SOCCER'S EMPTY CUP TOURNAMENT FAILS TO STIR MANIA FOR SPORT IN U.S.

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When organizers wrote the charter for the 1994 World Cup, the stated goal was to stage the biggest World Cup tournament in history and leave a lasting legacy of soccer in the U.S.

It appears those organizers are going to be disappointed.

"It's a bust" in the U.S., said the president of a New York sports marketing company. "Stop five people on the street and ask them who the sponsors are. They won't know. Ask them what TV network they can watch the World Cup on. Ask them who the teams are. They don't know."

Just two weeks from the kickoff of the world's largest and most popular sporting event, there's mounting evidence World Cup '94 won't live up to the organizers' expectations:

For the first time in the World Cup's 64-year history, organizers have agreed to swallow surplus tickets that sponsors, teams and tour operators are unable to distribute. On May 1, 450,000 surplus tickets went on sale; one month later 125,000 still remain, and only 39 of 52 games are sold out.

Many sponsors who paid as much as $25 million for global marketing rights say they're frustrated by the U.S.' unenthusiastic response to the event. MasterCard International, for one, has slashed its $15 million World Cup U.S. ad budget in half and opted to launch its two World Cup spots closer to the June 17 kickoff.

"How do you get revved up about something that doesn't exist ... in consumers' minds?" said one MasterCard executive.

Efforts to launch pro Major League Soccer in the U.S. next year are also off to a torpid start. Many of the cities pitching franchises have been unable to meet organizers' demand to sell 10,000 season tickets in advance. And a number of marketers that have been approached about sponsorship opportunities have scoffed at the near-$10 million asking price.

Still, it's hard to label World Cup '94 a bust, with 3.4 million tickets sold and an estimated global TV viewing audience of 32 billion. Also, sponsors admit the U.S. market wasn't a primary consideration in their decision to support the event.

"The fact that the U.S. is the host country this year gives a certain impetus to our U.S. efforts, but the event's greater importance to us is as a global event," said Mart Martin, manager-sports publicity for Coca-Cola Co. "We're mounting the same massive global effort that we would no matter what the host country is."

And despite mass market ambivalence toward soccer in the U.S., there remains a sizable number of World Cup enthusiasts.

For Spanish-language media, the event is equivalent to the Super Bowl. Univision Television Network is expected to bring in $24 million in advertising, the most since it began carrying the World Cup in 1970. And the network is expected to generate higher ratings than the coverage provided by ABC and ESPN.

"World Cup just dominates everything you see on Spanish-language TV," said Laura Marella, VP-media director at Casanova Pendrill Publicidad, Irvine, Calif. "Everything has a soccer theme. It's a big deal in this marketplace. It is the premier advertising venue."

Univision's top-tier sponsors, paying a record $3 million, are Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Coca-Cola, General Motors Corp., American Honda Motor Co. and McDonald's Corp. Reebok International paid $2 million to be a second-tier sponsor; Levi Strauss & Co., MasterCard, M&M/Mars (for Snickers) and Penn-zoil Co. made $1 million ad buys.

Still, many thought World Cup fever would have gripped the mass market by now. It hasn't, despite the best efforts of sponsors and organizers to hype the event.

"World Cup? Is there a World Cup going to happen? I haven't heard one person in Los Angeles talk about World Cup, and this is where the finals are going to be," said one L.A.-based executive for a leading sports cable network.

Several sports marketing executives report that a few sponsors have approached them about helping to give away World Cup tickets that weren't returned to organizers earlier this year.

Canon USA, for example, is said to have 1,000 tickets, which it's hard pressed to get rid of, including several dozen to the Los Angeles final. The reasons: Summer is a bad time to entertain corporate clients, and those who do want to be entertained don't seem to want to go to a soccer game.

Then there are kids. Sports marketing executives say if the World Cup is to spark a U.S. soccer boom, it has to reach young people. But that's unlikely to happen, these sports marketing experts contend. Tickets went on sale in the U.S. last year, before World Cup hype began, and consumers have balked at the $25-per-ticket price.

And while the games will be televised, sports marketing executives say it remains to be seen whether kids will be eager to watch a month's worth of matches.

Contributing to this story: Christy Fisher, Emily DeNitto and Gary Levin.

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