Hyundai signs first women's soccer pact

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The Women's United Soccer Association has scored its first official sponsor: Hyundai Motor America.

Hyundai inked a four-year deal -- valued at more than $7 million -- with the newly created sports league. The South Korean car importer will get national and local ad time during game telecasts exclusive to the car category, said Robert Dutcheshen, manager of merchandising and promotion at Hyundai.

Turner Sports, which bought WUSA's national telecast rights in April, will run a minimum of 22 games annually for four years on its TNT and CNN/SI networks. Other matches will be telecast via local cable carriers. WUSA's first season begins in April 2001.

PLAYER APPEARANCES

Hyundai's deal includes on-field signage and on-site product displays at games, as well as the rights to feature the league's trademarks and logo in its advertising.

The automobile marketer also plans to leverage its sponsorship to its local dealers via player appearances and promotions. The official car of the new league will be the Santa Fe -- Hyundai's first sport-utility vehicle -- which debuts later this year.

"This further validates the league and the popularity of women's professional soccer," said Lee Berke, acting WUSA president. "We already have Hyundai on board, and we've made substantial progress with sponsors in the other categories."

WUSA and Turner want to sign eight to 10 national sponsors. Executives wouldn't disclose other possible supporters.

The excitement around last summer's Women's World Cup game and this year's soccer matches during the Sydney Olympics have helped pique the interest of possible sponsors, Turner and WUSA executives said.

"The league and the notoriety of the women's soccer superstar status is a significant benefit to the sales program," said Keith Cutler, exec VP, Turner Sports Sales.

Turner parent Time Warner is one of many cable investors in WUSA. Others include Comcast Corp., Cox Enterprises, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable. Individual cable investors will control local broadcasting rights in their markets.

YOUNG FAMILIES

Hyundai already is significantly involved in soccer sponsorships, which has exposed the brand to young families, said Paul Sellers, director of marketing communications. The brand's parent, Hyundai Motor Co., inked a deal 18 months ago to be worldwide sponsor of men's and women's World Cup Soccer. Hyundai ran network TV spots, billboards and promotions from Bates West, Irvine, Calif., in the four cities where last year's Women's Cup games were played.

Hyundai's American arm started its exclusive auto sponsorship of American Youth Soccer Organization in January. "AYSO is enormously popular with young people," the spokesman said. "The WUSA gives us a nice way to extend our reach."

More than 18 million Americans participate in soccer and more than 7 million are female, Mr. Dutcheshen said. From 1980 to 1998, registration in soccer leagues jumped by 40% and participation continues to grow dramatically. NCAA college soccer programs currently exceed 1,000.

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