Women's World Cup: Quotes from May 27 teleconference with Marla Messing

The following is an edited transcript of the May 27 media teleconference with Women's World Cup CEO Marla Messing: RICHARD FINN: Good afternoon. I'm Richard Finn, director of FIFA Women's World Cup, and welcome to our teleconference call. Today we are 23 days from kickoff at Giants Stadium on June 19th for what promises to be the best Women's World Cup ever. Teams are in the final weeks of preparing for the competition. Many squads are going to be coming to the United States within the next week, and we, too, here at the Women's World Cup Organizing Committee are putting together final preparations for the tournament, and to talk about those and other issues related to the tournament is Marla Messing, President and CEO of the Women's World Cup. Marla? MARLA MESSING: Thank you, Richard, and good afternoon, everyone. As Richard said, we are 23 days and counting. Teams are beginning to arrive and the tournament will soon be in full swing. As we look back on the last two and a half years of our planning for this event in very broad strokes, we have taken a three-prong attack. The first thing we did is to make sure that our sales operation was in the right mode. And as you know, sales has been of paramount importance to us. That means getting fans into the stadiums, securing corporate sponsors and securing television coverage. And we are very pleased to announce that we have now crossed the 400,000 mark in terms of ticket sales. We are over 62,000 for the opening game in New York. And we have approaching 15,000 for the opening game in San Jose. Average per event is over 23,000, and our average for first round, non-USA matches is over 16,000. As you know, we have 19 commercial affiliates on board, and with international television sales continuing, we now have 74 countries that have committed to broadcast the tournament. The second part of this three-prong attack is operational, and this is not something to go into in detail, but suffice it to say that we are very committed to provide a smooth, professional experience for key constituencies this summer, key constituencies being the fans, broadcasters, FIFA sponsors and other people typically associated with major international sport events. With our sales and our operations plans in place or in the process of being put into place, we have now over the last several months turned our focus to some additional areas. The first is creating an aura around the event, and while this is fundamentally a soccer event, we want people to feel this summer that they are at a major international event; that they are witnessing history. And second, we feel it's incumbent on us again because our success in sales and operations to really move this event beyond the soccer communities to try to attract people who may have no prior association with soccer. Let me start with the second part, moving beyond the soccer community. Over the next couple of months and during the last four to six weeks, the organizing committee has embarked on a marketing campaign that's included major media outlets in our seven host cities, print media primarily targeted at suburban moms and dads. Radio will begin in a couple of weeks that will be targeted primarily at teenage girls and boys. And television, that will have a much more broad reach. In addition to the organizing committee, some of our commercial affiliates, Adidas, Bud Light, Allstate, Mattel, Hyundai and ESPN, have all embarked on their own national advertising campaigns, thereby promoting their association with the tournament. Some of these media campaigns are being supported by grass roots and other promotions. For example, Mattel will be in hundreds of stores this summer with soccer activities related to their Barbie doll, and Adidas will be in hundreds of sporting goods stores promoting the Women's World Cup as well as taking their line of products out into the community to places like UCLA and Los Angeles and Boston Commons will have a 25,000 square foot soccer park supported by Adidas. And some of our other sponsors, again bringing this sport and this tournament to the people. And Allstate, which is signing up kids throughout the country for a two million dollar kickoff that will take place on June 24th in Chicago where one boy and one girl will get to kick for a million dollars, and a million dollars for charity. Again, the purpose of all these things is to bring this sport beyond the soccer community to the people. And we believe with what we are doing and what our sponsors are doing, we will reach hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, who otherwise may not have any soccer connection. And the message will be clear; that this is all about the event. Turning our attention to the stadiums again, as we prepare for the operation of the tournament, we believe it's incumbent to create a real aura at the stadium. Again, fundamentally that this is a soccer event. This is the world championship of women's soccer, and we will not do anything to detract from that. But we want the people there to believe that it's more than a soccer event. Again, that they