an official sponsor of the WWC, which is being billed as the world’s largest women’s sporting event. Nike is the proud sponsor of the U.S. team, which is the odds-on favorite to do what the American men’s team has been unable to do--win a World Cup.

No matter which team wins on the field, such companies as Nike and Adidas are building bridges to soccer in hopes of building brand loyalty among young players. And, by tournament’s end, younger viewers undoubtedly will be pestering parents for shoes and apparel like those worn by the top players.

The tournament also has attracted financial support from such companies as Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald’s Corp., which use sports sponsorships to reach their customers.

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Corporations that opted to invest in women’s soccer say they are attracted by the wide appeal that the sport has carved out among men and women, boys and girls.

“The Women’s World Cup is a family-oriented event,” said Katey Kennedy, sponsorship marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard Co., a WWC sponsor. “You get them all--the soccer moms, the dads who are soccer coaches and the daughters who play the game.”

Also attractive to sponsors is that the sport has an authentic superstar in high-scoring forward Mia Hamm, who recently joined Michael Jordan in a Gatorade television commercial and had a building named after her at Nike’s headquarters.

The tournament isn’t as costly for sponsors as such weekend television staples as the NBA and the NFL. Official sponsors are paying between $1 million and $4 million, while marketing “partners” are paying between $500,000 and $1 million. That’s a low entry fee even by soccer standards. In contrast, the men’s tournament reportedly charges $40 million to $50 million for its most valuable worldwide sponsorships.

“We think we get a lot for our money,” Kennedy said. “We get in on the ground floor of a grass-roots program, the U.S. team is exceptionally strong and the athletes are . . . good role models.”

Having recovered from a dip in popularity two years ago, soccer is making inroads in the U.S. An estimated 18 million Americans are playing soccer, and the North Palm Beach, Fla.-based Soccer Industry Council of America reports that the number of players in organized leagues increased to 8.9 million in 1998, up from 8.5 million a year earlier.

Females account for 41%, or 7.5 million of the total. That’s a 5% gain over 1997 and a 34% increase since 1991. Marketers are taking note as more females enter the field of play, making them a desirable target for athletic apparel makers.

Nike and Adidas will be going head-to-head during games. U.S. players will dress in uniforms bearing the Nike Swoosh. Players for half a dozen other countries, including Germany, Japan and Canada, will wear uniforms with Adidas’ logo. And the ball used during every match will be designed by Adidas.

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The marketing battle has spilled over into commercials and print advertisements. Nike has highlighted Hamm, the U.S. team’s record-breaking scorer. In one print ad that resembles a family scrapbook, Hamm appears alongside her grandmother. Adidas also has taken the behind-the-scenes approach with commercials that chronicle the lives of such U.S. stars as Kristine Lilly and Shannon MacMillan.

Both companies acknowledge that women fans who themselves play the game are far too sophisticated to be swayed by TV commercials alone. “Regardless of how much money you spend in sports marketing, it still comes down to having the best product,” said Jeff Gabawski, manager of Adidas’ U.S. soccer business. “The players are savvy to who has the best product out there.”

That means paying attention to more than how apparel and shoes look. Nike revamped its jerseys after U.S. team members complained about their poor fit. The company also shipped prototype shoes to female players to gain their input rather than relying solely upon male athletes.

“The industry has not done a good job in the past of delivering product that fits and meets the needs of women athletes,” said Tommy Kain, marketing director for Nike’s U.S. soccer unit. . . . We tested our new uniforms on the U.S. national team for a year before we went into production.”

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Consumer spending for athletic footwear in the first quarter of 1999 grew slightly to $3.4 billion, but sales of women’s shoes rose by 17% compared with a 3% hike for men’s shoes.

Women are paying more for their shoes. Between 1992 and 1998, the average price paid for a pair of women’s shoes rose by 10% to $41.77, while the average price paid for a pair of men’s shoes rose by just 3% to $50.45. The bottom line? Performance is an increasingly important factor for women athletes.

Soccer proponents acknowledge that, in order to grow, the sport must expand its appeal beyond soccer fans. That’s why stadiums on game day will resemble festivals--complete with flags, banners, laser shows, fireworks and such popular rock bands as ‘N Sync. Those attractions are designed to appeal to a broader range of fans--the kinds of consumers that will appeal to such sponsors as Fujifilm and Gillette Co. Allstate Insurance Co., in its first national sports marketing partnership, will sponsor a $1-million soccer kick for two lucky youngsters during a game next week in Chicago.

The WWC’s game plan also called for such large venues as Giants Stadium, a risky move because absent strong ticket sales, TV cameras would have beamed pictures of huge blocks of empty seats.

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But without going into larger venues, WWC President Marla Messing said, “We probably never would have attracted national television coverage, 19 [sponsorships] . . . so ultimately it turned out to be a very crucial and important decision.” ABC and its sister company, ESPN, are telecasting the tournament.

WWC, however, will finish in second place this summer at McDonald’s, which is sponsoring its second WWC tournament. McDonald’s is introducing a massive, nationwide promotion tied to the opening of Walt Disney Co.'s animated “Tarzan” movie. Spokesman Brad Trask acknowledged that the clash is “unfortunate from a timing standpoint . . . but we do have a major marketing promotion starting the same weekend.”

* GOAL KEEPER: In an organization dominated by men, Marla Messinger takes charge of the Women’s World Cup. D1

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Greener at the Grass Roots

Soccer is experiencing growing pains. The sport continues to be popular at the grass-roots level, but participation declines as children enter their teen years.

Youth Team Sports

Number of U.S. participants of both sexes, in millions:

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Ages 6 to 11

Basketball: 9.7

Soccer: 7.9

Softball: 3.9

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Baseball: 3.8

Volleyball: 2.6

Football (tackle): 2.0

Ice hockey: 0.6

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*

Ages 12 to 17

Basketball: 12.2

Volleyball: 7.3

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Soccer: 6.0

Football (tackle): 5.1

Baseball: 4.0

Softball: 3.4

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Ice hockey: 1.0

*

Who Plays Soccer

More boys than girls, and more younger girls than older girls.

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Soccer participation:

All males: 59%

Females under 18: 34%

Females 18 and older: 7%

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Gaining Ground

Soccer participation among girls and women is increasing. Number of females in the U.S. who play, in millions:

1998: 7.5 million

Source: Soccer Industry Council of America, American Sports Data

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