Museum organizers hope a smaller exhibit at the mall is a step toward the establishment of a permanent attraction in Sarasota.
In 2020, the Women’s Sports Museum will have a physical home for the public to visit — though it will just be a preview of what the museum’s organizers hope they can ultimately achieve.
The Women’s Sports Museum plans to open a 2,000-square-foot preview center next spring at the Mall at University Town Center. On Nov. 16, the museum held an event to mark the launch of the second phase of an effort to establish a place in Sarasota dedicated to women in sports.
In addition to the planned opening of the preview center, the Women’s Sports Museum will launch a capital campaign for the eventual construction and opening of an actual museum. The group has not formally identified a site for the museum, but it has identified a potential space in the University Town Center area. Women’s Sports Museum Board Chairwoman Beth Green said the organization hoped it could break ground within three years, though that timeline remains variable.
“We have to deliver first and foremost on the preview center, and once we have that up and running, we will kick off the formal capital campaign and the identification of the space,” Green said.
That concept for the Women’s Sports Museum first came together in 2015 after Charlotte County resident and former professional baseball player Sue Zipay sought out architects to see if it was possible to make her idea a reality.
“I want to see something where our history could be preserved,” Zipay previously told the Observer.
Over the past four years, a group of Sarasota residents has come together and worked for just that cause. During the first phase of its work, Green said the group has focused on trying to make sure people knew the initiative was taking place. In the past year, Green said, the organization has reached out to potential partners, such as the WNBA and LPGA, to broaden the museum’s scope beyond the local level.
“Probably the biggest piece we continue to face is the awareness component,” Green said. “I think we’ve gone from being Sarasota-centric to hopefully making a dent on the national scale.”
In those conversations, some have asked the museum: Why Sarasota? Green said the organization, composed of Sarasota residents, has been determined to keep the project in the area. She cited Sarasota’s recent emphasis on sports tourism, including the establishment of Nathan Benderson Park as a destination rowing venue, as a sign the community is home to more than just beaches and the arts.
At Saturday’s launch party, the museum honored “trailblazers” Jen Welter, Renee Powell and Mackenzie Soldan, part of an effort to connect national sports figures with the Women’s Sports Museum and Sarasota. Green said creating programming is a priority for phase two, which outlines a speaker series and a “world-class summit” as two examples of initiatives the museum is pursuing.
In addition to making sure people around the country and around the world are familiar with the Women’s Sports Museum, Green wants to make sure Sarasota residents are aware of opportunities in their hometown to learn about sports history and hear from preeminent figures in that field. Based on the attendance at the launch party, she said the museum is succeeding at connecting with a new audience.
“This year, I would say 75% of those attending are completely new to the organization,” Green said. “And they’ve said things like: ‘I’m amazed’; ‘I didn’t know this was going on’; ‘I can’t wait to see what you’re doing and get involved.’”
Green sees the welcome center as an opportunity to build on that success. The center includes smaller exhibitions and a virtual reality display, as well as an opportunity for visitors to sign up for updates on the museum’s progress. It will serve as a sort of proof of concept for the Women’s Sports Museum, one the organization hopes will be a major step toward its final destination.
“We definitely want to start celebrating these female athletes and give people a destination to come, see, feel, engage,” Green said.