BOSTON — Even before the flame is lit at the Centennial Olympics, its heat is warming up women's pro sports. Basketball, softball, and soccer leagues are in the works.
Last month, the National Basketball Association announced a new women's pro league, beginning in 1997. "The NBA has the money, the power, the vision, the resources, and they run a league for a living," says Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a newly inducted Basketball Hall of Famer. Translation: instant security and credibility for the new league, something that two previous attempts at a women's league in America did not have.
Eleven years ago, Lieberman-Cline visited the NBA's Manhattan headquarters. Commissioner David Stern asked to talk to "Lady Magic" in private.
"He said, 'Let me close the door. They'll think I'm nuts if anybody in this building hears me,' " she recalls. He then told her that there would be a women's professional basketball league before he left office. "The man is true to his word," Lieberman-Cline says.
"We think this is an idea whose time has come," Stern says. Women will play in the summer, when "arena availability and television time are most plentiful." Details, including teams and cities, are expected in July.
The NBA already has competition from the American Basketball League, which earlier announced it was starting a women's league next season and reportedly has tentative commitments from a number of women now playing on the US Olympic team.
Rayla Allison, director of Women's Professional Fastpitch, a soon-to-be-launched softball league, says corporations are well aware that women make most of the purchasing decisions in American homes. (Witness the long-running Ladies Professional Golf Association, which has attracted such sponsors as Nabisco, McDonald's, and J.C. Penney. The LPGA was formed in 1950.)
The softball league has delayed its debut until 1997, Allison says, partly because "in any Olympic year, groups are bumping into one another in the sports industry looking for sponsorship. Some of the sponsorship dollars should be freed up in '97."
That corporate America is increasingly backing women's sports is partly a reflection of their wholesome, unspoiled atmosphere. Lieberman-Cline says pointedly that in the Women's National Basketball Association "you won't see anybody with blue hair, or anybody head-butting officials, or knocking them into the scorer's table," or worse.
THE Olympics offer the kind of global TV exposure found nowhere else. Atlanta will put more women in the spotlight than any ever before, with women's soccer and softball among the program additions.
Anson Dorrance, coach of the US women's national soccer team when it won the first women's world championship in 1991, is part of a group planning a women's soccer league.
The idea is provide an arena in which women can showcase their talents after college, a time when many US soccer and basketball stars now head to Europe or Asia. Dorrance's group would like to begin before 1999, when the US hopes to host the women's world soccer championship.
A women's softball league has been incubating for about six years, says Rayla Allison from the organization's Minneapolis headquarters. (Minneapolis will join Akron, Ohio, Erie, Pa., and the California cities of Sacramento, Ontario, and Palmdale in the league.)
The league has attempted to learn from the failures of other leagues, including one that Allison played in during the 1970s. A major mistake of some of these operations, she says, is that they began "20 years too soon in terms of sheer participation numbers of girls and women in sports."
One study discovered that only one in 27 high school girls played varsity sports in 1972. Today it is one in three. Softball, in particular, has a strong base, with 15,000 high school and 1,300 college programs.