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With pans in hand and wagon wheels firmly fastened, the major players in athletic footwear are ready to blaze into the soccer category should World Cup '94 strike gold in the U.S.

Analysts expect Adidas America, Nike and Reebok International will spend a combined $25 million in the next three months on soccer, despite unceasing skepticism about the viability of the sport on a mass market level in the U.S.

"World Cup isn't going to change drastically the dynamics and prospects of the soccer business in the U.S.," said John Horan, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence. "It's a nice [soccer products] launch vehicle for Nike and Reebok, but their underlying motivation is the international market, as soccer is the biggest shoe category worldwide."

Still, with retailers like the Athlete's Foot Group and Foot Locker quadrupling their soccer inventories this year, marketers are optimistic that at the very least, the World Cup will spark a slow burn that, fanned by their continued support, could eventually lead to big league success.

Here's how the initial race shapes up:

Adidas, a World Cup marketing partner and the dominant force in the global soccer shoe market, this month will break two spots from Team One, El Segundo, Calif., touting its Predator soccer shoe. The commercials feature goalkeeper Tony Miola, considered the U.S. team's most marketable star.

Nike, a relative newcomer to soccer, will counter this month with a new print campaign and TV spot that's currently running in Europe; both efforts are from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. Nike will also have a major presence in the nine U.S. World Cup cities this summer by expanding its Big Walls outdoor program.

Reebok, which launched its soccer line in international markets last year, appears to be moving more aggressively in the U.S. than its competitors. The company will team with General Mills' Wheaties this month for a Hispanic market cross-promotion handled by DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago. Wheaties boxes will feature trading cards depicting Reebok's soccer endorsers; the effort will be promoted through in-store advertising.

And Reebok is hooking up with World Cup marketing partner Sprint for a promotion that began May 15.

On April 24, the marketer broke a soccer-themed global spot from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, featuring an array of prominent international soccer stars.

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