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."