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Professionals, sponsors at Final Four to promote sport

Less than two months after signing a deal with the WNBA that is billed as the largest marketing package in the history of women's sports, Nike is set to invade the Final Four this week in Cincinnati.

More than a dozen top professional players (even a few from the Reebok-sponsored American Basketball League) will be in Cincinnati to promote the sport through clinics and events. Top stars include Lisa Leslie, Theresa Edwards, Ruthie Bolton, Jen Rizzotti and Dawn Staley.

Also, Nike is introducing a line of greeting cards featuring top women athletes. Currently there are four in the set, featuring pictures of Leslie, Gail Devers, Mia Hamm and Briana Scurry.

All start with the line: "If someone says you run or throw like a girl, ask them which girl." Inside are the phrases:

+ "The girl who was a three-time All-American, won a gold medal and can dunk a basketball?" (Leslie)

+ "The girl who conquered Graves' disease and went on to become the first woman in 45 years to win a gold medal in the 100 meters and 100-meter hurdles in world competition?" (Devers)

+ "The girl who was named National Goalkeeper of the Year and led the U.S. women's national team to a gold medal?" (Scurry)

+ "Maybe they mean the girl who was twice named U.S. Female Athlete of the Year and led her team to a gold medal and women's World Cup championship." (Hamm)

Also in conjunction with the Final Four, Kodak will announce its All-America teams. On the list of finalists is Florida's DeLisha Milton, who was named an Associated Press first-team All-American two weeks ago, the first Gator basketball player _ man or woman _ to be so honored.

GROWING FAN BASE: The Final Four has sold out each year since 1993, the first sellout at a neutral site (Atlanta). The 6,600 tickets available to the general public for this year's tournament were sold out in 1996.

Because of the demand, the NCAA will institute a ticket lottery for the 1998 Final Four, scheduled for Kansas City. Television ratings also are up since ESPN took over the coverage last year. This year, 26 tournament games are being shown on either ESPN or ESPN2.

"Our goal was to take over the women's tournament and build this into a franchise," said Carol Stith, an ESPN program planner in charge of women's basketball. "We want to be the worldwide leader in women's basketball like we bill ourselves as the worldwide leader in sports."

NO NWIT: For the first time in 28 years, there is no National Women's Invitation Tournament. The tournament, held since 1969 in Amarillo, Texas, was a three-day event featuring eight teams but has been put on hold since new NCAA legislation was passed last year.

Teams would pay their own expenses to the tournament, which had no television contract and depended on local businesses for funding. But NCAA rules now prohibit that, and a corporate sponsor is needed to support the NWIT. The NCAA will allow the tournament to return if a sponsor is found.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.