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Cinderella having a ball

U.S. WWC team shows appeal of women's sports

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Posted: Tuesday June 29, 1999 10:27 AM

  The popularity of the U.S. women's team has tapped into a new brand of sports fan. AP

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Soccer, once the Cinderella of American sports, has claimed the spotlight this season, led by superstars so famous their first names say it all: Michelle. Brandi. Mia.

Mia as in Mia Hamm, who goes one-on-one with basketball legend Michael Jordan in a Gatorade commercial and whose every move is followed by millions of school-age players.

Brandi as in Brandi Chastain, whose gently flirtatious appearance on David Letterman's talk show made the acerbic comic a fan.

Michelle as in Michelle Akers, whose writings are splashed on not one but two Web sites, revealing everything from her teammates' nicknames to their snack preferences and body piercings.

With this much multimedia exposure, it might seem almost incidental that they play great soccer. After winning Olympic gold in 1996, the U.S. team is unbeaten in World Cup play so far and defeated North Korea 3-0 Sunday to advance to the quarterfinals where they play Germany Thursday.

But Team USA has plainly learned the lesson that American women athletes in tennis, golf, basketball and track and field have taught themselves over the last half-century: winning on the field is not enough. The off-the-field publicity game counts, too.

This pragmatic sports philosophy got a boost recently from former tennis bad boy John McEnroe, who backed a drive by U.S. women for pay parity with men at Wimbledon.

"The women are carrying the promotional load and bringing the fans through the turnstiles," he wrote in The New York Times June 7. "They should be paid accordingly."

The U.S. women's soccer team has brought fans through the turnstiles in a way American men rarely have. When they played Nigeria at Chicago's Soldier Field last week, 65,080 fans packed the place, the largest crowd ever to watch soccer there.

More fans watched the United States beat Denmark in the World Cup opener June 19 at Giants stadium than have ever watched a Giants or Jets National Football League game there.

At Foxboro Stadium outside Boston Sunday, a near-capacity crowd behaved with the same mania as hard-core men's pro football fans, screaming, crying and painting themselves red, white and blue to show their allegiance to the women's team.

"One reason is because we have such a big [U.S. women's soccer] team and some of the players are getting to be known, like Mia Hamm," said Boston soccer fan and amateur player Mary Helander, a 37-year-old corporate consultant. "The men's team, while it's good, hasn't been a world contender, ever, while the women's team is."

Another reason is that more U.S. females grew up playing soccer and other competitive sports, and many encourage their own children to play. The so-called "soccer mom" demographic group was enough to feature in the 1996 and 1998 elections.

A third reason may be Title IX, a U.S. law enacted in 1972 to eliminate sex discrimination in American education, and best known for expanding sports participation by girls and women. It had the effect of making sports scholarships more available to females.

The children of Title IX have grown into some of the United States' most recognizable sports stars, including Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets of the Women's National Basketball Association -- which just started its third season -- tennis pros Venus and Serena Williams, and Juli Inkster, who just won the Ladies Professional Golf Association championship.

Assured, aggressive and media-friendly, they and the U.S. women's soccer team are a far cry from the earliest American female athletes, who were relegated to such ladylike sports as badminton and archery, which could be played in long dresses.

Even the bicycle was seen as too rough for women, and at many American schools athletic opportunities for girls were limited to cheerleading.

Before Title IX, only 1 percent of all high school athletes were female, compared with 40 percent a quarter-century later, according to an 1997 evaluation of the law's impact by the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education.

But still, female athletes get only 23 percent of athletic scholarship dollars and 27 percent of athletic recruiting dollars, the coalition said.

 
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