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Saturday, July 16, 2011
A win today would mean hope for tomorrow

By Joanne C. Gerstner

FRANKFURT, Germany -- It was a casual conversation with a European reporter that got me thinking. He asked me what I, as an American woman, expect out of the Women's World Cup final if the United States wins.

Dramatic social evolution?

My quick answer was "I don't know."

What should I expect?

We've all been down this exciting road before. The 1999 World Cup started humbly as a nice soccer tournament in the United States and evolved into a red-white-and-blue maelstrom of pop culture colliding with sports.

It was an affirmation of all things a Gen Xer like me had been taught to believe since childhood: Girls are athletes, we play sports and we can dream big. I was lucky enough to see it live, and yes, it was a spine-tingling, way-cool thing to experience.

Having the world outside of sports -- like David Letterman, CNN, People magazine and the like -- take notice of the American team was a huge deal. Female athletes are often famous but usually in individual sports like tennis, golf and figure skating.

Women playing team sports can drift into the more anonymous form of the collective.

But somehow, this team transcended it and we felt like we were connected to each one of them. And then they beat China, in crazy dramatic fashion in penalty kicks at the Rose Bowl. It was a true Hollywood ending for a fantastically written script. The best reality show … ever.

In 1999, we were all caught up in the excitement and were perhaps a little naive. Surely the success, the household recognition of the players and the country taking another significant post-Title IX leap would mean huge things in the future.

It was a girl-power world, with the USA Basketball women getting the WNBA off their 1996 Atlanta Olympics buzz and gold-medal run.

So the WUSA had to be a success; how could it fail headlined by 1999's "Girls of Summer"?

Well, time and truth have taught us all lessons. People respect and fondly remember the 1999 team, but that doesn't automatically translate into a women's pro league succeeding. People don't automatically latch on to pro soccer because they love the World Cup.

The WUSA started play in April 2001, floundered and fell by the wayside in 2003 after burning through $100 million in investment capital.

It took another six years for the WPS to start, and the jury is still out on whether it will make it. Many of the stars of this American team, along with some from other countries, play in the WPS. They're hoping, perhaps in the vein of the 1999 naiveté, that this happy World Cup will help the league.

The English and German women's pro leagues are hoping for the same.

So what do I expect from this World Cup? I've learned that it's foolish to expect anything concrete. And I don't foresee world change. That's too much to ask from a three-week soccer tournament.

But I do see something out there for the 2011 women that wasn't as obvious for the 1999 crew.

What we all want is to have options in life, and the players in the 2011 World Cup have more options than were immediately available to their 1999-era older sisters. The current women can list their occupation as "professional soccer player." They can see a direct path to getting endorsements and major campaigns if they perform well.

There are leagues around the world that are trying to make it work, to varying degrees of success. But they're there, available as options. These women are professional athletes, managing their brands, handling their careers like a business and leveraging their influence.

That's progress. That's a nice change.

Every success adds another rung in the ladder for the next generation to climb even higher.

Let's enjoy the World Cup for the magic it produces, and the excitement the American and Japanese women have brought. They're amazing athletes, raising the bar on soccer.

The magic of 1999 has led to a better reality in 2011. And yes, the operational word now is "reality."