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East County Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 2 years ago

If You Build It

The first Women’s Sports Museum is warming up with a sneak peek at the project through the creation of a preview center in The Mall at UTC.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

Would you believe me if I told you there isn’t a single museum in the world dedicated to women in sports?

Sure, there are a few museums dedicated to women in one particular sport, such as the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. But there isn’t a single museum dedicated to women throughout the sports world — from athletes to referees to executives.

Some determined locals have a big plan to change that.

The Women’s Sports Museum (WSM), now in its fifth year of existence, is entering its second of three phases, on the path to establishing a permanent home in Sarasota. Phase two will take the form of a 2,000-square-foot preview center, located upstairs by Dillard’s, in The Mall at University Town Center. Although the museum is an estimated three to five years from fruition, WSM board President Beth Green anticipates the preview center will open by the fall.

After years of fundraising and building name recognition, museum CEO Christina Unkel says this preview center is a big step for the organization.

“It’s a huge milestone for us because it’s our first brick and mortar,” Unkel says, echoing the museum’s mission to provide inspiration to future generations of athletes and honor those who have gone before them. “You can tell someone they can be somebody or do something, but [they need to see] someone who looks like them to truly grasp and understand that. ‘Hey, that person looks like me. That person comes from the same gender, race, ethnicity, background, environment that I do. And if they did it, I can do it too.’”

In addition to standard exhibits, the Women’s Sports Museum preview center will include interactive experiences and space for events, presentations and speakers.

WSM board member Chris Gallagher, an architect behind the project, calls the preview center a pitch of sorts by making the intangible museum concept a living, breathing institution. As a representation of the future museum featuring informative exhibits and interactive experiences, the center provides opportunity to gain potential donors and get the public excited about what’s to come. Current plans also call for room for events and presentations. Unkel sees potential for the space to be used to host youth sports teams or women’s sports trailblazers who could come in and speak to small, public and private groups.

A few women, such as Manon Rhéaume, who played goalie for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in two exhibition games, and Kathrine Switzer, the first registered woman to run an official marathon, are on the preview center’s roster, ready to share their stories once it’s up and running.

In addition to the preview center, the organization will continue to build name recognition through interactive events. For example, Green says she likes the idea of allowing girls and boys to test their skills against real athletes, such as hitting against softball player Jennie Finch.

“The title is Women’s Sports Museum,” Green says. “But I want to make sure that we communicate the message that it’s for everybody. It’s not just for women.”

There are also plans to host female sports figures too, but those would likely need to be hosted elsewhere because of the limited space in the preview center. Fortunately, Unkel says partners of the WSM, such as the Benderson Development Co. and the IMG Academy, have offered help with such accommodations.

Green says the museum is important now more than ever, so the stories behind these trailblazing female athletes can be memorialized before they are forgotten.

"You can tell someone they can be somebody or do something, but [they need to see] someone who looks like them to truly grasp and understand that.” — Museum CEO Christina Unkel

In fact, the museum was born from this very concept in fall 2016. Earlier that year, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which competed while men fought in World War II and inspired the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own,” had held its annual reunion in Sarasota. It was during the reunion that one of the members came up with the idea of a museum for the league to capture the players’ groundbreaking stories.

“[They were] saying, ‘Wow, we keep coming to this every year, and less and less people are showing up because they’re all passing away,’” Unkel recounts. “‘Remembering our stories and what we went through and everything that we did, and it’s only staying here between us — how are our stories going to be preserved? How are they going to be told? How is the next generation going to understand and learn and build upon what we’ve done?’”

The league player decided to take her museum idea to Gallagher and a couple of the other WSM founding board members. After doing a little research, they realized there weren’t any museums dedicated to women’s sports as a whole, which gave way to the museum idea’s evolution to what it is today.

“But why Sarasota?” Unkel and Green are often asked.

Their response: “Why not?”

Many visitors spend time at the beach, but necessary respite from the sun and inclement weather means they also look to the area’s strong foundation of arts and sports. What do you do here when it rains or dips below 60 degrees outside? Hopefully, the WSM can provide a resounding answer.

“It’s kind of do or die at this point,” Green says. “We are either going to get the support from the community to say, ‘This is something that we think, one, we’re interested in, and two, we think is viable.’ Or [we’re] not. Everything right now points to the success of something like this.”

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