Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Growing Women's Sports

In mid-October, 12-year-old McKenna Peterson of Arizona gained national fame when a story broke describing a letter she wrote to Dick’s Sporting Goods regarding the dearth of women appearing in Dick’s basketball catalog.  In fact, she noted that the only woman who appeared in the catalog at all was a photo of one sitting in the stands at a basketball game, but the catalog did include some cheerleaders on its coupons.  In her letter, she calls herself an avid basketball player, as well as a big fan of the reigning WNBA Champion Phoenix Mercury, and openly questions whether she should take her business to a sporting goods store that “supports girls to actually PLAY basketball and follow their dreams and not sit on the sidelines.” 

In one letter, this young girl brought to light the chicken-or-egg question that has regularly plagued women’s sports – both on the collegiate and professional levels – for the past several years. 

The question:  How do we grow the popularity of women’s sports?  Will popularity be driven by television and sponsors?  Or will increased player participation and fan demand force TV and sponsors to hop on board?

From a participation standpoint, women’s sports appear to be doing quite well.  The number of girls participating in high school sports is at an all-time high and continues to grow year after year.  At the collegiate level, participation in women’s sports across the NCAA’s three divisions has grown from nearly 158,000 in 2000-01 to nearly 204,000 in 2012-13. 

Women’s sports are also currently witnessing an uptick in fan popularity, and not just in tennis, which has long been the most popular women’s sport.  The 2014 NCAA Women’s Basketball final between unbeatens UConn and Notre Dame earned ESPN its highest rating for a women’s basketball game since 2004.  And TV ratings for the WNBA are on the rise as well after hitting their nadir in 2012, though the league’s ratings still lag behind those of women’s college basketball. 

The good news is that television seems be doing its part.  ESPN and its vast array of networks will televise 131 women’s college basketball games, resulting in record coverage.  ESPN networks also annually televise women’s soccer, softball and volleyball.  Young girls are able to turn on the TV and can be inspired to get involved in almost any sport out there. 

However, for the most part, media attention/coverage of women’s sports is reserved for only the most astounding of feats.  While all the aforementioned sports are televised, they rarely find their way onto highlight shows or newscasts.  Often, the only times that girls get widespread media coverage is when they play with the boys, as in the case of Danica Patrick, Michelle Wie, or most recently, young Mo’ne Davis.  Otherwise, individual female athletes who gain national notoriety continue to be confined to professional tennis, aside from the occasional athlete who gains fame during an Olympic year. 

Similarly, sponsors seem to be lagging behind.  Televised women’s sports currently draw relatively small ratings, and therefore hold relatively little value for potential sponsors.  In fact, as Peterson’s letter to Dick’s shows, some businesses (mistakenly or otherwise) neglect to appeal to women and girls at all.  It’s completely understandable in this era of tighter budgets that companies involved in sports want to focus on those that provide the most reliable returns on their investments.  

At some point, the double standard that women’s sports face will change, but the chicken-or-egg question as to what will drive that change remains.  Female athletes obviously shouldn’t have to be held to the standard of whether they can compete with their male counterparts in order to be appreciated and celebrated, and the media should be held accountable to ensure that the Brittney Griners of the world are celebrated for the same reasons as the Kevin Durants: because they’re the best at what they do.  Additionally, as long as participation at the high school and collegiate levels continue to rise and popularity of women’s sports continues to grow, it follows that demand for increased television coverage will rise, and sponsors will hopefully come out of the woodwork.  The on-court playing field for female athletes has been steadily leveling over the past decade.  The next step is to level the playing field off the court as well.