In 1972 a Little League coach in Orlando told 10-year-old
Dorothy Richardson that if she would cut her hair, dress like a
boy and call herself Bob, he would put her on his baseball team.
On Tuesday, after her home run gave the U.S. women the first
softball gold medal in Olympic history, 34-year-old Dot
Richardson savored a scene she'll never forget. Approximately
200 impassioned softball fans--women, men, girls and
boys--pressed against a chain-link fence near the American
team's locker room at Golden Park in Columbus, Ga., all trying
to touch her or get her to sign their ticket stubs, their
This is an article from the Aug. 4, 1996 issue
You've come a long way, Dot. In fact, these Olympics may go down
in history as the Gender-Equity Games. Softball and soccer were
new sports added for women, but events for female athletes also
were added to eight sports that were already part of the Summer
Games: cycling (mountain biking, points and time-trial races),
fencing (individual and team epee), rhythmic gymnastics (team
competition), rowing (lightweight double sculls), shooting
(double trap), swimming (4X200 freestyle relay), track and field
(5,000 meters, triple jump) and volleyball (beach). A thousand
more women competed in Atlanta than at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Equally as impressive, the U.S. built women's national teams
that were every bit the fan-favorite equals of their male
counterparts. There wasn't an unsold ticket to any of the nine
U.S. softball games at 8,753-seat Golden Park, including the 3-1
gold medal victory over China. In the women's soccer final
Thursday night in Athens, Ga., 76,481 watched the U.S. beat
China 2-1. Tonight, at the Georgia Dome, the women's basketball
final between the U.S. and Brazil will draw a capacity crowd of
34,890, the same number the men drew last night.
Until now, America's most marketable female Olympic heroes were
petite gymnasts and elegant ice skaters and fresh-scrubbed
swimmers. But tens of thousands of Olympic ticket buyers voted
with their wallets: They love quality, hard-fought women's
sports contests. And the fans may get more of them--lots more.
"What's happening here," U.S. soccer defender Brandi Chastain
says, "is that the young girls of America are getting a message.
They're seeing that it's all right to sweat and play hard and
get dirty. We don't have to be confined to certain sports. We
can excel wherever we want."
"Now the world is poised to accept women's professional sports,"
Women's Sports Foundation executive director Donna Lopiano says.
"That's the next step."
Two professional women's basketball leagues are already
scheduled to begin play in the U.S. within the next year. Also,
next June, Women's Professional Fastpitch (WPF), a modified
version of the Olympic softball game, will launch a six-team
league. But the most startling by-product of the recent rise in
women's sports is still on the corporate drawing board, and its
development could reverberate from Wall Street to Munich.
It has been learned that a U.S. women's pro soccer league is in
the works, with a possible fall 1997 starting date. A source
close to the negotiations says that adidas, Nike, Reebok and
Umbro would each have a 25% stake in the league and commit to
sharing all expenses for five years. Nike married to Reebok?
Adidas to Umbro? It's like Coke and Pepsi getting in bed to make
a better root beer.
"It's time to put our competitive differences aside," says Tom
Kain, director of soccer in the U.S. for the Germany-based
adidas. "If we work together, we build a better game of soccer
in the United States, a game young girls can grow up striving
for. At the same time, it can grow the market for all of us."
With the gold medal performances by the U.S. women in soccer and
softball, and with the basketball team favored to win gold
today, there may be no better time to market these team sports
to the American public. Here's a quick look at what's currently
in the works.
--Basketball. Two leagues are fighting for the country's premier
players, who previously had to play overseas if they wanted to
make decent money. The eight-team American Basketball League
(ABL) is expected to tip off a six-month season in October and
pay its star players $125,000 a season. Nine of the 12 women on
the U.S. Olympic team have already signed two-year contracts.
