EVENTS & PROMOTIONS;WOMEN & DIAMONDS;SILVER BULLETS TEAM HAS BASEBALL FANS ROOTING; FOOTBALL IS NEXT

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It could be sheer novelty that's drawing crowds to see the Colorado Silver Bullets women play professional-level baseball against men this year.

That's what some critics say. But in their second season, the Silver Bullets have gained so many new fans in cities across the U.S. that it's becoming impossible to dismiss them as irrelevant.

Backed by Coors Brewing Co.'s Coors Light and taking its moniker from the beer's nickname, the team has been a promotional jackpot, helping raise awareness for Coors through 20 games broadcast this season on cable TV, plus point-of-purchase promotions with in-store team appearances.

Although they've lost more games overall than they've won, the Silver Bullets are improving this year with former Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro as their coach as they go head-to-head against minor league, semi-pro and amateur men's teams in major and farm team markets across the U.S.

And now, empowered by the Silver Bullets' success, the agency that helped invent the team has decided it's time to get women playing football, too. Next spring, the first all-star girls football game will be staged among the top 80 of the estimated 800 high school girls who play varsity-level football. The game is slated for the first weekend in April in Charlotte, N.C., and will be dubbed the "Super Belle."

No rule against it

"There's no rule saying women can't play men's sports," said Bob Hope, partner at Hope-Beckham, Atlanta, which helped conceive the Silver Bullets team in 1993 and is now backing the all-star girls football event.

The Silver Bullets still have no pro rivals from other women's baseball teams inspired by their efforts. And some sports insiders believe the concept lacks genuine sports interest. "I think it draws mainly on novelty, and there's no likelihood women's baseball will ever become a widespread reality," said sports guru James Millman, president of sports marketing agency Millsport in Stamford, Conn.

Indeed, the women's dismal 6-37 record last year was almost enough to prove they shouldn't bother taking on men in baseball. But this year they're batting well and winning a few more games. Ratings for the contests aren't available, but attendance has been as high as 11,000 at many minor league parks that ordinarily draw half that number.

Battling the doubters

"We battle a lot of doubters, but when the Silver Bullets win, talk suddenly turns to the possibility of women someday really playing in the major leagues," Mr. Hope said.

Coors paid $2.7 million last year to sponsor the Silver Bullets; this year, its sponsorship costs were reduced to just under $2 million as other co-sponsors including Reebok International and Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. came aboard. Warner-Lambert Co.'s Rolaids, Nabisco Foods Group and Chemical Bank also joined as regional sponsors this year, and dozens of ads were sold to sponsors in the team's first official program.

"The more they play, the better they get," Mr. Hope said. "There's no telling what will happen when there are enough women out there who can really compete-surely it couldn't hurt baseball any."

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