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Women’s Sport is Political (+ Financial + Pop Cultural + …)

October 28, 2010 – 3:40 PM

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).

  1. 8 Responses to “Women’s Sport is Political (+ Financial + Pop Cultural + …)”

  2. This is the conversation that should be happening everyday! With everyone! Especially those (most) who continue to only support/fund the male dominance of sports. Our society, including many woman, just don’t get the inequities and sexism that persist in sports. I’m going to forward this to all of my contacts. Keep the conversation going!

    By Katie on Oct 29, 2010

  3. Thank you, Laura, for setting the stage and framing the topic. It was an excellent panel presentation–high energy, substantive, great take-aways. We’ve posted the audio recording online at http://www.wcwonline.org/nycevent so anyone can tune in and hear perspectives from these tremendous women!

    By Wellesley Centers for Women on Oct 29, 2010

  4. This incessant guilt-tripping of women is why so many people have turned on you “feminists”. You are not advocating for women, but rather trying to knock down men.

    Our society has advanced so much as far as women’s liberation and rights — so much so that women now make the majority of household spending decisions. That should be something CELEBRATED by feminists. Instead, you blast them for what they decide to spend their family’s disposable sports income on.

    The fact that the overwhelming majority of women (and men) have decided they’d rather spend money on the NFL, NBA, and MLB, as well as women’s tennis, figure skating and gymnastics over the WNBA, men’s and women’s soccer and Major League Lacrosse speaks of what they think of the entertainment value of the entities. To the women who pay for the tickets or tune to certain channels, it is about entertainment value. YOU FEMINISTS are who are making this political.

    By Chris on Oct 30, 2010

  5. “To the women who pay for the tickets or tune to certain channels, it is about entertainment value.”

    Please provide scientific proof of the “entertainment value” of men’s sports that has nothing to do with money spent or attendance, both of which can be linked to the cultural factors listed in the article above. (I suspect we’ll be waiting a very long time.)

    By tinheart on Oct 30, 2010

  6. i disagree with the tone of chris’s post, but the point is the same. look at any mlb tv broadcast, women everywhere in the stands, same for football. the women who are already making purchase decisions in sports are decidedly watching men’s sports.

    if successful efforts are to be made for advancing women’s athletics, it is imperitive to not compare them to the men. it just won’t ever work on a neighborhood level, and thus on up. the differences are real. exceptions will happen, but the entire stucture of sports cannot be based on exceptions.

    for example, it’s one thing to celebrate what ruggerio has done. it’s completely another thing to expect her to compete with the best men in the nhl. seriously, who would she be able to drop gloves with if a fight broke out?

    the big four will always be comprised of men. sure, in time, a woman or two will crack the ceiling, but that won’t change viewing or purchasing habbits. the day when a state legislature teams up with a wealthy owner to build a billion dollar stadium exclusevely for women’s sports is probably never coming.

    women’s sports suffer from a marketing problem, yes. but a few highlights on sportscenter is not the difference between raging attendance and empty stadiums, and it most certainly isn’t the difference in the political and social realms discussed in the article.

    By mcjack on Nov 1, 2010

  7. …but i am doing my part as a dad. i ENCOURAGE my toddler daughter to get into sports and have made efforts to expose her to strong women who succeed in sports (she’s too young to get it right now, but in time the lessons will stick).

    She loves Sue Bird (i’m guessing from all the dramatic tre’s Bird threw down last year, the roar of a crowd gets her clapping and shaking her toys, she likes to participate in the celebration much as i did watching Turner Gill light it up back when i was a youngling. even though i didn’t understand all the happenings at that age, i was drawn to the pomp).

    i battle with my wife (and usually lose) to keep her out of dresses and flip flops and “cute” clothes during the developmental playground years so she learns basic coordination skills (can’t climb monkey bars in a skirt and sandals, can’t learn to throw overhand if her outfit doesn’t suit the movement).

    at the end of the day, however, the victory is probably in the participation. women’s atheletics will likely never be on the same level in the social perspective, because at some point you neccessarily run into the bigger/stronger/faster argument, which is an undeniable element.

    not sure the television viewers are coming anytime soon, but no doubt the encouragement to participate will have a positive effect.

    By mcjack on Nov 2, 2010

  8. I just had the pleasure of listening to the discussion and really enjoyed it. The speakers managed to touch on so many important issues and raised really important points. I hope there will be similar events such as these in the future! Thanks for supporting the women and sports movement.

    By Kate Laine on Dec 2, 2010

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