Female U.S. athletes still seek league of their own

When were the last softball world championships held? How often is it held? Now, how many of you have heard of pitcher Jennie Finch?

Her blonde, good looks gained her personal publicity and allowed Finch to become a spokeswoman for U.S.A. softball when the sport needed it most. It wasn't a role she sought, but it's one she embraced because her sport recently had become an endangered species at the Olympics, possibly affecting the future of a professional league, as well.

"Anything that brings attention to our sport brings notoriety to it, and that can only help the sport," Finch said. "Right now, as a team, our main focus is a gold medal. But it has been a disappointment that there isn't a (pro league) out there."

When the U.S. men's baseball and soccer teams failed to qualify for the Olympics, the disappointment was accompanied by an embarrassing wince, not a debate about the long-term viability of Major League Baseball or Major League Soccer. And NBA player after NBA Player declined invites to Athens, yet if they win anything but gold -- or, gasp, even fail to medal -- no one will worry about the impact at the league's box office.

Lucky them. Their female counterparts don't have such a margin for error.

No one can say for sure what the aftermath would have been if the U.S. women's softball, soccer and basketball teams failed to qualify for the Olympics. Yet their successes and failures in Athens still will play a part in determining the fate of their professional counterparts and, in some cases, the future of their sports altogether.

Eight years ago at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, all three teams won gold in their backyard, which turned into fertile ground for the launch of women's professional leagues.

"We knew that a lot was riding on our success," said Charlotte Sting point guard Dawn Staley, who is returning for her third Olympic Games.

The American Basketball League began play soon after the Games. The following year, the Women's Pro Fastpitch league (WPF) and the Women's National Basketball Association joined the fray. The Women's United Soccer Association was launched in 2001 after Team USA's highly publicized World Cup win in 1999 and silver medal finish at the 2000 Games.

Today, however, only the WNBA is thriving.

The ABL folded during its third season under the weight of competition with the WNBA, which resulted in a consolidation of talent and an improved level of play. The WUSA suspended operations last September, after suffering more than $100 million in losses, but is currently reorganizing.

The WPF is still alive, sort of. The league was renamed the Women's Professional Softball League in 1999, was relegated to a tour league in 2001, was restructured in 2002 and re-launched as National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) this summer.

NPF president Rich Levine and Tony DiCicco, coach of the women's 1996 Olympic and 1999 World Cup soccer teams and one of the lead organizers of the WUSA re-launch committee, both said their leagues will take advantage of the marketing opportunities if the women win gold in Athens. But, they added, the new business models aren't dependent on such success.

"We can't rest all our hopes on the U.S. winning a gold medal," DiCicco said.

David Carter, principal of The Sports Business Group, a sports marketing firm, agreed: "That's smart. Anytime a sports league or team needs a victory to be viable it's in deep, deep trouble."

Yet, Staley said she knows the importance of heroes receiving big endorsement deals and getting publicity.

"I can go out and speak to these little girls and say, 'Look at Lisa Leslie and Mia Hamm on TV, this could be you,'" Staley said. "So, I can give them some umphhf to say, 'Keep doing what you're doing. There may not be a soccer professional league, but keep doing what you're doing. You never know what the future might hold.'

"I didn't think there would be women's basketball -- a professional league -- in my playing days, but it never deterred me from going overseas and playing in my professional career."

Levine and DiCicco say new leagues need time to grow before they can cultivate significant revenue from sponsorships and television. The same will hold true for the Ladies Professional Fastpitch Association, a six-team traveling tournament that will play 15 weekends next summer and being spearheaded by pitcher Lisa Fernandez.

Patience came naturally for men's leagues because they grew organically -- the fans created the need for teams and leagues, rather than the other way around, Carter pointed out.

And therein lies the rub.

Tough competition improves players. So, in non-Olympic years they need in an elite-level league. But for that league to survive the players must be successful in the Olympics.

"It's hard to constantly train at a certain level when you're not able to display it in some kind of capacity or measure it," Staley said. "I think the WNBA has allowed us to stay on top internationally. That's probably a good way of looking at why we need to keep women's professional basketball around. If soccer or softball lose internationally then we must say something else has got to happen. We lost the World Cup, maybe that's the way we need to look at it, as a message."

Just two years ago, in order to control the unwieldiness of the Games, a proposal to eliminate softball, baseball, modern pentathlon was presented to the International Olympic Committee's program commission. A lack of global support and media exposure along with the cost of venues were reasons for elimination. After further examination of Olympic regulations, the sports have been deemed safe through the 2008 Olympics, however, they are still at risk in 2012. Meanwhile, every U.S. softball game in Athens will be broadcast by an NBC network and the gold medal game will be shown in primetime, regardless of the teams involved.