are a part of history. So when the fans arrive at the stadium this is summer, they will see a beautiful environmentally designed program, banners and flags and other decorative elements that reflect the nature of the tournament, the international flavor of the event. And there will be opening and closing ceremonies in New York. We believe we have secured the hottest band in the country, a band called "'N SYNC," as well as another band called "Bewitched" that will be singing with the person who sings our official song, Billie, in a 20-minute opening ceremonies that will take place immediately presiding the official kickoff. In San Jose there will be opening ceremonies featuring some local talent, and, of course, in Los Angeles we will have the closing ceremony that sets the stage for the final event. Also in New York and Los Angeles, we will have a Fan Fest that's approximately a 100,000 square feet of soccer activities, food, entertainment, sponsor booths and other things. Again, to engage the fans in the experience. Bud Light will be hosting FIFA pre-match and post-match concerts for the fans who are attending who are interested in local music. We will have laser shows and fireworks on the Fourth of July, and all matches will include what we're calling atmospheric entertainment. Roving bands of entertainers to reflect the cultures of the different teams participating in the tournament: Samba drummers, Tango drummers, Nigerian acrobats and other entertainers. So again, once we felt that our sales were proceeding as they should, that our operations were in place, we took it upon ourselves to make it more than just 32 soccer games, and fans and other people who participate in the event this summer are going to see that this is going to be a major event. It is going to be of the scope of the World Cup experience, and they are going to have a great time and hopefully we will attract more people to the sport of soccer. RICHARD FINN: We will now open it up to questions and answers, please. Q: Can you just talk a little bit about your latest ticket sale projection. I know you and Alan have a thing going back and forth. Where does that stand, and who is going to win that bet? MARLA MESSING: Actually, I am not that familiar with the bet. We announced that we had adjusted our projections from 386,000 tickets to 475,000 tickets. Those are still our projections. I said that I think we will get to a half million tickets, but again, we have now exceeded 400,000, and we are definitely on a pace to sell a half a million tickets. Q: And what do you think will be the adjusted for games that don't involve the U.S.. It seems like that is going up pretty quickly as well. MARLA MESSING: We are averaging over 16,000 people for the non-USA games. I think it could get as high as 18,000, perhaps even 20,000. We will have to see how sales continue doing. Q: And what is your last initial projection for non-U.S. games? MARLA MESSING: Our initial projection or non-U.S. games were about 9,000. Q: I'd like you to comment a little bit on security. Obviously, at least to my knowledge, there is not the same problem with hooliganism at women's games as has been traditional, unfortunately, at men's games. How could you compare the security precautions? MARLA MESSING: As you point out, there is not the history in women's soccer that you have in men's soccer with hooliganism or other fan problems. So we, as any international sporting event works, we have a security plan, which I believe our fans will be comfortable and protected, and we will be insuring the protection of the teams. But you really cannot compare the women's World Cup or women's soccer to the kinds of security needs that you have in the men's game. Q: In terms of what? Can you be more specific? Does it mean less manpower, or what exactly are you referring to? MARLA MESSING: Well, when you look at the men's World Cup, you have in particular, things to consider like separating major fan bases. So, for example, when you're selling tickets abroad, if you have a game between Germany and England, you have to make sure that the Germans buying tickets are seated in part of the stadium while the English will be seated in another part of the stadium. Because there has been no history of sort of fan altercations or fan problems, we don't have those kinds of issues to deal with. For us, it's really about insuring that the teams are not hassled in any way; that their movements from training sites to hotels and to the stadium are smooth and that there are no hassles with that. And we will have security at the stadiums that is consistent with security for any kind of sporting event. Q: Considering yesterday's European Cup final will probably have the highest viewership of any game since France '98, I was wondering why there was no Women's World Cup advertising? MARLA MESSING: You know, it wasn't in our media plans. I really -- I don't have an answer, other than we have a finite media budget, and we've spent our money where we think it would be, you know, most applicable to what we're doing. And that did not factor into it. Q: The other question is: The 1991 U.S. team was virtually ignored