The angle of the late afternoon light was clear evidence summer is ending. Lengthening shadows crossed the field by the time the Chicago Red Stars finished their final game this year at Benedictine University’s multipurpose sports stadium, with its maze of lines marking the playing areas for the various sports it serves.
A crowd packed with young children had filled all but 364 of the 3,400 seats eight days ago to see what would become a historic moment for the Chicago franchise in the 3-year-old National Women’s Soccer League. Only a couple of hundred remained when goalie Karina LeBlanc picked up a mic to thank them for coming and tell them the Red Stars had made the playoffs for the first time.
Coming when it did, with so few people left to hear it, the announcement felt like an anticlimax, not unlike the way the culmination of the NWSL season has felt less than two months after its sport, soccer, had captivated the country — and several others — in June and early July.
Light that has fallen bright as a midsummer’s noonday on female athletes in this season of women’s soccer and of Serena and Ronda will soon shift toward football and the MLB postseason and the NBA and the NHL and the Midnight Madness of the first men’s college basketball practices.
The question, as always, is whether the passion so many have shown for women’s sports is more than a summer romance, an abiding love more than a one-season stand, a caring for and celebrating the ordinary along with the extraordinary: the United States winning a quadrennial women’s soccer world championship; Serena Williams starting the U.S. Open on Monday as the first player with a chance at sweeping tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments since Germany’s Steffi Graf did it in 1988; fighter Ronda Rousey, in a sport with an appeal once beholden to the prurience of watching women fight each other, now acclaimed by Sports Illustrated as the world’s most dominant athlete, no gender qualifier applied.
“I’d like to think this has been an important year in women’s sports,” said longtime TV commentator Mary Carillo, “and the Serena story going into the U.S. Open is going to be tremendous. Serena has to be considered one of the most dominant and important women athletes of all time.”
If Williams wins the U.S. Open, she will tie Graf for most Grand Slam titles in tennis’ Open Era. Yet, as Carillo notes, the wealthiest women’s tennis player in history is the leggy blonde from Russia, Maria Sharapova, who has won five Grand Slams and has more appeal to sponsors than the powerfully built Williams.
In a corporate world run almost exclusively by men, how a woman looks still can count more than what she has done as an athlete.
“Really significant social change is never a linear progression,” said sociologist Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “It is peaks and valleys. Right now we’re hitting a peak. I assume there will be a valley. But that doesn’t mean women’s sports will go away. There is too big a critical mass now.”
That stability comes from the stunning growth in participation of girls and women, especially in team sports, since Congressional passage of Title IX in 1972 guaranteed opportunities for female athletes in high school and college.
There were just 700 girls playing high school soccer, some on boys teams, for the school year ending in 1971 and 375,681, all on girls teams, for the school year ending in 2015, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Even given the 50 percent U.S. population increase over that period, that approximately 53,000 percent increase in female soccer players is beyond stunning.
Yet attorneys like Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a triple Olympic gold medalist in Olympic swimming, still find themselves forced to sue high school associations to assure the gender equity mandated by Title IX but often badly flouted by more than half the states in the country, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
And U.S. media coverage of women’s sports runs between just 2 and 4 percent of total media sports coverage, with recent studies showing the amount is dropping. Were it not for ESPN television, the women’s sports website espnW and now Fox, which has taken over TV coverage of elite women’s soccer, the coverage of women’s sports, especially the professional leagues, would be infinitesimal.
Yet the TV ratings for the women’s World Cup were record-breaking for soccer of either gender in the U.S. and better than ever in countries including Japan, Canada and France. The final round of the Women’s College World Series in softball did a better ESPN rating than the final round of the College World Series in men’s baseball.
“I was really happy to see how the world responded to women’s soccer this past run, to feel the buzz for those girls,” said Chicago Sky guard Cappie Pondexter, a 10-year WNBA veteran who has also played basketball overseas nine years.
Question of coverage
In its fifth year of existence, espnW drew a record 8.1 million unique visitors in April and, because of the women’s World Cup, nearly matched that in traditional slow months June (7.8) and July (7.4).
“When we got the green light to start espnW, maybe that was a tad of checking off the box (of doing something for women),” said ESPN vice president Laura Gentile, who has run the site since its outset. “Since we have shown such great returns, from a business and traffic perspective, we’ve got a lot of momentum. (ESPN’s) commitment to the site never has been greater.”
Of course, there were about 65 million other unique June visitors to the rest of ESPN digital, which almost exclusively covers men’s sports.
“We can argue that women don’t draw as much interest,” said DePaul’s Doug Bruno, a U.S. Olympic assistant women’s basketball coach about to begin his 30th year as head coach of a perennial NCAA women’s tournament qualifier. “I’m not advocating women should be covered 50 percent. But can’t we have a discussion about 25 percent?”
