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These Girls Play 'For the Love of the Game'
Tom Kleinman couldn't help himself. After just a year of hosting the women's professional softball team -- the Philadelphia Force -- at his quaint ballpark in Allentown, Pa., the team was ready to fold. Owner Bill Thompson was facing health problems and needed to sell the team to keep it afloat.
Kleinman -- who has worn hats as diverse as owner of a time-share company, attorney, CEO of a hotel chain, owner of a fishing-boat charter company, racecar driver and deep-sea diver -- couldn't pass up yet another out-of-the-box business venture. So he found some investors and bought the team; however, he is certainly not an absentee owner who only crunches numbers, but is also the team's general manager, making decisions on players and evaluating talent.
Now in its second season, the Force -- part of the National Pro Fastpitch League -- is in first place, and continues to draw fans at Elite Championship Tournament Baseball Stadium at Bicentennial Park, which sits on a peaceful Allentown street lined with houses and trees.
"I'm fulfilling a passion. This is a work of love. These girls play for the love of the game," said Kleinman, 62, who grew up in Westchester, N.Y., and now resides in Center City, where he sits on the board of directors at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.
But can the NPF gain the notoriety of other women's leagues, like the Women's National Basketball Association, or will it eventually fold?
Much like the WNBA, which is intertwined with the National Basketball Association, the league already has an affiliation with Major League Baseball, which gives it perks like free equipment and uniforms. Unlike the WNBA, the NPF does not get subsidies from its "brother" league.
WNBA teams "get $6 to $7 million a year," said Kleinman, "or else they'd be out of business."
The league's light at the end of the tunnel, he said, is a TV deal.
"The exit strategy in sports is television money," he said. "Without television money, you don't make money."
The league has been gradually working itself onto the small screen, with 11 games being broadcast this season on Fox Sports Net, according to the NPF. The first game aired on June 12, with the Force beating the New England Riptide 3-0, and games will continue to be broadcast through August.
Kleinman noted that, along with men's lacrosse and Nascar, women's softball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States.
"Ratings for last year's [Women's] College World Series were higher than the [Major League Baseball] World Series," said Kleinman.
For those women who achieve the highest levels of college ball, the only real place to play afterwards was in the Olympics, before the creation of a professional league. But 2008 will be the last time that women's softball will be part of the summer games.
"We think that's a benefit, so now girls will not have to choose" playing pro or going to the Olympics, said Kleinman, noting that if they want to play after college, they'll need to go to the NPF.
Kleinman is confident in the future of the league, and his goals for how it will look in five years are quite lofty.
"I see the league double its size, and I see multiple broadcast entities," he said.
One big reason for the league's potential growth is the sheer talent of the players.
"These are the best players in the world," declared Kleinman. "I don't know any other way to put it."