Other than her nine-day honeymoon in Bora- Bora, U.S. Olympic softball gold medalist Jennie Finch has had hardly a moment out of the spotlight since she returned from Athens last summer. The blonde, 6-foot pitcher is easily the most recognizable softball player in the U.S. and has been in demand for endorsements (her income is nearly $500,000 a year), television work (she's in her third year as a correspondent for This Week in Baseball) and even the occasional modeling gig (she was in SI's 2005 Swimsuit Issue). Her schedule has been draining, but Finch says the long hours are worth it if they promote her sport. "Right now softball's my priority," she says, "so I've had to say no to a lot of stuff."
One thing to which Finch said yes was a contract with the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch (NPF), a women's softball league running from June through August with teams in Akron, Arizona, Chicago, New England, New York and Texas. In addition to Finch, 10 other 2004 U.S. Olympians (box) are playing in the league.
The NPF has been around under various names since 1997, but it struggled, according to Bandits owner and NPF president Bill Conroy, a wealthy computer consultant who became involved in the league in 2004. "The salary expectations were always out of line with revenue," says Conroy, who has put in place a more realistic plan to address the revenue challenges inherent in softball's niche appeal. Each team's salary cap is just $100,000; Finch earns the maximum of $10,000, but most of the NPF's 95 other players make about $6,000. "The money isn't great, but it's exciting to be with all these girls," says Finch. "For all of us, it's a dream come true."
To defray costs, Conroy has locked up 13 league sponsors, some of whom provide support in the form of equipment. One of those is Major League Baseball, which has been an "official development partner" of the NPF since 2002, as part of its effort to reach out to female fans. Each club is also free to pursue its own sponsorship deals.
Looking to cut travel expenses, Conroy helped devise 48-game schedules that give each club 36 home games, including series against national squads from Australia, Canada, China, Russia and Venezuela that count in the NPF standings. Conroy also upped the league's profile by opening it to national-team players, whom the NPF had not previously sought because their national-team commitments often conflict with club schedules. Finch and the other national-team players, for instance, missed games last week while participating in an international tournament in Chula Vista, Calif. "I thought building grassroots support and securing marquee players would give us the best chance to succeed," Conroy says. "Forget mass marketing."
With tickets ranging from $5 to $10, average attendance leaguewide is about 1,500 per venue, up from about a third of that in 2004. The Bandits' opening four-game series against Athens silver medalist Australia in early June drew an average of 1,500 fans to the 3,000-seat stadium at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. The opener, in which Finch struck out 12 in a 6--2 victory, was televised in the Chicago area by team sponsor Comcast Cable and drew a surprising peak rating of 1.1. Comcast was so pleased, it has re-aired the game three times. The league playoffs, scheduled for late August, will be telecast by ESPN.
The players aren't the only ones who are optimistic about their league. " Jennie Finch has a face that will launch a thousand sponsorships," says sports-marketing consultant Dean Bonham, "and the unbalanced schedule is the kind of creative thinking that can keep a small league alive."
"None of the girls are in this for the money," says Chicago second baseman Liz Bouck, a fulltime assistant coach at DePaul. "I would say a quarter of the women on my team are coaches, and if they're not coaching, they're playing international softball or trying to. This is perfect for those of us with careers."
That includes Finch, who seems as comfortable doing the little things needed to promote professional softball--mingling with patrons and sponsors at postgame dinners or hanging out with youngsters at a slumber party organized for fans--as she is on the red carpet at an awards show. "It's all helping our sport," she says. " Chicago is a great sports town, and we have a great product."