A couple of articles recently have centered around the subject of women’s athletics at the college and professional levels. First, Christina Hoff Summers:
Diana Nyad, sports show host for National Public Radio affiliate KCRW and a celebrated distance swimming champion, was moved to write a special introduction to the latest report: “Women’s athletic skill levels have risen astronomically over the past twenty years … It is time for television news and highlights shows to keep pace with this revolution.” She describes the neglect of women’s sports as “unfathomable and unacceptable.”
But the heavy focus of news and highlights shows on men’s sports is not only fathomable but obvious—that is where the fans are. And that is where advertisers expect to find customers for “male” products such as beer, razors, and cars. Men’s professional sports are a fascination (obsession is more like it) to many millions of men, because they offer extreme competition, performance, and heroics. Women’s professional sports, however skilled and admirable, cannot compare in Promethean drama.
Even women prefer watching male teams. Few women follow the sports pages and ESPN, but many enjoy attending live games—featuring male athletes. According to Sports Business Daily, 31 percent of the NFL’s “avid fans” are women.
By and large, men want to watch men play. Most sports fans are men. But women that are interested in sports usually want to watch what the men are watching. This is true in part because it was likely their father or brother or husband that got them into sports in the first place. So they are introduced primarily to men’s sports. There are some exceptions to this, such as gymnastics and ice-skating, but it still remains generally so.
Once interested in the NBA of NCAA MBB, there’s no reason for them not to branch off to women’s basketball or, for that matter, volleyball. But sports are, generally speaking, a social activity. It’s not as fun to watch a sport that nobody cares about because, apart from Internet chatting, there’s nobody to talk to about it. So while Lacrosse may be a perfectly respectable sport, if you try to talk to anybody about the National Lacrosse League you’re simply going to bore them. I run into the same thing when it comes to non-alumni of Southern Tech University athletics. They’re not national players. Their conference is not one of the three or four premier conferences. Better to be able to talk about the wildly successful Delosa Panthers who draw 80k a game than the Southern Tech Packers who struggle to draw half of that.
That’s why a lot of universities that have difficulty succeeding in football or men’s basketball don’t just switch to another sport that they can dominate. A few have done so, but is the fact that the University of Denver and Alabama-Huntsville have stellar hockey teams something that registers at all? Did you even know that they had really good hockey teams? Or that Cal State-Fullerton has a really good baseball team? Given how hopeless it would be for these universities to build good football programs, going the hockey route may indeed be the best option for them, but collegiate hockey and women’s basketball are never going to really dominate our interest and so it’s not worthwhile to throw a whole lot of investment that way.
Of course, to some extent they don’t have a choice when it comes to women’s basketball or softball or soccer. Title IX requires that they field teams and that these teams are funded adequately. A lot of people like to rip on Title IX, but was (perhaps an overreaching) solution to a real problem. My father-in-law was actually the first coach of the Vandalia Fighting Vandals women’s basketball team many years ago. The pre-T9 accommodations were nothing short of pathetic. Since the reason for college athletics is ostensibly to support student athletes, there’s no reason that they shouldn’t be adequately funded in some relation to the way that men’s athletics are funded. That’s not to say that Title IX couldn’t use some tweaking - I would argue that revenues brought in by men’s sports should count for something - but I consider a lot of the criticisms off-base.
Less off-base, though, than complaints about the media. Other than perhaps soccer, no sport has ever been pumped up by the sports media more than women’s basketball. Indeed, when I was growing up there were three major college sports and women’s basketball was one of them. Now there are two major sports and two secondary ones with women’s basketball in the latter category along with college baseball. A few years ago I wondered exactly what happened to women’s basketball. What I discovered is that there was really a lack of interest. Why did interest decline? I don’t think it did. I think that the interest was never there. ESPN and the like just spent a whole lot of time and effort trying to build the interest. Sports media wants there to be more popular sports. Nothing would please them more than a robust women’s college basketball system because it would give them more stuff to sell you and it would increase leverage with Atlantic 10 men’s basketball to be able to play off Big East women’s basketball against it (”If you don’t take this paltry sum, we’ll just show this other thing instead!”). Attempts by ESPN and Fox Sports and the like to build sport interest are spotty. Particularly women’s sports, though there was a push for hockey a few years back that was unsuccessful as well. The only successful one I can think of is Poker.
The second article (teaser, really) on the subject I’ve read is one about a Division III conference getting in trouble for playing the women’s game before the men’s in double-headers. Like James Joyner, I initially thought the objection was that it was demeaning to the women athletes to have to open up for the men. If that were the case, my response would be the above. While it’s good that women are given an equal chance to play as men, we can’t just pretend that there is or could be equal interest. And having them as the “opening act” probably goes them a greater service than having them play on different nights. I was a JV basketball player at the junior high level and we benefited greatly by playing before the varsity squad and drew better crowds than varsity women’s who played on a different night. As it turns out, that’s only part of the object. The other part, that earlier games cut more into class times than later ones, is a more valid objection. In that case, it might actually be better for them to play on different nights.