after winning the World Cup that year. What plans, if any, are there to honor those veterans that are still not playing in this tournament and perhaps even the first U.S. team from 1995 as well? MARLA MESSING: A number of those veterans have called and are planning to attend the events and will be sitting in the family and friend program of the teams. So I think they are honored to be able to be there, and to see the tremendous growth that has taken place in the sport. And that's really our plan. Q{ There's nothing written to introduce the whole team during the opening ceremony or anything like that? MARLA MESSING: Not at this time. We need to -- obviously this event is taking place in the United States; so we'll have a very American flavor. At the same time, there are 16 teams competing in the tournament, and we need to have a balanced approach to all those teams. Q: When you first started planning for the World Cup before the '96 Olympics, what was the budget, and how did that change after the women did so well in '96? And if you could compare that to the men's Cup in '94, which I know you were involved in, and the budget for that. And the second question, how much did it cost the sponsors, the official sponsors and men the marketing and media partners to get involved? MARLA MESSING: The answer to your first couple of questions is there was not a budget set prior to the Olympics. The first budget that I created, which was again post the Olympics, was around $17, $18 million. The current budget for this event is about $28 to $30 million; so, that has gone up significantly. Having said that, you still cannot compare putting on the Women's World Cup to putting on the 1994 Men's World Cup. Budget for the Men's World Cup was about $275 million. In terms of sponsor participation, we have different levels are sponsorship. At the official sponsor level, the price is roughly somewhere between a million dollars and $4 million, depending on the category of sponsorship. At the next level, the marketing partner level, it's between -- about $500,000 to a million dollars, and then it goes down from there. Q: How many tickets have you sold for the final here in the Rose Bowl already? MARLA MESSING: About 42,000. Q: And why hasn't the national team played more games out here? They only played one game against Mexico, and that was it. To expose the women's soccer in here, and especially to the Latino communities? MARLA MESSING: In the last year the U.S. team has actually played two games in southern California. They played Argentina at Fullerton about a year ago, and they played Mexico as you pointed out. In March. The team has been on a tour of the United States, and I think one of the objectives is to bring them to as many communities as possible to really promote the event. So the fact that were in southern California twice is symbolic of the importance of this community. I don't know -- there's probably not too many communities they have seen twice in the last -- in the last year. Q: Are they working with you during those three or four weeks that the World Cup is going to be here? Are they cooperating fully or is there any friction between the community and the MLS? MARLA MESSING: We are working with some MLS teams very closely on the operations, both on the sales and operations of the game, we have a very close working relationship with the Chicago Fire, with the New England Revolution, and because there's sort of a three-way partnership, if you will, between the Women's World Cup and Major League Soccer, and ESPN. We've all worked together to try and make sure that nobody is stepping on any toes and that we're all promoting the game of soccer. Q: Can you address the economic impact that this tournament is going to be having, especially in Los Angeles? And are you satisfied with the response you've gotten from the media? I get a sense there has not been the buzz about the Women's World Cup as there was about the Men's World Cup. MARLA MESSING: On the economic impact of the tournament, there are people who are economic scientists who actually do economic impact reports, and we have not done that; so it would be impossible for me to give you a number. We think the impact on these communities is going to be great. We think the fans in these communities are going to be excited about the tournament. The organizing committee and our sponsors are doing a lot of things in the communities, again, to bring the tournament to the people and to bring non-soccer fans to the tournament. So we feel like the impact will be there, but it would be disingenuous of me to give you a number. In terms of the media, I am sort of torn here, because on one hand, we always want the media to do more, and I must say like I feel the media has to date treated us very fairly, has recognized the importance of the event, the importance of the world championship of the sport and for the most part I think we've been treated fairly in terms of the quantity of coverage we've received. Q: I'm curious about the ticket sales in Washington. That you were disappointed that sales were lagging a bit. I'm wondering if the progress has changed? MARLA MESSING: First of all, we are not disappointed with sales in Washington. I think what's happened is that in other cities, sales have just so far outpaced our expectations that Washington may, again, vis-a-vis those other cities have not fared as well. But Washington D.C. is absolutely on course. The U.S. game that will be played in Washington is on July 1st; again, if the team qualifies, which is a couple weeks behind the opening game in New York City. So it's not surprising that that will be selling a little bit slower than the opening games, but right now we have sold about 47,000 tickets in the Washington D.C. area; and again, we are very pleased with that. Q: Is the city behind all the rest of the cities in terms of total ticket sales? MARLA MESSING: I don't think so. Q: Do you have the numbers in front of you? MARLA MESSING: I don't have all the numbers added up on a city by city basis, no. Q: I'm interested to know if you could look in the not too distant future, what you think this tournament might mean to soccer for teams on all levels from the girls in say, Phoenix, Arizona to the potential for a professional women's league in the future. MARLA MESSING: We think that there's going to be a very significant legacy of this tournament. If you look at grass roots soccer registration numbers, in 1998, seven and a half million, 7.5 million girls registered to play soccer. That is the most that have registered to play soccer since 1995 when 7.2 million girls registered to play. We believe, in part, the preparations for the tournament, the aggressive schedule of the Women's national team that these things have played an important role in increasing those registration numbers and I believe 1999 will eclipse 1998. We also think, you know, that around the world, the impact of this tournament is going to be significant. We've talked about this in the past that for prior Women's World Cups, teams have shown up four days before the tournament began. And that is because four days before the tournament begins, the organizing committee takes both financial and operations responsibility for the team; so, it does not cost them anything in this tournament. I think we are up to around 12 teams that will be here prior to that four-day mark. That means these countries are bearing the expenses and the operations burden of bringing these teams to the United States to get acclimated and to prepare for the tournament. And the fact that they are putting these resources into the team tells us that they are starting to take women's soccer and their women's national team programs much more seriously. So we feel like the legacy of the tournament is really starting to be felt around the world and again, here in the United States, these registration numbers provide some very good evidence of that. In terms of a professional league, U.S. Soccer has commissioned a feasibility study, and I believe a business plan for a professional women's soccer league that would kickoff in 2001. Again, they are spending significant resources on this. Clearly, the Women's World Cup needs to be a success. I think the 2000 Olympics will be another nice launching pad. And hopefully, we will have a women's professional soccer league in 2001. Q: Coming on the heels of what you just said, I found it interesting, just came on the wire yesterday said that Wendy Gebauer is going to be playing for a men's team tomorrow night in the A-League. I just wanted to see what your thoughts are on having that first-time event, a woman playing in the pro men's league. We know the numbers and the feasibility study sounds great. Have you heard a lot of rumblings, yourself, of a pro league just going about during your business. MARLA MESSING: We hear a lot about a pro league, again because U.S. Soccer is using this as a platform to gain some valuable information for putting together a professional league. U.S. Soccer, I must say, they would not be the entity that would form a professional league, but they are basically trying to put a blueprint together to attract investors and sponsors in television for there to be a stand-alone professional league; so we hear about that. Again, their plan is not -- would not take place until 2001; so that's not something that would happen on the heels of this tournament. In terms of Wendy Gebauer, you know, I commend her for going back to the soccer field and if she wants to play with men, that's terrific. I just want to make sure she's okay for the commentating that she needs to do this summer. Q: You said ticket sales for the San Jose opening doubleheader are at 15,000? MARLA MESSING: They are approaching 15,000. Q: That number has been almost stagnant here for two months. And during that time, there have been several developments that one would expect to have increased ticket sales here. First of all, the draws have been held and people found out who the teams were, including China. The sales still have not moved in the last two months, and now they are below the non-U.S. average you have at other sites. I wonder what you would attribute that to, and I wonder if you plan any special promotions or anything in this area to rectify that situation? MARLA