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A Big Hit In Little Cities A women's pro softball league has found its niche

Buoyed by Olympic gold and Dot Richardson's toothy grin,
softball, like women's basketball and soccer, had a fling with
fame in 1996. The triumphs of U.S. female athletes at the
Atlanta Games accelerated efforts to create women's professional
sports leagues, and by '97 two basketball leagues and a softball
loop were up and running. Two years later one basketball league
has folded, and the other is seeing a drop-off at the gate even
while under the NBA's umbrella. World Cup mania notwithstanding,
women's soccer has yet to prove it can hold fans' interest for
more than a few weeks.

The surprise has been pro softball. Using a grassroots strategy,
the six-team Women's Pro Softball League (WPSL) was launched two
years ago by John and Sage Cowles of the Cowles media family,
whose daughter, Jane, was a star leftfielder at Utah State in
the late '70s. In an unusually accommodating business move, the
WPSL has concentrated its effort mostly in midsized Southeastern
cities where its major sponsor, AT&T Wireless Services, is
looking for a foothold. Columbus, Ga.; Durham and Gastonia,
N.C.; and Hampton, Va., have been the league's backbone, drawing
1,000 fans on a good night. The WPSL has fared worse in cities
that are, in the words of Tom Lindemuth, general manager of the
regular-season champion Tampa Bay FireStix, "glutted with family
entertainment alternatives." Orlando was one such city, and
after last season the Wahoos were moved to Akron (and
rechristened the Racers), a hotbed of high school softball,
where attendance has surged. Tampa Bay is considering a move to
nearby Plant City, where in July the WPSL All-Star Game drew
4,200 spectators despite heavy rain.

Pro softball has piqued the interest of a particularly fickle
demographic: the 18-to-34-year-old male with a remote control.
This year WPSL games, broadcast on ESPN2, drew higher ratings
than Arena Football and NHL games on the same network. And WPSL
CEO John Carroll says that after the 2000 Sydney Games, U.S.
Olympians, taking advantage of relaxed Olympic-eligibility
rules, will likely join the league, adding star power.

As in the WNBA, teams are owned by the league. Each WPSL
franchise has 20 players and a $160,000 salary cap; the players,
most of them former college stars, are paid only during the
66-game, May-to-August season. The rest of the year they have
other jobs, mostly as teachers or coaches.

WPSL players are contractually required to sign autographs after
games and conduct youth clinics on off-days--not that they mind.
"It's the intangibles, like being a role model, that make being
a pro so special," says FireStix pitcher DeeDee Weiman-Garcia,
mother of a three-year-old son and one of two 1996 U.S. Olympic
alternates in the league. "Money has never had a thing to do
with it."

If only running a pro league were that simple. While the WPSL is
still operating in the red, AT&T recently re-upped as title
sponsor for three more seasons, and the Cowles haven't backed
off. "If the Cowles see that we haven't increased our national
exposure by next year, I'm sure they will be discouraged," says
Carroll. "But the fact that they continue to increase their
investment shows that they are willing to see this through."

Pro softball has piqued the interest of the 18-to-34 male with a
remote control.