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ESPN Unveils Women's Cup Plans

ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC Sports this week will finally take the wraps off coverage plans for the 2003 Women's World Cup.

With a SARS outbreak in China, FIFA officials decided to move the event to the U.S. back in May, resulting in schedule juggling.

The trio will televise 18 live matches and a pair of encores from Sept. 21 through Oct. 12. ESPN2 will carry 16 games, including a U.S. national team opening-round match against Nigeria on Thursday, Sept. 25.

ESPN only has one game, while ABC has three: the other two U.S. opening-round matches and the final on Oct. 12.

The schedule is a significant increase from the dozen matches the networks said they would air early in 2002 when they announced a deal with Anshutz Entertainment Group to present this year's women's tourney.

In the States, the 2003 World Cup moves into more viewer-friendly time slots, but it faces steeper competition: Its predecessor in June and July of 1999 played largely against baseball action.

"That was an event that captured lightning in a bottle, and was a great moment for our country, women's sports and soccer," said ESPN vice president of business affairs Jim Noel. "It's hard to gauge how well the event will do [from a ratings perspective], but our experience is that people are very interested in our national teams."

Indeed, the 1999 World Cup final was watched by more than 40 million people on ABC, the largest soccer audience ever in this nation.

For the 1999 World Cup, ESPN averaged a 1.47 rating for eight matches and ESPN2 a 0.54 for 22 contests.