Women's soccer takes shot at pros

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Riveted by TV coverage of the 1996 Olympic U.S. women's soccer team beating the Chinese team before a packed Sanford Stadium of 70,000, Discovery Communications Chairman-CEO John Hendricks says he knew "something phenomenal" was happening on the screen.

But when the Summer Games ended, the buzz diminished. Then the 1999 Women's World Cup absorbed the nation and made household names out of Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain.

The cable pioneer decided to make the women's game part of the regular sports landscape.

Mr. Hendricks set out to develop the first U.S. women's professional soccer league, which launched last weekend on the medium he knows best. The Women's United Soccer Association has a slate of games lined up through the summer on TNT and CNNsi. Twenty-two games will appear on the networks, with the championship game slated for Aug. 25. Other games will appear on local cable access.


AOL Time Warner's Turner Sports has attracted advertisers such as Gillette Co and Procter & Gamble Co. to the WUSA and at press time, 70% of the ad inventory had been sold, says Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Sports.

The league isn't just airing on cable-it is virtually owned by the industry.

Mr. Hendricks raised $64 million to start the WUSA from eight major investors, including Time Warner, Comcast Corp., Cox Communications and other cable companies. They own the league and the eight individual teams. Mr. Hendricks himself owns the Washington Freedom and half of the Bay Area CyberRays.

The executive says the WUSA is a natural fit for cable TV, because it's just the kind of wholesome family entertainment cable networks need.

Turner is targeting soccer moms, dads and the kids who play. That includes more than 16 million young U.S. female players, says Lee Berke, chief TV and marketing officer for the WUSA.

"The research shows moms and dads weren't soccer participants but the kids bring them out, so they get caught up in it. It gives us a base to work from," he says.

"We have a rights fee arrangement, and we'll make money on it," Mr. Lazarus adds. [Turner] signed a four-year deal with the league to cover its games.

Mr. Hendricks announced early on the WUSA needed to sell between $14 million and $20 million in advertising before the first soccer ball was kicked, and apparently he's close to that goal.

Mr. Lazarus' game plan to make money on women's soccer included working with the WUSA to develop a wide-ranging sponsorship arrangement.

"It's an integrated approach," he says, with on-air and off-air components including commercials, stadium signage, player patches featuring sponsor logos, product sampling, print collateral and game tickets.

"It's a variety of things that drive viewers and ticket sales," he adds. "Each deal is different, because what's important to a car company is different from healthcare."

The major national advertisers are being given category exclusivity rights, including Hyundai Motor America for cars (see related story below), Johnson & Johnson for healthcare, Gillette for personal care and P&G for laundry detergent. The package-goods giant will use the WUSA to tout Era Max, a new detergent rolling out next month, a spokeswoman says.


One problem with advertising during soccer games is the lack of regular breaks in the action; each half consists of 45 minutes of continuous play.

"The worst thing is to pull out for a break and lose a goal," Mr. Berke says.

Commercials will air before games and during halftime, he says. Nascar telecasts on Turner Sports, which also feature continuous action, have experimented with picture in picture advertising that integrates advertising within the action. He says the league may experiment with such ad programs, but it was still to be decided.

Advertising also will appear online within the league's new Web site (wusa.com), which debuted April 2. Internet ads will consist of banners and hyperlinks from the TV sponsors, with other formats and possible separate sponsorships to be developed, Mr. Berke says.

Eventually, local cable companies will sell their own advertising for local game broadcasts, but that's on hold now, Mr. Hendricks says, because "the first wave is to get national sponsors and we're still in that phase."


He also notes that giving national advertisers exclusivity prohibits the sale of local advertising. For instance, the Hyundai deal "prevents a local cable operator from selling to a local Ford dealer," he says. "Over the next few weeks, certain categories will be released locally for sponsorship sales. It's a league entity so there's no tension over competing for sponsorship."

Some observers might question Mr. Hendricks' enthusiasm, given the failure of men's professional soccer to generate big ratings. Broadcasts of Major League Soccer for 2000 ranged from a 0.6 to a 1.1 share with 1.4 million viewers the highest amount for a single day, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Mr. Lazarus contends men's soccer ratings are low because it isn't the best soccer. "It's good soccer but many of the best players play in Europe," he says.

In contrast, the WUSA will be "the best women's soccer in the world," he says. Every player from the U.S. women's national team that won the 1999 Women's World Cup will play in the league, along with 32 top international players. Ms. Hamm, Ms. Chastain and Julie Foudy are among the top players in the WUSA.


What seems to be missing from the effort to launch the league is its own promotion; not much has been done so far. Mr. Berke says the WUSA is taking action on promoting its games with a series of four 30-second TV spots, featuring star players, that began airing on the Discovery Channel, TNT and local cable stations in late March.

A print campaign is set for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and local media. The campaign was prepared by Amster Yard, New York, a division of Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide.

Since the league is owned by cable networks, it doesn't have to pay for TV ad time, which makes one wonder why there hasn't been more of it. "It's been quiet, and they're going to start in a month," Gary Stevenson, president-CEO of On Sport Strategies, noted recently. "The WNBA [women's basketball league] launch was anything but quiet, there was a lot of noise."

Mr. Stevenson's theory is that entertainment executives tend to underestimate the complexities of the infrastructure required to launch, manage and operate a sports league, and that may be one reason why the WUSA has been slow to kick its promotions into gear.

Mr. Hendricks and the people at the WUSA are certainly making a huge effort to start professional women's soccer, but in many ways it's going to be a whole new ball game for them.

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