MESSING: First of all, it is not correct that sales have not moved. We sell tickets every single day for the June 19th game in San Jose. While they not be moving at a really brisk clip, we are selling tickets every day. Again, I don't know what numbers you are referring to. San Jose on June 19th is an opening day for the Women's World Cup, and we will have an opening ceremony and we will have all the atmospheric entertainment that I was talking about before; so, I think we are going to attract several thousand more fans to that game. And ultimately, it's going to be a great day for the fans in San Jose. Q: You weren't aware that the local organizers here were quoting a sales figure of about 14,000 with the All-star Game and draw were held here? MARLA MESSING: No, I wasn't. Q: I wanted to ask you about your thoughts. I know at one point there was talk the Women's World Cup would be sort of on a regional level in smaller venues and you pushed to get it on a national level, at bigger venues. And I wanted to get your thoughts that went into that decision. And also as sort of a side question, I read somewhere that you made the proposal two days before giving birth. And I was wondering how you pulled that off? MARLA MESSING: Well, the second one is easy. It's correct. The first business plan I wrote for the tournament I turned in to U.S. Soccer two days before giving birth to my first daughter, Natalie, and I think maybe writing a business plan is a good way to pass the time when you're seven, eight, nine months pregnant. Anyway, in terms of the first question, you're correct. The original mandate from FIFA when the tournament was awarded to the United States was that it would be played in small stadiums along the East Coast. And I think what happened was primarily we saw the women's soccer competition at the 1996 Olympics. And again, it wasn't so much the number of people that attended, although it was extraordinary, 62,000 people for the semifinal doubleheader, and over 76,000 people for the Gold Medal Match. But it wasn't so much all those people as it was the makeup of the stadium. It was very clear to us that the people had come to see women's soccer; that these were sophisticated soccer fans that knew what they were doing and what they were watching. And that indicated to us that there was a much bigger audience for this event than we were giving it credit for. And while we knew it was a big risk to put this in major stadiums and major markets, we really wanted to give the event the chance to reach its potential. And we've talked about this a lot. The decision in hindsight was an excellent one. If we would have left the event in the small stadiums, we would have been sold out before the end of 1998. We probably never would have attracted national television coverage, 19 commercial affiliates. So ultimately it turned out to be a very crucial and important decision. Q: If you'll indulge a very general question about soccer in the 90s. As we near the end of the decade, I wonder if you could talk about what the sport has accomplished, men's and women's. And I guess specifically, you know, anything that's surprised you and what it's been able to accomplish or failed to accomplish. So pleasant surprises, unpleasant surprises, and what's left to do in, let's say, the next decade. MARLA MESSING: The 1990s have been such an important and successful decade for soccer in the United States. Going back to 1990 when the U.S. men's team participated in World Cup competition for the first time in like 40 years. 1991, U.S. Women's Team wins the first World Cup. 1994, the World Cup taking place in the United States.... three and a half million fans..... huge television audience. 1996, the Olympics, the launch of Major League Soccer. And, of course, in 1999, the Women's World Cup. So there have been so many high points in the 1990s. I look back at the decade, and again, this is the only decade I've been involved in the sport. I think the most important thing that's happened is the development of the men's and women's national team program. Now, I recognize that we did not have the greatest showing in 1998 in the World Cup, but having said that, the men's national team program has a profile today that it did not have when I first got involved in the sport back in 1992. And when U.S. Soccer puts on a national team match, men's or women's, people in the community are interested. They come. They know about the team. They know about the players. So I think that the development of these national team programs has been very crucial and is one of the most obvious affects of this great decade for the sport in the United States. Q: Mixed signals it seems on MLS attendance figures recently. What does that indicate about progress or lack of it? MARLA MESSING: I guess the corollary to what I just said: This has been a great decade but we still have a way to go to be on a par with other countries in the sport, and clearly the place where we need the most work and the most development is on the professional side. You know, the launch of a professional league in any sport is a major undertaking. It is very difficult. Major League