Greg Hansen: Summit seeks to elevate women's sports

2012-10-04T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Summit seeks to elevate women's sportsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 04, 2012 12:00 am  • 

In the lobby of The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings walks past a guest in swim gear, who stops and does a not-so-subtle double take.

He turns to me, a stranger, asking, "isn't that Misty May or someone?"

I say it is someone else. "Kerri Walsh."

"Same thing," he says.

Wednesday was a good day for celebrity sightings at the Ritz. For 15 minutes I stand in the lobby watching people react to the Who's Who of American women's sports.

Ali Raisman, captain of the USA gold medal-winning gymnastics team, is almost unfamiliar wearing a dress rather than a leotard. Her black hair is long, hanging to her shoulders. America has rarely seen the 18-year-old Raisman looking so, well, so grown up.

"I know that people are watching," she says later. "I'm on the (40-city) Tour of Champions right now and hundreds of cute little girls wearing the same leotards we wore in London are everywhere we go. Sometimes it's hard to believe how many people know us."

For three days, ESPN played host to many of the cleanup hitters of America's women's sports at the third Women's Sports Summit at the Ritz. Hannah Storm and Cheryl Swoopes and Gabrielle Reece and Julie Foudy and executives and marketing specialists from the NCAA, NBA, NFL, Fox Sports, Under Armour, adidas, the USOC, USGA, MSG and every sports entity with a famous initial arrived at Dove Mountain

The purpose was simple: Growing opportunities in women's sports. Can women's sports capture a bigger share of America's advertising marketplace, and how can the star-power of these elite athletes be elevated?

"Ten of the top 100 women's tennis players in the world are USA players, but it's hard to name them," says Laura Gentile, vice-president of ESPN-W. "And if we can't name them, the rest of the world can't name them."

ESPN-W is considering the creation of a "25 Most Important Female Athletes in the World" list, a vehicle that would generate buzz and debate, and perhaps introduce those not named Serena Williams, Danica Patrick and Hope Solo.

To cap the three-day convention/seminar, ESPN-W introduced four women they believe could someday be part of a top 25 list:

• Raisman, the most decorated gymnast from Team USA at the London Olympics;

• Eleven-year-old Florida golfer Latanna Stone, who reached the match-play portion of the 2012 U.S. Women's Amateur;

• Tennis prodigy Sloane Stephens, 19, who is ranked No. 36 in the world and could be America's next big thing at Wimbledon;

• Twelve-time Paralympics gold medal swimmer Jessica Long.

This is indeed a new generation. When Foudy, the emcee, asked Stone if her instincts and ability to play golf came early in life, Stone said, simply, "Yes."

The most resounding "yes" of the week came from Kerri Walsh Jennings, half of the prime-time, TV-ratings-drawing, beach volleyball gold medal team in London.

While in Tucson, Walsh Jennings reconfirmed that she was five weeks pregnant while teaming with Misty May-Treanor and, believe it or not, with three young children, fully plans to compete for a fourth gold medal in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro when she's 38.

With that, Walsh Jennings became the working model of the past, present and future of women's sports in America.

"I'm living the dream," she says, "Thirty-four isn't old. I hate hearing that."

NBC was so impressed by the TV ratings from beach volleyball that it showed virtually every play from Kerri and Misty's run to a gold medal in London. They got more prime-time coverage that Michael Phelps and Queen Elizabeth.

And the thing is, unlike TV stars Danica Patrick or Natalie Gulbis, Walsh Jennings keeps on winning when the lights are brightest.

If, indeed, Walsh Jennings carries through with her plan to play in Rio with a new partner (Misty has announced her retirement) it will be irresistible theater: Mom of three-children, 38, guns for another gold medal.

"I was just spent after London, but every day it's coming back," she says. "I wouldn't continue playing if I felt I had maxed out. I have more in me."

The ESPN people came to Dove Mountain looking for a new generation of women's athletes, fresh faces and invigorating stories to captive the American sports audience.

The irony is that Kerri Walsh Jennings, known within the volleyball industry as "six feet of Sunshine," isn't ready to set.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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