Women’s sports

More people watched the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday than watched the last game of the NBA Finals in June. More watched the U.S. and Japan play for the title than watched Game 7 of the World Series last October. More people — more than 25 million of them — watched that soccer match than have watched any soccer match, men or women, ever in the U.S. Ever.

It’s wonderful. It’s affirming. It’s something that even the most Cro-Magnon of sports fans can recognize is good. For everybody.

Yet today, two days after the Americans’ convincing 5-2 win, the World Cup follow is on page C4 of my Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On the ESPN desktop front, the World Cup is way, way, waaaaay down the page, under Wimbledon, baseball’s All-Star Game, assorted NBA news, a follow from the crash at Daytona last weekend, some news on the latest Florida State quarterback to assault a woman, a Tour de France wreck and about 150 other headlines and links.

The news cycle is, by definition, unrelenting. But the Cup match was two days ago. Less than two days ago.  You’d think they’d let that story breathe a little. Instead, the Cup final already is fading into the sports background, which says way more about the nature of sports fans and the media than it does about women’s sports or soccer.

That said … I don’t think that America’s sports fans are ready to support a steady dose of women’s sports. I don’t think they’re close, as sad as that sounds in 2015.

Julia Burke, writing on Skepchick, argues that’s because sports like women’s soccer just haven’t been given an equal chance:

… [W]e should have something to say when the dominant cultural narrative shrugs and says, “Women’s sports just don’t bring in as much revenue,” just as we do when it says women aren’t funny and women are too emotional to lead and women can’t be scientists. We need to see it as the vicious cycle we’ve been fighting all along. Give us the same resources and, literally and figuratively, an equal playing field — and then let us show you what we’ve got.

It’s true enough that women’s sports have not been afforded an equal playing field in a lot of ways. But sustained efforts have been made.

The WNBA has been around since 1997. The league has a television contract. (ESPN will televise WNBA games through at least 2022, paying each of the 12 teams $1 million a year.) Many NBA teams still help to financially support WNBA teams.

Yet attendance and TV ratings for the W have not been good. Tom Van Riper, writing in Forbes last year:

As the league embarks on its 18th season, the struggles continue. Attendance has hovered at or near record lows in the past couple of years, at roughly 7,500 a game. Expansion from eight original teams to 16 proved to be overambitious: when the NBA, the original owner of WNBA franchises, began to divest itself in 2002, selling the WNBA teams to the NBA clubs they shared cities with or to outside investors, those that couldn’t attract buyers were folded. The league shrank back to 12 teams.

It’s difficult to find footing with the viewing public for any new sports venture, given the multitude of choices out there. Remember the XFL? The USFL? Women’s Professional Soccer? The Women’s United Soccer Association? Major League Volleyball?

Major League Soccer, which has been around as long as the WNBA, has sputtered over the years and only now is beginning to realize what its founders had hoped was possible. MLS set a record for attendance in 2014 (more than 19,000 a game) and signed a lucrative new TV rights agreement that runs through 2022.

Could this women’s triumph lead to something like that? Could, idealistically perhaps, some deep-pocketed investors with a decade or two to wait, and some forward-thinking television executives with a strong sense of what’s right, make a sport with women a commercial success? Could a league like that do what the WNBA so far has failed to do?

Would men watch? Would women watch? Would enough of them watch?

Maybe. Some day. But not now, certainly, and not anytime soon. Sports fans, largely men, still have not shown a willingness to tune into women’s games in big enough numbers, for a lot of reasons. Old biases, mostly.

The media, for the most part, still relegate women’s sports to back pages and non-prime time TV slots. (Go easy on the media, though: Fans are, after all, the customer.) And so go the cycles that Burke writes about.

It’s a wonderful thing when women’s sport steps out of the shadows — forces its way out, really — and we all can see the possibilities. But altering perceptions, tweaking habits and thought processes, shooting down stereotypes and showing what is possible, growing new fans — that stuff is hard. It takes a long time.

The glow of this World Cup is fading, buried back on page C4. Let’s hope, though, that the glow leads to a spark, and some changing attitudes, and maybe some bold investments in the future of women’s sports in America. We’d all be better off for it.

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