Last season, the Tampa Bay Extreme (which, in case you didn't know, is the closest thing in Florida to a women's professional soccer club) was lucky to get 300 people at its games.
Usually, more like 100 turned out at one of two local high schools to watch the team during its inaugural season.
But since then, the Extreme and its parent, the W-League, have revamped, refocused and shaken up some things. That was evident earlier this year when the Extreme signed Orlando resident Michelle Akers, captain of the 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning team.
With the signing of Akers and a few other well-known players, word has spread that the team will be much improved. If ticket orders aren't flooding in, at least there's a steady stream. And _ get this _ it's possible the two best women's players in the world, Akers and Mia Hamm, could face each other during the Extreme's opening game May 15 against the Raleigh Wings. (Hamm is negotiating with the Wings but has not signed).
The Extreme hasn't raised its standards just a notch, said coach/general manager/owner Rui Farias, but "about 12 notches from last year."
Much of the improvement has been due to the W-League's signing better players. The league, run by the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues, separated its teams into two divisions, the elite W-1 (of which the Extreme is a member) and the W-2.
The league is not wholly professional; it still is open to amateurs. But since there is not a pro league in this country, the W-League may aim to fill that void after next year's women's World Cup comes to the United States.
Farias is working to cobble together a high-quality team. Among those joining Akers this summer during the 16-game season likely will be Canadian national team forward Denise Schilte and University of Florida standout Danielle Fotopoulos.
"Michelle playing just takes the team to a whole other level. It's obvious any team would try to build the offense around her," Farias said. "(But) we're pretty strong all the way across the board."
The Extreme's schedule is May 9 _ at Miami (exhibition); May 15 _ Raleigh; May 23 _ at Orlando; May 29 _ at Raleigh; May 30 _ at Charlotte; June 6 _ Charlotte; June 12 _ Delaware; June 20 _ at Jackson; June 24 _ Orlando (exhibition; site to be announced); June 27 _ Boston; July 3 _ Miami; July 11 _ at Atlanta; July 17 _ at Rochester; July 18 _ at Buffalo; July 24 _ Jackson; Aug. 1 _ Atlanta.
Miami and Orlando are W-2 teams. Home games start at 7:30 p.m. at Countryside High.
MIXED EMOTIONS: Olympic skier Picabo Street made her first public appearance Thursday since a horrendous crash March 13 broke her left leg and damaged her right knee. At Nike headquarters for Take Your Daughter to Work Day, Street was emotional while talking to 600 girls.
"My life is crazy right now," she said. "My life is the happiest it's ever been because I won a gold medal (in Nagano) _ but at the same time I'm broken inside."
Street said she still plans to return for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, but will take the next year off.
_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.