For so many reasons, I am beyond thrilled to see the exciting progress already being made by Tampa Bay’s new top-tier women’s soccer team, the Tampa Bay Sun.
In just a few months since we were awarded an inaugural franchise of the Tampa-based United Soccer League (USL) Super League, the team has partnered with Hillsborough County Public Schools to play its first seasons in an expanded waterfront stadium in downtown Tampa that it will share with Howard W. Blake High School. Now we have vibrant team colors and the perfect name for a franchise that will enhance Tampa Bay’s national brand as a top-tier region for professional sports that already includes the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Rowdies.
With the first season fast approaching next year, the excitement will only build as the team signs players. This new franchise is another excellent marketing opportunity for our city and our region. It also enriches our cultural opportunities and adds another exciting element to our active urban core that attracts residents and visitors of all ages and backgrounds.
But the addition of this professional women’s soccer team is also personal to me. I was fortunate to earn scholarships to play both basketball and volleyball at the University of Tampa, and athletic competition helped me become the person I am today. It taught me the importance of a strong work ethic, determination, leadership and teamwork. And now the members of this team will be role models for new generations of young women as they mature into our future leaders.
I’ve seen first-hand the remarkable rise of women’s sports in general and soccer in particular. We had relatively limited opportunities to play organized sports until 1972, when Congress passed Title IX and prohibited educational institutions from discriminating by sex in athletics. In the last 50 years, the number of girls playing sports in high school and of women playing sports in college soared — and I am fortunate to have been one of them.
The popularity of women’s soccer in particular has exploded. Everyone of a certain age remembers the national outpouring of support and pride for the U.S. Women’s Team that won the 1999 World Cup as Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm became household names. The U.S. Women’s Team now holds the women’s record for World Cup wins with four, and more girls than ever are playing soccer in youth leagues, high schools and colleges throughout Tampa Bay and the nation.
The value of having a women’s professional soccer team cannot be measured only by dollars and cents. The franchise will enhance our sense of community — and the ultimate payoff will come over generations as our girls and young women chart their own paths and become leaders themselves.
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The timing could not be better for Tampa Bay to gain a professional women’s soccer team. Participation in women’s soccer around the world and the nation is exploding, and the fastest-growing audiences on television are for women’s sports, from soccer to the WNBA to the NCAA Women’s Final Four (which Tampa will host again in 2025). Our team will attract fans of all ages as it plays in its temporary waterfront stadium just a quick walk, bike ride or water taxi from the Tampa Riverwalk, Tampa Heights, Armature Works and the University of Tampa.
The Tampa Bay Sun will quickly become part of the fabric of our vibrant community. The team holds a special place in my heart as another shining example of how girls and young women can participate in sports at any age and sharpen the skills they will need to succeed in life.
Jane Castor is mayor of Tampa and a member of the University of Tampa Athletic Hall of Fame for her record-breaking performances on the women’s basketball and volleyball teams.