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Ladies' Day

Female athletes make great role models and fierce competitors. But few women make a living in pro sports. How can they bolster their box-office appeal?

Remember Jennie Finch? Sure you do. She was the bubbly, blonde, thunderbolt-hurling softball pitcher who emerged as one of the darlings of the Athens Olympics. Last Thursday afternoon--barely two months after she sat in assorted green rooms and graced magazine covers, SI among them--Finch stood on a makeshift stage in Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Joined by Mia Hamm, the grande dame of U.S. women's soccer, and Sue Bird, a star for the WNBA champion Seattle Storm, Finch shilled for a "fitness on demand" cable network, demonstrating a softball workout for 3,000 apoplectic teenage jockettes who dotted the cavernous suburban arena.

The tableau tidily summed up the state of women's sports in this country. In terms of participation, the women's sports movement has been an unqualified success. Thanks largely to Title IX, one in 2.5 girls plays a varsity sport today, a long way from the one in 27 who did in 1970. But we're still far removed from the day when more than a handful of women can make sports a full-time job. Even A-listers like Finch chart a common career arc. They compete honestly, enthusiastically and at a level most of us can barely fathom. At flash-point events--the Olympics, the World Cup--they build up mountains of goodwill and some level of celebrity. Then ... they recede from the public consciousness.

Four of the five major women's professional leagues christened since 1996 have folded, most recently the Women's United Soccer Association, which racked up tens of millions of dollars of debt in its three seasons. (WUSA has designs for relaunching in 2006 with a new business model, and Finch is part of an effort to found a professional softball league.) The lone survivor, the WNBA, admirably soldiers on but hemorrhages money and is in search of a president after the resignation of Val Ackerman last month. Even the once-hot women's tennis tour is desperate for sponsors and buzz--this week the WTA will hold its year-end championships in front of oceans of empty seats at the Staples Center. "The investment in women's sports by high schools and colleges is impressive," says Scott Rosner, a Wharton professor specializing in the sports industry. "The investment by fans and corporations is not."

How then can women's sports parlay all those "You go, girl" good vibes and the participatory interest into financially viable leagues of their own? Here are five suggestions.

•Remember: It's a sport, not a cause. Successful women's pro leagues may be the ultimate manifestation of Girl Power, but selling the leagues as philanthropy (remember the WNBA's "We got next" campaign?) and not athletics shortchanges the product. Plus it makes sponsorship even tougher--you're not just competing for dollars with other sports and entertainment, but with other charities as well. Jennifer Capriati was once roundly criticized for claiming to have "no idea what Title IX is," but maybe her ignorance was instructive. She didn't see herself as a pioneer; she was just another jock trying to win a trophy and a fat check. The athletes are past the banner-carrying phase. The leagues should be, too.

•Market to both genders. True, most women's sports fans are likely to be girls and women. But men still make up the majority of the couch-potato demographic that drives TV ratings. And, positioned correctly, women's sports are the ideal antidote to the predominantly male grousing about the thugs, the poverty of fundamentals and the millionaire babies blighting the current men's sports landscape.

•Sell sex appeal, not sex. Nude pictorials and Anna Kournikova protégées are not a prescription for sustained, long-term growth. Plenty of today's women are comfortable being both strong athletes and alluring celebrities. Does anyone see, for example, Serena Williams as less of a tour de force because she's as at home on the catwalk, or in a bikini, as she is ripping off a forehand winner?

•Think globally, act locally. One of the flaws of a "single-entity" league model in which teams are run by a common owner and not individual franchisees is an overreliance on support from multinational, blue-chip companies. If you get McDonald's and Microsoft to underwrite millions, great. But women's sports thrive at the grassroots level. It's vital that leagues carve out a sponsorship category for the local deli and the regional car dealer. Having the little guys on board makes it easier for a community to call a team its own.

•Show patience. Just as you wouldn't measure a rookie coach against Vince Lombardi, it's folly to compare women's leagues with the "Big Four," which have been accumulating fans and history for decades. Once both their habits and joints start to calcify, today's "doers," all those female varsity athletes, will become tomorrow's fans.

On television and at sports arenas, every night could be Ladies' Night. It'll just take some time and some savvier planning.

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The swimmer, who won eight medals in Athens, was charged with DUI. --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 22