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It's not capitalism holding women's sports back. It's male fragility.
But maybe, just maybe, things are starting to change.
It’s December 3, 2022. The United States just lost 3-1 to the Netherlands in the Round of 16 at the men’s World Cup, and CNN is running a segment on U.S. Soccer’s equal pay agreement between the men’s and women’s national teams. Because of this agreement, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) will get about half of the $13 million earned by the USMNT in Qatar.
Then-CNN anchor Don Lemon was not a fan. His reasoning? Essentially a long-winded version of, “No one cares about women’s sports.”
“If there is more interest in a men’s sport, the business people, the people who make money off of sports, will put that on television because we live in a capitalist society,” Lemon said. “And if people are interested in that, then there would be more attention and more money would be paid. So it’s about the money.”
His two female co-hosts tried to correct him, noting that interest doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that men’s sports have had a massive head start in terms of television exposure and investment. But Lemon was undeterred.
“I respect your point, and I hear what you’re saying. I don’t believe that’s accurate. We live in a capitalist society, and if people can make money off of whatever it is, they are going to exploit it,” Lemon said. “I just think we are lying to ourselves if we believe that someone cannot sit here and speak the truth to what we’re talking about.”
I’m singling out Lemon, but he’s not alone in making this argument; it’s a refrain I hear over and over again from people who are happy to see women’s sports maintain their status on the marginalized fringes of society.
And, taken at face value, the assumption isn’t nonsensical.
People like to make money, therefore, if there was money to be made off of women’s sports, they would be easily accessible on television and they’d receive a sizable chunk of media coverage and advertising revenue. That’s how it works, right? If something shows potential, then the capitalist market that guides our society will rabidly attempt to suck every dime of potential out of it.
And yes, that often is how it works. With everything except for women’s sports.
In this article, we’ll look at how women’s sports have proved their commercial viability and promise time and time again over the past century; we’ll examine the ways that those invested in upholding our patriarchal system have worked to squash said promise, not stoke it; we’ll also talk about the real reason why women’s sports are being marginalized – fragile masculinity – and examine whether things are starting to change.
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The numbers have been there all along
It’s April 3, 2023, the morning after LSU defeated Iowa 102-85 to win the 2023 women’s NCAA Division I basketball championship. It has been, by all metrics, a phenomenal March Madness for women’s basketball. The tournament smashed previous attendance records with 357,542 fans at the games. The Final Four games and championship were sell-outs, with 19,482 fans at each. Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark became household names practically overnight. When the viewership numbers for the championship game finally come out, they are staggering: A record average of 9.9 million people watched the final on ABC, with a peak audience of 12.2 million.
The whole world, it seems, is abuzz talking about women’s basketball. People call it a breakthrough for the sport, a pivotal moment that will take it to the next level.
The superlatives are nice, and the excitement does feel different. But really, this is nothing new; we have 50 years of receipts proving how much audiences love women’s basketball, and so little progress on the investment front to show for it.
It’s February 22, 1975. For the first time ever, women’s basketball is being played in Madison Square Garden. A lot of the media coverage teems with sexism. “The Mighty Macs play a swarming eylash-to-eyelash, smear-the-lipstick pressing defense,” reads the Daily News in New York.
The game itself is a tense one between Immaculata, the three-time defending national championship, and Queens College, runners up in ‘73; Queens was up 29-28 at intermission, and had a five-point lead in the fourth quarter before the Mighty Macs surged back to take the game 65-61. Most notably, 11,969 raucous fans were in the arena to cheer on two of the best women’s basketball programs in the country, nearly 4,000 more than came to watch men’s college basketball two nights prior.
“We proved that people will pay to see women play basketball,” Cathy Rush, the head coach of Immaculata, told reporters that day.
But with women’s sports, proof is never written in sharpie.
It’s 1982. The NCAA has finally decided that it cares about women’s sports, after a decade of fighting against Title IX and a century of ignoring them entirely. In 1982, after the NCAA bullied control over women’s college sports from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), it finally holds the first NCAA women’s Division I basketball tournament. A total of 56,320 fans watched women’s NCAA tournament games in person. Ten thousand fans traveled to the neutral site in Norfolk, Virginia to watch the Final Four. Far more watched on television; the first NCAA women’s title game, which saw Louisiana Tech defeat Cheyney State, earned a “7.3 rating and 22 Nielsen share at noon on Sunday, March 28,” per Jack Bogaczyk of the Roanoke Times. That’s good. Really, really good. For comparison, in 1983, CBS averaged a 7.2 rating for the NBA and a 5.2 rating for NCAA regular-season men’s games.
Over the next decade, attendance for women’s college basketball continues to skyrocket. In 1986, Nick Sullivan wrote in The Tennessean that “women’s basketball is on the brink of going big time.” In 1987, 31,230 people attended the Final Four in Austin, Texas, a 300 percent increase in just five years. In 1990, there was a paid attendance of 39,490 for the Final Four at the Thompson–Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee, even with Tennessee losing in the Elite Eight. In 1993, the women’s Final Four in Richmond, Virginia was a sell-out, as was every single women’s Final Four until 2008. The 1996 Final Four in Charlotte sold out in just 11 days.
