PHILADELPHIA - Over the course of eight years bookended by Olympic gold medals in Athens, Ga., and Athens, Greece, the most important question facing the U.S. women's soccer team was usually "What's next?"
That question has been replaced by "What now?"
With no major tournaments scheduled for the next two years, no professional league to keep newer players in the public eye and some entrenched personalities ending or winding down their careers, the team that bushwhacked its way into mainstream sports consciousness wants to keep from getting lost in the jungle of the marketplace.
The players, convinced the key to their piece of sports real estate is local, local, local, plan to stick to their traditional ground-level gospel-spreading. That means speaking appearances, instructional clinics and camps, post-game autograph-signing and construction of an Internet fan base.
"No opportunity is too small," said Dan Levy, director of women's sports at the Octagon sports marketing agency, whose clients include seven national team players. "The grass roots are still critical."
Continued excellence on the field doesn't mean the team can take its audience for granted or expect deals to come rolling in, said striker Abby Wambach, one of the more high-profile younger players, whose sponsors include Nike and Gatorade.
"Basic and simple is the way we've always operated," she said. "We're realistic about the marketplace, about women in sport and what companies want. We just want to be ready and prepared to take on those companies when they're ready."
Outside analysts say the team is trying to pull off a tricky trifecta - holding onto younger fans as those girls grow up, bringing new kids on board and appealing to adults.
"They're at the opposite end of the problems that Major League Baseball is having in not growing their young fan base," said David Stotlar, a University of Northern Colorado professor of sport management and textbook author.
"I do think for the soccer team, it's all about touching the fans and having a relationship. The issue is whether they can and want to serve those people as they get into their 20s and 30s."
The future began with the team's 10-game "Fan Celebration Tour" this fall. In all-star jam session style, players flew in before matches, eschewed practice and routed the opposition until Denmark handed them a tie and a loss in games 8 and 9. Attendance has averaged more than 15,000 despite some weeknight dates and little advance promotion.
Defender Joy Fawcett, midfielder Julie Foudy and all-time scoring leader Mia Hamm will retire after the last stop on Dec. 8 in Carson, Calif., against Mexico.
"We've cast such a large shadow for so many years that the younger players haven't gotten the recognition they deserve," Foudy said. "So it's about time. They'll step up, and people will love them."
Other veterans will play on. Promising players including Shannon Boxx and Heather Mitts, who is featured in a current ESPN spot, have shown early signs of market appeal. But wide exposure could be difficult to come by. The next Women's World Cup is in 2007 and almost certainly will be held outside the United States.
The team's 2005 schedule isn't set, but likely will include two or three tournaments and six or seven "friendly" matches, not all on home soil.
Heading into this transitional time, the players felt they needed the broadest possible set of marketing options, said Foudy, who is on the players union bargaining team that is negotiating a new contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation. Relations between the two sides have been occasionally contentious over the years.
Last year, the union hired Los Angeles-based CC&C Management Group to develop a marketing strategy. One result was a Web-based fan club - The Ponytail Posse - that provides player updates and offers an eclectic array of merchandise, including lunchboxes, shot glasses, nesting dolls and sports bras. Some items are co-licensed with the federation, which owns rights to the national shield logo and any group of seven or more players appearing together.
The Web site has attracted close to 10,000 members, according to CC&C senior vice president Jen Rottenberg. Although its name may conjure up images of the team's youngest fans, Rottenberg said it isn't meant to exclude adult followers. Events in the works for adults include an all-female celebrity charity golf tournament next month and a fantasy camp next year.
"When we first put the fan club online, we got some feedback from women in their 30s who said, `This sounds like a little kids' thing,' " Rottenberg said. "But what we're trying to get across is that it's not just about being 10 years old. It's about being a woman who's empowered, getting out there and doing things."