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A LITTLE POST-GAME INSURANCE FOR WOMEN PRO HOOPSTERS

Five of the best women basketball players in the country sit around a table in a small conference room in Hartford. They watch intently as an enthusiastic trainer writes on a whiteboard. But these aren't game plays for members of the all-women's American Basketball League, whose season starts on Oct. 12. These players are learning about insurance.

Insurance seminars might be a stretch for the women's male counterparts, many of whom gross millions in salaries and endorsements. But the average female pro player earns a small fraction of what male pros make. And while the ABL and the rival Women's National Basketball League had successful first seasons, neither has a sure future. So the players here are preparing themselves for life after basketball.

The classes are the brainchild of Robert W. Fiondella, a former Little League coach and currently chairman and chief executive of Hartford-based Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance. Phoenix is the ninth-largest insurer in the country, with $40 billion in assets. In 1996, Phoenix paid $3 million for a 20% stake in the fledgling ABL--just about the cost of a single minute of Super Bowl advertising. Phoenix' goal was to improve brand recognition, particularly among women, who bought 38% of all life-insurance premiums in 1995, up from 33% a decade earlier.

SUMMER CAMP. Then, Fiondella decided to go one better and target the female players as potential sales agents. The company is particularly eager to recruit women, who make up only 11.6% of Phoenix' agents; the industry average is 17%. So in their final paychecks last spring, all 80 ABL players received invitations to an all-expenses-paid, four-week insurance camp in Hartford, followed by two weeks in a field office. Five accepted.

Tara Davis, 24, who played guard for the Seattle Reign last year and will join the New England Blizzard this season, picked camp over an invitation to be the graduation speaker at her former high school, even though ''I thought insurance was boring,'' she says. But she was eager to learn about financial planning. And after spending time in Phoenix' green glass headquarters in downtown Hartford, she became an insurance convert. ''I called my mom and said, 'What's happening with your life insurance?' and she was like, 'Who is this?''' Davis says.

Lauretta Freeman, an Atlanta Glory forward, was skeptical, too. ''I thought insurance was sold by a boring, crazed person hustling products you didn't want to buy.'' But Freeman, 26, knew firsthand about the need for financial planning. The single mother of a daughter, 9, Freeman wrecked her knee a few years ago while playing basketball in Spain. To meet house and car payments while recovering, she had to work the cash register at Burger King.

''I consider myself a blue-collar athlete,'' says Freeman, who puts her salary ''in the middle'' of the ABL's $40,000-to-$125,000 range. After seminars on personal goal-setting and annuities, Freeman bought her daughter a life-insurance policy. ''She should start on the road to financial fitness when she's young,'' Freeman says.

Insurance camp lasts all day, but prior to classes, the women work out for a couple of hours to keep in shape. So by the end of the day, most are yawning and fidgeting as they try to concentrate on annuities and closing ratios. But their teacher, J. Neil Gahagan, director of agency management development at Phoenix, understands. ''They're active, which makes it difficult to sit in a classroom setting for a long time. To me, [the inability to sit still] is a plus for salespeople,'' he says. He uses real-life examples to keep their attention as he teaches the workings of the industry.

Phoenix rates its camp a success. The women are more gregarious than the average trainee agent. ''You can teach sales techniques and how to be door openers, but you can't teach [agents] to like people,'' says Gahagan. And the players are glad they came. Davis says she'll tell her teammates to attend next year. ''Ignorance is expensive,'' she says.

None of the women has announced she'll trade in her high-tops for a briefcase yet. But Lauretta Freeman, for one, is keeping her voice mail at Phoenix' Atlanta office. Call it a little bit of insurance for the future.

SUSAN JACKSON
EDITED BY SANDRA DALLAS



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