Forward Rebecca Lobo, the NCAA's 1995 player of the year, is one
of three Olympians still weighing other options, which include
the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), an
eight-team league that will have a three-month season and is
backed by the NBA. That league plans to start next June and
already has contracts with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime, giving it an
early advantage over the ABL in terms of exposure. "It's a tough
decision," says Lobo. "The WNBA says we can play in both leagues
if we want. The ABL says if we sign there we can't play in the
WNBA. I'm hoping the ABL relaxes that rule. But then the
question comes up: Do I want to play year-round or do I want a
life outside of basketball?"
--Softball. This U.S. Olympic team may not be as marketable as
its basketball or soccer counterparts, because NBC devoted less
coverage time to softball than the other two women's sports.
"The coverage was so disheartening," says Ray Vandermay, a New
Jersey softball camp director and the winningest high school
coach in state softball history. "The kids at our camp would
have gotten much more excited had they been able to see the
games--at least part of them--on TV."
That's not the only reason softball will have a tough road
sustaining a pro league in six U.S. cities, including Akron and
Sacramento. The biggest Olympic softball hero, Richardson, is a
full-time doctor in Southern California. She won't turn pro. And
pitcher Lisa Fernandez, the Nolan Ryan of her sport, doesn't
like some of the rules of the new league. The pitching rubber
will be moved back from the 40 feet used in the Olympics to 49
feet to increase offense, and WPF will play with a smaller,
harder ball designed to travel faster and farther than the
slightly pliable model used in the amateur game.
"We think we have a very strong chance of getting Lisa," WPF
vice president Rayla Allison says. "The college game pitches
from 43 feet, and every sport goes through transition like this,
trying to find its niche. When we test-marketed these changes at
some exhibitions last summer, 64% of the people we interviewed
said they would be very interested in buying season tickets."
"We have a great game that created great excitement here,"
Fernandez says. "I'd like to see a compromise on the pitching
distance, maybe back to 43 feet. And I'm not sure I want to play
anyway, because I'd be giving up my amateur status, and I may
want to play in the Olympics in 2000." That's a big if, too. The
International Olympic Committee has yet to decide if it will add
softball to the menu permanently.
--Soccer. The U.S. Soccer Federation spent between $3.6 million
and $4 million in training expenses to prepare the team for the
Olympics, and it paid off in gold. But now, with no
international events of consequence until the U.S. hosts the
World Cup in 1999, the players will scatter to families, jobs
and pro leagues overseas. The U.S. players who scored in the
gold medal game, Shannon MacMillan and Tiffeny Milbrett, leave
next week for Japan, where they will play for the Shiroki Serena
At least MacMillan and Milbrett will be playing. Their teammates
have few similar options, unless they go to pro leagues in
Sweden or Norway. "Who wants to go overseas when your husbands
and families are back here?" U.S. midfielder Julie Foudy says.
As U.S. coach Tony DiCicco says, inactivity will doom U.S. as a
world power in the women's game. "We've seen it the last few
years," he says. "We win the World Cup in 1991 and everybody
starts catching up. I can assure you this: We will not stay on
top of the world unless we have an elite or professional league
in the very near future."
The four shoe and apparel manufacturers, with DiCicco and
respected University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance as
consultants, have tentatively planned a nine-team league that
will play at stadiums with between 4,000 and 8,000 seats. The
players are definitely interested. "We're like every player in
every sport," Chastain says. "We just want a place to play."
Chastain is wrong in one respect: She and her basketball and
softball contemporaries aren't like every player--and that's
good. For sports fans tired of baseball players who don't run
out ground balls, it's refreshing to see softball players who
trot back to the dugout after striking out. It's nice to see
someone like guard Dawn Staley, who runs every fast break as if
it may be her last. It's refreshing to see a Michelle Akers, who
leads the U.S. soccer attack for 90 minutes a game despite the
draining effects of Epstein-Barr virus.
"One of the best things to come out of this is that we can give
American girls some heroes, some women they can admire--on and
off the field," U.S. softball player Dani Tyler says. "We didn't
have those when we were growing up."