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Cathi Aradi

Fastpitch News: Team USA To Play WPSL Teams Prior To 2K Olympics

DENVER, CO--Y2K is less than 100 days away and despite some dire predictions, the new year can't arrive fast enough for the Women's Pro Softball League (WPSL). With women's athletics on the upswing, WPSL expectations are soaring for 2000, both an Olympic year and the projected season of emergence for women's professional softball.

As defending Olympic Champion at the 2000 Sydney Games, the United States women's softball team will carry the momentum next summer.In preparation for its defense of the title, Team USA will tour the country playing the four WPSL teams several times from May to September. Specific dates of the multi-city, nationwide tour will be announced at a later date. Billed as the tour "From Central Park to Sydney" it is intended both to showcase the talents of, and acquaint American fans with, the WPSL and the USA Team (which will become officially the Olympic team next August), as well as fully prepare the National Team for it's most important encounter.

This is not the first crossover between the WPSL and the USA National team, as many members of the Olympic squad have indicated they will resume a professional career with WPSL following the Olympics. Two of the 15 players on the USA Team, Crystl Bustos and Michelle Venturella, were selected from the WPSL. Many consider Bustos to be the future star of the team. The Women's Pro Softball League recently completed its third season buoyed by record television ratings for the sport.

During the spring and summer, ESPN2 viewership for WPSL often eclipsed Arena Football and the National Hockey League games. This past season, nine WPSL games were aired on ESPN2, each of which was re-aired. "Our reception from viewers, especially among males 18-34, was very encouraging," says John Carroll, Commissioner of the Women's Pro Softball League. "We already have commitments from ESPN for next season and NBC's Olympic coverage will include every women's softball game, according to an announcement made by NBC President and CEO Dick Ebersol.

This is a sport truly on the move." During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, women's softball was propelled into the American consciousness. The energy and talent of softball starslike Dot Richardson not only garnered the Gold Medal it provided a spark for women's team sports interest in general. In the four years since Atlanta, successful women's team sports programs like women's softball, soccer and ice hockey have blossomed. Not since Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs have so many people been as excited about women's sports.

The WPSL will preserve a traditional season in 2000, though modified to permit games with Team USA. Despite fewer League games next year, the player salary cap ($160,000 per team) and coaches compensation will be maintained. In addition, all games will require three umpires for the first time. Another ambitious plan for the WPSL is the development of National Training Centers at team locations in Akron, Ohio and a city to be named in Florida.

Clinics, exhibitions and player tryouts for the entire League will be central activities for these centers, expected to be among the finest softball facilities in the country. Four teams, two based in Akron and two in the Florida city, will play a schedule from May to September, in addition to the multi-city tour with the USA National Team.

Olympic heroes rarely have the opportunity to continue in their chosen sports after the medal ceremonies end. With a firm commitment well into the next millennium, the WPSL will offer 2000 Olympic stars a professional future unavailable to many female athletes. "Our goals center on showcasing the finest athletes in the country and our Olympians will be near the top of any list," adds Carroll. "We will offer the opportunity for these players to continue to display their talents after the Games and we want to ensure that the stars of the Olympic teams have a viable professional league to step into following Sydney.

The WPSL is working hand-in-hand with USA Softball on integrated marketing programs and competition schedules involving the USA Team and the WPSL. We are already discussing plans for a series of games between the WPSL and the USA National Team in 2001."