Three years after huge crowds watched the USA women battle for the gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, women's football returns to the United States.
The hosting of this year's World Cup certainly boosts the chances of the U.S. women, the 1991 World Champions, to reclaim their title, which Norway won in 1995 in Sweden. The U.S. and Norway, along with Asian champion China, Germany and South American champion Brazil, are the favourites to capture the honours this time.
But more importantly to the organisers of USA '99, the tournament is an opportunity, as their mission statement says, to stage a breakthrough event for women's sports. They also want to help make FIFA President Sepp Blatter's statement that "the future of football is feminine" come true by inspiring the next generation of female athletes, those who would aspire to play in a future Women's World Cup.
*Final at the Rose Bowl
*To that end, tournament organisers hope to make the tournament the largest attended women's-only sporting event in history, larger than the modest crowds that Sweden drew. Based on Olympic attendances and the success of the men's World Cup in 1994 - when legions of non-football spectators joined the ranks of youth players, coaches and fans in packed stadiums - USA '99 is well on its way.
While most of the 32 matches will not reach the more than 75,000 spectators the USA-China Olympic final drew, USA '99 organisers believe they will draw healthy attendances for the U.S. women's games as well as the final, which will be played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on July 10.
"We continue to expect that for certain games we will have full, or almost full stadiums," Women's World Cup '99 president Marla Messing said, "and for other games we will have very respectful numbers for a major women's sporting event."
Ticket sales have gone faster than expected. Organisers had originally expected to sell 380,000 tickets to the entire tournament but had already sold 215,000 by the World Cup Draw on February 14 and 400,000 as of April. Organisers now expect advance sales of up to 500,000 tickets.
*Greater television presence
*Most of the 400,000 tickets have been bought by the U.S. soccer community. The non-soccer fans are expected to buy tickets much closer to the World Cup opener, because Americans love to attend big events, as they showed in 1994.
"They have a sense of what World Cup football is all about, and it is the kind of thing they want to be a part of," Marla Messing said. "And so bringing a second World Cup here so close to the 1994 event has made people excited."
USA '99 will have a much greater television presence than previous tournaments in China and Sweden. Domestically, the tournament has an unprecedented deal with ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 to televise all 32 games, with 27 broadcast live. In addition, Lifetime Television, the self-acclaimed network "for women," produced a series of vignettes about the different teams appearing in the Women's World Cup along with a special programme featuring the Road to the World Cup.
In Europe, Eurosport will show anywhere from half the tournament to all the games to up to 55 countries. Italy, Denmark, Norway, Russia and Sweden all have individual television deals in the works as well. No women's football tournament has ever received as much attention from television.
Along with creating a huge spectacle of women's sports, the Women's World Cup may have another effect: the creation of a women's professional league in the United States. There are currently no completely pro leagues for women anywhere in the world, but the U.S. Soccer Federation has put together a committee to study the feasibility of such a league.
Women's football advocates in the U.S. pushed for the creation of a women's pro league in 1997, but investors backed out before another U.S. Soccer committee could decide on the league's fate.
"There is a lot of support for the idea," said Marla Messing, who is on U.S. Soccer's women's pro soccer committee. "We think it would be terrific for our young players and for our veteran players to have a place to play on a full-time basis."
*The popularity of women's football in the USA had to take a boost from the Women's World Cup Final Draw and FIFA World All-Star Game. In an exciting, well-played match, the World Stars showed that there are plenty of talented players outside of the powerhouse U.S. and that the World Cup won't just be a showcase for the home team.
"It shows to the rest of the world, puts it in their heads, that yes, the U.S. can be beaten, on their own soil," Australia's captain Julie Murray said after the game. "Not only that, but don't just worry about the Americans. You saw out there the individual players from the World All-Star team who had incredible skill and knowledge and were tough to play against."
"What I saw was a good sign for women's world football," U.S. head coach Tony DiCicco said.