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Thursday, February 29

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Bandits Mon Jul 06 2009

Big Cleats To Fill

(Editor's Note: With a 16-4 record, the Chicago Bandits are pretty much running away with the National Pro Fastpitch women's professional softball league. That they have one of the most recognizable faces in the history of women's fastpitch softball, Olympian Jennie Finch, only adds to their stature as one of top teams in the league. But as in every other sport, there eventually comes a time to bring in the next generation of star. Bandits' media relations staffer Tim Miller fills us in on the next face of Bandits. Hint: She's the one with the goth-style eyeliner.)Thorson during recent interview.jpg

Long after the night game has concluded the glistening stadium lights power down, flooding the field with darkness. Fans settled safely in their homes, the rakes and bases put away - a star pitcher hoists her bag onto her shoulders and exits the dugout on a serene summer night.

The murky Fox River runs alongside the Bandits stadium, and for a while I thought the solution to the popularity woes for the Chicago Bandits was the mysterious water that runs perpendicular to the field.

What if the Fox River is the fountain of youth-relocated?

Think about it, imagine if they could bottle a few ounces of it and immortalize the face of the organization, let alone the face of softball. Can you picture a 200-year old Jennie Finch in the circle, still hurling the high heat? Post-game autograph sessions after the fireworks on Fridays would last to the wee hours of the morning.
Helen of Troy? More like Jennie of Elgin.

Then suddenly it dawned on me. Not only is that neither plausible nor eco-friendly, it also would spoil the spirit of the sport itself. How would Finch's motto "dream and believe" sink in if she was around forever? Young girls with high hopes of becoming someone, working tirelessly and overcoming adversity would simply find themselves heads hung low strolling through an obscure shadow cast from a giant star. Isn't that the end goal of athletes - to have their time to eventually become a role model for the younger fans?

Don't get me wrong: Jennie Finch has been a fantastic leader, role model, and face of softball, but the reality is that at some point in the years to come she will take off her cleats for the last time and someone will replace her on the roster.

She has fulfilled her role in the softball world, and has succeeded with flying colors.
But look at any other professional sports. When one great legend retires, the sport does not fold. The fans still come out to the games, and the organization churns out another great face of the team. It's the business. Fans who grow up idolizing a player are the same people who will continue to come out and support that pro athlete.
It's not going to be easy.

Depending on their exposure to the sport, most sports fans probably know perhaps a handful of other softball players in addition to Finch. Replacing the pitching phenom is a tall order.

This, however, is the moment of opportunity for the Bandits as an organization. Yes, merchandise and ticket sales are going to benefit from Finch's mere existence, and she'll continue to amaze fans on the field, but at the same time this is the time to act.
Now is the time to start priming the "next" Jennie Finch. The Bandits need to find someone who is going to have young fans calling her name, even while Finch still strikes out hitters in the circle.

It's a sobering fact for the team at the very least. With a team that has fantastic All-Americans, Olympians, and league MVP's that don't have the number 27 on their backs, the average sports fan probably hasn't heard of these fantastic women. They're incredible on the field and class acts off the field.

That's not always the case with professional athletes.

I think the solution for the Bandits is to take a quick look down the right field line at the post-game autograph sessions. Look who made batters look silly at the plate with off-speed stuff. See who is the one signing autographs and talking to every fan long after her teammates have finished. Focus on the last person to leave the stadium. Take a glance at the player who now has young girls dying strands of their hair purple to be like her.

Feast your eyes, ladies and gentleman, on Kristina Thorson - the next face of softball.
"When people first see me they think one of two things: I'm either really mean or a total loner. Even teammates [upon first meeting] think I'm not going to talk to them or anything," said Thorson, affectionately known as 'Thor.'

At first glance, Thor is the complete opposite of Jennie Finch. Leaving the mainstream top 40 music behind, she walks out to the mound every inning with seemingly satanic heavy metal blasting. Her definition of a makeover is more like an 'extreme makeover' as she wears generous amounts of eye black around her eyes. But her pregame rituals, she admits, are no different than any other routine.

"Some players have that pregame meal they just have to have," said Thorson. "For me, I put on my eye black. I put it on and say, 'Now I'm ready.' I'm literally putting my game face on."

Batters fear her finesse pitches and intimidating looks, but fans love her gentle heart and soft spot for aspiring athletes. Kristina Thorson is just what the Bandits and softball need, especially for the young fans.

"Kids are really important. I strike up a conversation with the fans. If they talk back, I'll keep going. If I can give advice, I will. I want them to be successful."

Being the next face of an organization is not just a symbolic position though. It would require more community appearances, updating her website ( more regularly, and most certainly spending more time in Chicago - for the California native, it's a duty that she would be more than okay with.

It will require an active marketing campaign similar to the process of promoting Jennie Finch to where she is now; a journey that began in her days at the University of Arizona. Finch did a large amount of the promoting herself, beginning her own brand of merchandise.

"[Jennie] has put in a ton of work to get where she is today," Thorson said.
The Cal-Berkeley alumna believes that the solution to the marketing struggle for the sport is branching out of the small softball community. Instead of focusing solely on the softball lives of the athletes, the Bandits should shed light on the off the field interests of the athletes in order to reach the average person.

Sporting more than tattoos, Thor expressed interest in attending events like a recent tattoo expo in downtown Chicago and has been out to local farmers markets, and even taking up a Bandits video blog to check in with fans more frequently - all in an effort to increase exposure to the Bandits.

"People know Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman, and Monica Abbott. But the lack of marketing for the other great pitching matchups is what hurts the league," Thorson said.
If the promoting of players extracurricular interests or pitching matchups doesn't excite the average Joe, Thorson says, go with what sells.

"We have beautiful girls in this league. Why not embrace it?"

In a rather taboo topic within the realm of sports where some say promoting looks over skills further perpetuates the 'glass ceiling' philosophy, Thorson conversely points to the success Finch and softball had when she posed in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated in 2005.

"All we need to do is get the people out [to the game]," Thorson said with confidence. No matter the motive for people's attendance, Thorson insists sports fans everywhere would be impressed and instantly hooked on the athleticism of these pros.
"If they do come, they'll want to come back."

The sun will one day set on the illustrious career of Jennie Finch.

Yet, as the lightning bugs flicker and the night prepares to grow to its darkest, the future face of the Bandits and softball will welcome the challenge, and emerge from - as she so frequently does -that empty post-game dugout.

Don't worry about it; Kristina Thorson will grab the lights on her way out.

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