Soccer is, you know, I think experiencing some growing pains, but they are around. They have got some great investors. They have great corporate sponsors and television exposure, and they are going to continue to be around. And then on the women's side, if we can get a Women's Professional League going, I think it would be great. And those need to be our objectives for the next millennium. Q: Marla, I was wondering which countries have the most fans that are coming over here? I know -- we all know about the ravaged fans for the men's game, but can you tell from ticket sales that there are some countries that will have a lot of fans over here for the event? MARLA MESSING: We do not track international ticket sales for the Women's World Cup in the same way we did for the Men's World Cup where there was a specific allocation of tickets going into each country; so it is very difficult for us to say which countries will send the most fans over here. But, you know, our research on this has really -- what it's really shown us is that like the Men's World Cup, where people will plan a vacation around it, a lot of people, hundreds of thousands of people come to the United States every summer to vacation with their families. And those people while they are here will take in a Women's World Cup match; again, as opposed to actually coming over here for a match. So for these reasons it's just difficult for us to tell which country's will have the most -- the most fans and the most avid fans. Q: Can you tell from the non-U.S. games that there are game that is seem to be drawing better than others, or do you think that's based more on the market than the teams? MARLA MESSING: I think in part it's based more on the market, but certainly Norway is drawing well. China is drawing well. But at this point, I think people are buying tickets because they want to be part of the World Cup experience and not so much to see a particular team outside the U.S.. Q: Marla, I just wanted to follow-up on the overseas ticket question. Is there any rough ballpark estimate you have as to what percentage, finally, of the people that go to these matches will be from overseas, even though there is no obviously no scientific way to tell right now? MARLA MESSING: To be honest, I don't know how we would ballpark it, except to say our gut tells us that 95 percent of the fans in the stadium will be from the United States. Q: Are you currently selling tickets overseas now, for example, through overseas brokers? MARLA MESSING: We are not selling tickets through overseas brokers. What we have done is just after the final draw, we offered national associations, the participating national associations, the opportunity to buy tickets. It was mostly a friends and family plan, and a number of associations did that. And on our website, you can download a ticket order form if you're international. Fill it out and fax it in, and those go directly to Ticketmaster, and we have not tracked them. Q: I have in light of some of the things going on with China right now, do you see any of that affecting the World Cup games? MARLA MESSING: Right now, we don't see it having an impact on the World Cup games. You know we like to believe that sports can really transcends politics, and we think that is the case. So right now, maybe other than making the teams a little bit more competitive on the field, we don't see any issues with that. Q: On the lighter side, Mia Hamm's book that just came out, "Go For The Gold," was it planned that it was going to come out just before the World Cup games, because she ends it with a quote from Kristine Lilly: "Now it's time for us to get the Cup back." Was that maybe indirectly more part of the marketing plan? MARLA MESSING: I have two answers to that. One is I'm sitting here with the co-author of the book, Aaron Heifetz,, who can perhaps talk more about the marketing of the book. But seriously, of course it was planned in connection with the women's World Cup. There is no doubt that people that are involved either with the U.S. Women's national team, or with any particular players on the team and people who are involved in the sport of soccer, see this as a very strong platform upon which they can promote their products and services. So the Mia Hamm book and some of the other products and things you'll see out there having to do with women's soccer were all calculated decisions to associate with the tournament. Q: Marla, going back to the tickets a little bit, when you said that you wanted to make this an event to be transcending beyond soccer, I'm just a little confused, because you said that you found out from the Olympic that these were sophisticated soccer fans, and yet you're trying to take it beyond. Was the attempt, or when the decision was made to make it a much bigger than originally planned event or than the Sweden World Cup, when that decision was made or pushed or whatever, was it determined that trying to sell it to the core soccer community just wouldn't make it fly, at least financially or on the success level that you were looking for? And is that one of the reasons
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