"Obviously there's pressure that our sport was on the line. We can't go in with that pressure. We have enough pressure as it is," Finch said. "Our main goal is to put a show on. I think softball has already spoken for itself with 75 percent of the tickets being sold, the gold medal game sold out.

"You know, we're one of the highest profile female sports going into the Olympic Games. We've just got to, you know, let it speak for ourselves. (International Softball Federation president) Don Porter has done a great job of getting our sport to this level, but we just need to continue that with our play."

Said U.S. defender Cat Reddick: "We know success (in Athens) helps a lot, but success in a lot of people's minds is not a silver or a bronze. Of course, we're not coming over here for anything other than a gold. We hope it does spur on something. (The WUSA) did build on its own momentum. It was quite confusing as to why the league didn't stay around."

Startup leagues get limited kicks at the can before ownership groups and corporations tune out the sales pitch altogether. If the WUSA, which plans to re-launch in 2006, hopes to survive, Carter said, it needs something that lasts longer than the glow of an Olympic gold medal or World Cup title.

"What soccer really needs is a shot in the arm -- or the leg, rather -- in the form of new talent to market the sport to the next generation of fans," Carter said.

DiCicco points back to the WUSA as a source for that talent.

Shannon Boxx, a 27-year-old midfielder, made her national team debut three weeks before the 2003 World Cup and finished the tournament on the All-Star Team alongside Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett and Abby Wambach. The only player in U.S. history to play for the World Cup team before playing a minute for the national team, Boxx led Notre Dame to the 1995 NCAA title, then honed her skills for one year overseas and the last three years in the WUSA.

Midfielders Angela Hucles and Aly Wagner, defender Heather Mitts and Wambach, Team USA's leading goal scorer this year, are other Olympic rookies who have utilized the WUSA to bridge the gap between the end of their college eligibility and international tournaments.

Wambach acknowledges the affect an Olympic gold medal would have on the revival of the WUSA.

"I'll tell you this," she said, "it wouldn't hurt. If we can be an avenue for that, then it would be great. If not, we'll be working our tails off to bring it back."

While softball is a high-profile sport in the Olympics and is popular in U.S. high schools and colleges, it still lags behind soccer in establishing a reputation as a professional sport. More players like Finch will help -- the face of Team USA and its No. 2 starting pitcher struck out four major-league batters in an exhibition in February and serves as a baseball analyst on TV -- but Carter is skeptical as to how much.

"She's caught people's attention, but I'm not convinced it translates into revenue down the road in terms of ticket and TV revenue," he said.

The WNBA, which has had the benefit of the NBA's infrastructure since its inception, has had its growing pains, as well. Two teams have folded and two have relocated since the NBA turned ownership of the WNBA teams to their NBA counterparts before the 2003 season, moves Carter attributes to the refinement of the league's business plan. Still, the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team doesn't carry nearly as much burden for the WNBA's success.

Women's basketball as a whole has developed a broader base of support, due in part to the success of programs like the University of Connecticut, which won its third straight NCAA title in April.

"Whatever happens in the Olympics has no bearing on what happens in the WNBA," said analyst and Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, a former Olympic player (1976) as well as a former WNBA player, coach and general manager. "(NBA commissioner) David Stern is so invested, financially and emotionally, and really cares about the product and the opportunity. I mean, here we are in our eighth season, and we're still growing. We are very secure."

Still, the WNBA shut down operations for the month of August to ensure the best possible players were available for the Olympics. The decision was not only for USA Basketball in order to maximize its gold medal chances and the windfall of sponsorship dollars that likely will follow, but also for other countries to ensure the best level of competition and league exposure in the international spotlight.

"We feel like we're going to be pretty well represented and that the Olympics will in many ways validate what has been, in my judgment, a very good year for women's basketball," WNBA president Val Ackerman said before the WNBA All-Stars lost to the U.S. Olympic Team, 74-58, at Radio City Music Hall last Thursday.

"The plan, very much, is to take advantage of what we think will be a great performance, a lot of emotion, and so on," she added. "Call it a victory tour, for lack of a better word, as it relates to when the players come back. By the way, not just American players, but if (Australian) Lauren Jackson is coming back with a medal, that's a good story for us, too; or (Russian) Elena Baranova here in New York. So, we very much intend to capitalize on it, and I think, again, because it is such a big story, it will give us what we need to get through what is, in fact, a long break from games."

So while the U.S. women's basketball team might be off the hook, relatively speaking, they're still aware of their impact on women's sports.

"I think women as a whole, we all need to kind of branch out and help each other," said Tamika Catchings, a forward on the U.S. women's basketball team. "Obviously, you want to see soccer be successful, softball be successful. All the women's athletic teams you want to see be successful because as a whole it will help women's sports. It's going to help all of us."

Cynthia Faulkner and Steve Woodward contributed to this report.