By Laura Pappano
It’s nearly election day, an apt time to recognize that — yes — sports are political. Not blue state-red state stuff, but equity, status, economic power.
At the New York Athletic Club yesterday, the Wellesley Centers for Women lunch/discussion fed a conversation that energized a room of more than 200 and stirred frank discussion, thanks to panelists Donna Orender (president of the WNBA), Olympic silver medalist and VP of Element Financial Group Gail Marquis, Jill Smoller (head of sports/entertainment at William Morris — and Serena Williams’ agent), golf pro Susan Choi (now in Florida prepping for Q-school) and moderator CNN correspondent Alina Cho.
I was lucky enough to frame the discussion at the outset (my remarks here), but the panelists and audience ran away with the show. Among the points that stuck:
— I’m not sure if Gail Marquis actually wore her silver medal to her first job interview (she says she did!), but when she said that corporate American speaks the language of sports, she was making a point to athletes out there: Bring what you learn on the field or the court right into the workplace. The drive, the discipline, the determination.
— Jill Smoller says the challenge for female athletes and corporate sponsorships is that they are not competing against other athletes, but against celebrities. It may seem tough to face off against Hollywood glam for sponsor dollars, but sports do offer a platform to build a brand. To wit: Serena Williams is not just a tennis player, she’s a bona-fide celeb/star. Women’s sport, she argues, needs more stars.
— Donna Orender says the WNBA has benefitted from being affordable family entertainment in a down economy but says it’s a battle to get the airtime and sponsor dollars that are out there. Too many companies are spending their sports marketing money on male sports — even when women are the ones making spending decisions. Part of the problem: The mindset that “male” and “sports” go together. A baby boy born in Boston, she says, will get a Celtics rattle or a New England Patriots pillow. A baby girl will be given something pink and frilly.
Susan Choi — She’s 26 years old and heading to Florida for LPGA qualifying school. As a kid, Choi was one of the rare girls learning golf and playing with her dad. When she became the number 1 player on her high school boy’s golf team, she says, her teammates “didn’t like it.” Over time, she earned their respect — and confidence in her game. Still, she says, the quiet assumption lingers: Golf is not a girl game.
The challenge for women’s sports and female athletes today isn’t anymore about Title IX (because Title IX was about access, not equity). It’s about getting fair consideration, valuation, pay, recognition, airtime, coverage, and status. This IS political.
When a girl looks and sees empty stands at her Wednesday afternoon high school basketball game — and knows that the boys game Friday night will be packed (and the snack bar open) — it speaks volumes about who matters more. Not just on the court, but in the cafeteria and the hallways and in all the quiet moments when kids internalize signals and sort out cues about social hierarchy.
The inequities aren’t hidden. They are common, in plain sight. It’s time to vote with our purses, our presence, and our clickers. Buy tickets, attend games, tune in and support women’s sports (not because it’s charity, but because it’s good).