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A whole new ballgame 

With Olympic momentum, women's soccer arrives

When the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team rolls into town Nov. 19 to play the World All-Stars in a national tour called the Women's Soccer Challenge, the game will offer local fans a peek at what's coming in April: a new professional women's soccer team in Atlanta.

If history is any indication, the odds are stacked against The Atlanta Beat and its founding league, the Women's United Soccer Association. After all, women's pro sports and soccer don't have the best track records in this country, and the new league will have to sell both.

"I think it's going to be difficult in the beginning," admits Cindy Parlow, a member of the Beat, as well as the national team. "Nobody's saying that we're going to come in and take over all the other professional leagues. We're going to have to earn the respect from the fans."

Thanks to the national team's success, the Beat's general manager Lynn Morgan says the team already has an established fan base. "With actually no promotion, no name, no venue announced, we've collected already 200 deposits for season tickets."

Despite the team's appeal, soccer is still the world's pastime, not ours. Unless you're an enthusiast, chances are you can't name a member of Atlanta's A-League men's soccer team or even name the team (the Silverbacks).

But one has only to look at the other fledgling women's pro sports leagues to see that the men's Major League Soccer's lack of status and history might actually benefit the WUSA. Where the Women's National Football League, the WNBA and the now-defunct American Basketball League had to compete with their long-established male counterparts, women's soccer isn't saddled with any such burden.

"We're not trying to springboard off men's soccer," says Tom Stone, coach of the Beat. "We're not even selling soccer as much as we're selling 'women's soccer', and there's a unique flavor to the term."

In fact, women put soccer on our national sports map. Who hasn't seen the Mia Hamm vs. Michael Jordan commercials or clips of Brandi Chastain's jersey-stripping, World Cup-winning goal? Such a high level of the popularity for a women's team is unheard of in team sports. As John Ford, president of Discovery Health Channel, which sponsors the Women's Soccer Challenge, says, "You know things are unique when you see a 12-year-old boy in a Mia Hamm jersey."

Morgan believes the widespread acceptance comes from the national team's refreshing behavior. "You're not going to see a lot of athletes who are ego-driven or out there to make multi-million dollar salaries and then end up not playing because they got a bruised knee-cap or something," she assures. "I think these women truly understand that this is the start of something they can be very proud of and that will definitely translate to the fans."

Even though the national team isn't alone in determining the league's fate, the burden of its success weighs most heavily on the shoulders of national team members. If the league fails, investors will lick their wounds and move on to their next project. The international players can return home where soccer most likely reigns. But national team members would have to come to terms with the end of a decade-old quest: a successful professional league.

"I'm very invested in this league," says Parlow, the youngest member of the '96 Olympic gold medal-winning team. "I think the chances are great; otherwise, I would not be a part of it."

The national team has experienced its share of firsts: The first to win the Women's World Cup (1991) and a women's soccer gold-medal match in the Olympics (1996). Now, the team that has stayed largely intact for more than a decade will split up into the league, and the close-knit teammates will become rivals. Imagine Mia Hamm trying to score on the Beat's Briana Scurry, or Julie Foudy matching up with Nikki Serlenga in the Atlanta midfield. The drama alone is worth the price of admission.

While the WUSA will have to struggle to thrive in the male-dominated, soccer-unfriendly sports market, the mass appeal of its players is cause for optimism.

"Where we've seen a lot of professional athletes and a lot of professional sports teams get dragged down by the attitude and demeanor of the athletes," says Stone, "we've seen these women do the exact opposite for women's soccer."

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