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Fans of the World Cup champion U.S. women's national soccer team are getting what they want - more. The team began a victory tour last weekend. It runs until October. It's a heady time for women's soccer. Other women's sports are hoping to take advantage of the moment as well, and hoping to overcome cultural obstacles that traditionally have made their sports less popular. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Five days after the U.S. women won the World Cup, fans of the WNBA's Seattle Storm welcomed a surprise visitor to the team's home arena.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Well, look who has graced us with her presence.
GOLDMAN: Even from the cheap seats, the pink-purple hair gave it away.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Is there a more recognizable face in the world of sports in the last month than that young lady on the right, Megan Rapinoe.
GOLDMAN: Actually, this moment, courtesy of Force 10 Hoops, wasn't a shock. Rapinoe and the Storm star Sue Bird are one of Seattle's "it" couples. But still, Rapinoe's appearance and standing ovation from an arena full of basketball fans was a reminder of the powerful crossover potential of the Women's World Cuppers. Alisha Valavanis is the Storm's CEO.
ALISHA VALAVANIS: For me, it was just simply hopeful that that awareness would continue to expose the country and the globe to the other sports.
GOLDMAN: Like ice hockey, lacrosse, softball and basketball, the most prominent of this country's women's pro sports. It would be wonderful, Valavanis says, if this awareness of the women's national team and exposure to the others were like a magic wand that could wave away the chasm separating women's and men's pro sports on issues of money, visibility, significance. Alas, she says, no magic wand.
VALAVANIS: This is a complex game. There's no quick fix to the gap.
GOLDMAN: Talking is a start. Rapinoe and her soccer teammates have done plenty of that about the gap in pay and inferior travel conditions. WNBA players are confronting similar issues. Seattle forward Alysha Clark says she's been inspired by the soccer team.
ALYSHA CLARK: They're helping grow the confidence of women athletes to speak up for what we feel is right.
GOLDMAN: But if a conversation about women's sport truly has been sparked by the success and audacity of the U.S. women's national team, ultimately, it has to confront an uncomfortable truth, says Ginny Gilder.
GINNY GILDER: Invisible and cultural bias against women professional athletes.
GOLDMAN: Gilder has owned the Seattle Storm with two other women since 2008. As an undergraduate rower at Yale in the 1970s, she and others demanded and won equal treatment for female athletes.
GILDER: It's a very deeply held assumption that men are more important. And you actually start seeing that in sports at a very young age.
GOLDMAN: By the time kids reach high school, she says, this interest in primarily supporting boys' sports has been well-established. The traditional argument is male sports are better because the athletes mostly are bigger, stronger, faster. It's what often tips the balance, says Gilder, when fans have a choice between paying money to watch a men's pro sporting event or a women's. It's a choice the WNBA knows all too well. In each of its 23 years, the league reportedly has never made a profit.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Defense, defense.
GOLDMAN: In Seattle, the quest to boost attendance has included a promotion offering free tickets if you donate blood. Twenty-nine-year-old Jordan Lake and two friends took advantage at a recent home game, their first WNBA experience.
JORDAN LAKE: You know, it's entertaining. I've grown up with sports. I love sports. You got to find something else to watch in the offseason of football, I suppose.
GOLDMAN: Despite the athleticism on display in a tight, competitive game, Lake said he probably wouldn't come back if he had to pay for a ticket. Still, in light of the women's soccer success, is there the chance to nudge a cultural change more toward women's sports?
GILDER: I absolutely believe that it's possible.
GOLDMAN: Storm owner Ginny Gilder.
GILDER: At the same time, I am a business person. And I've been in this business for 12 years. And I'm not betting on it.
GOLDMAN: She's hopeful, though, and a new plan could help fuel that hope. This winter, some of the WNBA's best players will tour the country as part of the lead-up to next summer's Olympics. The training and games were designed to increase visibility for the players and to connect them more with fans. Seattle guard Sue Bird helped come up with the idea. Her inspiration, in large part - the electric experience of the U.S. women's national soccer team.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Seattle.
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