The Chicago Tribune’s handling of women’s team sports is typical of large newspapers (and most local TV, in Chicago and other large markets): no regular coverage or staff beat writer for the WNBA’s Sky, no coverage at all of the Red Stars, two paragraphs in the sports briefing when the Chicago Bandits won the National Pro Fastpitch softball league title this summer. That shortfall will only be exacerbated by the economic pressures on traditional media.
“We try our best to cover the things that matter the most to our audience,” said Joseph Knowles, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports.
The Tribune covers women’s high school sports extensively yet essentially ignores those athletes when they get to college (where about 43 percent of scholarship athletes are women) and beyond. Rarely does anyone complain in an email or phone call about the lack of women’s sports coverage, Knowles said.
“Sports departments tend to be male-dominated, and the culture within them is unfortunately not all that welcoming to women or women’s sports,” Knowles said.
Nor, alas, is the culture at large, even in 2015. When the Sky’s Elena Delle Donne scored 45 points earlier this season, the troglodytic response on social media, decrying the level of competition and using other shopworn tropes, was so dismaying the team reacted by putting together a YouTube video of Delle Donne humorously “dunking” her critics.
And that stuff was milquetoast compared with the reprehensible things men think they have the right to tweet and say publicly about women, especially women in the sports media.
“Sports is still considered by so many guys to be the last bastion of their dominance,” said Carillo, a former pro tennis player. “The dismissive way so many of these clowns talk about women’s sports, you can tell they never have watched. I would love to say at some point that is all going to go away, but I just don’t see it.”
The naysayers always fall back on the simplistic: comparing the physical abilities of women — speed, power, strength — to those of men rather than taking the time to view remarkable female athletes in their own context.
“We’re not real good in this country about just appreciating people that are good. We always have to compare,” said Geno Auriemma, coach of 10-time NCAA champion UConn and the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team.
“Our Olympic (women’s team) is the best in the history of the Olympics. We’ve won five straight gold medals. But because we travel with the greatest basketball players in the world, when you make a comparison, you always come up short.”
Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman were excellent basketball coaches before the Spurs and Kings validated that to some skeptics by hiring them as NBA assistants. Delle Donne is a great basketball player. Period. Williams is a great tennis player, period, Rousey a great mixed martial arts fighter. Period. Exclamation point.
“With Ronda, initially it was this polarizing personality and somewhat interesting female fighter,” said Kelly Amonte Hiller, whose Northwestern women’s lacrosse teams have won seven NCAA titles. “Now you see she is unbelievably talented. It’s cool to see how she has helped that aspect of women’s sports grow so quickly.”
Measuring the relative appeal of men’s and women’s team sports also is an easy way to be dismissive. Men have dominated this conversation for more than a century, and some of their professional and college team sports have existed that long, with the others (except the NBA, which started in 1946) going back before World War II.
The “venerable” WNBA, its survival assured by the NBA backing a previous league lacked, began only in 1997. The NWSL started in 2013 and by next year, thanks to the financial support of U.S. Soccer, it will have outlived the two previous U.S. pro women’s soccer leagues, which lasted only three years each. It wasn’t until 1982 the NCAA began running the women’s basketball championship; the men’s began in 1939.
“Men have had an enormous advantage out of the starting blocks in terms of interest, coverage and corporate sponsorship,” Minnesota’s Kane said. “It’s like comparing a tech startup to Apple.”
‘Needle is moving’
Billie Jean King, a legend as a tennis player and women’s rights activist, has been insisting since the mid-1970s, before the first women’s pro leagues were formed, they would be critical to the advancement of female athletes.
“I felt then, and I still feel, women’s sports will not really arrive until the teams and the leagues succeed,” King said. “America was then, and still is, all about teams. Forty years later, the needle is moving, even if it is ever so slowly.”
The way the media and public talked about the U.S. women’s World Cup team as compared with 1999 also moved the needle.
In 1999, when their fame grew organically and David Letterman called them “babes,” the team was discussed as a sociological phenomenon, the women who somehow got 90,000 people to the Rose Bowl.
This year, with substantial pre-tournament hype, they were looked at as a sports team, with debates over whether the coach was an idiot, who should be playing, what tactics they should use, what the strengths and weaknesses of opponents were.
“The 1999 team was necessary to get to 2015,” sports business consultant Marc Ganis said. “The 2015 team was another evolutionary step and a big leap forward.”
Average attendance for the NWSL’s 10 teams in the six weeks after the World Cup was up by nearly 33 percent over the same period last year, to 5,642 per game. The Red Stars sold out two recent games at Benedictine.
But there can be a World Cup boost only once every four seasons, and this year’s undoubtedly was larger because the tournament was in neighboring Canada.
“It’s too soon to tell whether the summer of 2015 is going to be a tipping point,” Kane said, “but there are many indications progress is being made. The next frontier is acceptance of women’s sports around attendance, media coverage and corporate sponsorship.”
Men’s sports will always overshadow women’s, but girls and women never will be left in the wintry dark of exclusion and total inattention again. That makes Serena’s Grand Slam quest a fitting end to this season in the sun.