Ratings continue to impress, too. In 1991, Len DeLuca, the CBS vice president in charge of programming, tells the Gazette that the women’s basketball championship game “won their spot every year” in the first nine years it aired the tournament. The network is so thrilled that it decides to add three regular-season games per year to the schedule, for a whopping six games total, including the semifinals and championship game.
In 1995, CBS sells out its 40 advertising spots for the women’s Final Four and 7.4 million people tune in to watch UConn beat Tennessee in the final. According to the New York Times, those ratings ratings “almost [tripled] the rating for Fox's National Hockey League games, which aired at the same time, and [bettered] by 14 percent the rating for NBC's pro basketball games.” At this point, ESPN has broadcast rights for the Elite Eight, and reports that its coverage of the four women’s regional finals outdrew its hockey coverage.
After the ‘95 tournament, ESPN takes over coverage of the Final Four, CBS gets out of the business of women’s basketball altogether, and it takes 28 years for the women’s championship game to get back on national television.
It’s worth noting that throughout this time, the NCAA is actively disincentivizing investment in women’s basketball. As we previously discussed in the NCAA Gender Inequity Files, the NCAA sold the broadcast rights to the men’s basketball tournament and the rights to its Corporate Champions and Partner Program to CBS/Turner for approximately $1 billion per year; meanwhile, it sold the broadcast rights to 29 other NCAA championships, including the women’s basketball tournament, to ESPN for approximately $34 million a year. Let’s put aside the giant price-tag difference for just a second, and zoom in on the Partner Program.
The Partner Program includes the sponsorship rights for every NCAA championship, even though CBS only has the broadcast rights to the men’s basketball tournament. This means, according to a report on gender equity facilitated by the NCAA itself, that CBS “[doesn’t] actually want those sponsors to spend anything on the ESPN presentation of the [women’s basketball tournament] or the NCAA’s Other Championships if it results in any decrease in buying [men’s basketball tournament] inventory or other CBS/Turner-owned inventory.”
Furthermore, because of the Partner Program, the report notes that there is a “very high practical financial hurdle” for sponsors to buy into supporting the women’s basketball tournament, because they’re required to buy into the men’s tournament as well. And even if they’re able to afford that high price, sponsors then have to “turn to ESPN and separately negotiate and pay for airtime during the women’s basketball championship.”
Remember: These barriers were put in place not because women’s basketball was failing to garner ratings, but despite the fact that it was succeeding.
Policing femininity to preserve masculinity
At this point you might be asking, “What does all of this have to do with fragile masculinity?” Well, it becomes clearer when you look at the ways policing femininity has impacted women’s sports in the past century.
It’s the 1920s. Girls’ basketball is a “popular pastime” and “played extensively,'' according to Sports Illustrated. Frequently, girls’ games and boys’ games are scheduled as doubleheaders. But when First Lady Lou Hoover catches wind of this, she is outraged. She forms a national committee of women to look into the practice, and the committee concludes “that women competing in athletic clothing in front of mixed crowds of men and women was inherently sexual in nature, noneducational, and unhealthy,” according to Inaugural Ballers: The True Story of the First US Women's Olympic Basketball Team by Andrew Maraniss. The proposed solution? To recommend that girls’ basketball be banned. Many states across the nation followed the guidance.
A decade later, women’s basketball finds an audience again, in the form of the barnstorming American Red Heads. They traveled from town to town, competing against – and often beating – men’s teams. But there’s a catch.
“The Red Heads were extremely talented players, but they were forced to clown around to make their mostly male audiences comfortable with the idea of watching women play ball,” Maraniss wrote. “They dyed their hair bright red, performed mid-game tricks, participated in sexist skits (one called for a player to beg the ref to call ‘a very personal foul’ after an opponent pinched her butt), and were paid next to nothing.”
The Red Heads succeed because they emphasized, even exaggerated, their femininity.
Around the globe, another sport was facing bans of its own.
It's December 27, 1920 and 53,000 people crowd into Goodison Park in Liverpool, England to watch the Dick, Kerr Ladies beat the St. Helen Ladies 4-0. The match is so popular that about 14,000 people are turned away at the gates; it outsold a Christmas Day men’s game in the same stadium between Everton and Arsenal, which only attracted 35,000 fans.
Less than a year later, the Football Association (FA), the organization in charge of the sport in England, bans women and girls from playing football on any grounds associated with the FA. According to the FA, “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females, and ought not to be encouraged” and it is better for football and other sports to be “exclusively confined to athletics of the stronger sex.” The ban is explicitly tied to the success and popularity of the Dick, Kerr Ladies, which isn’t seen as a potential investment for the football establishment, but rather as a threat to the men’s game as whole.
“Since football has become consecrated as the national sport in many countries, it is perceived to develop proper masculinity,” wrote Dr. Brenda Elsey and Dr. Joshua Nadel in Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America. “The potential of women's empowerment through team sports frightened sporting and state institutions."
It’s April 14, 1941. At the time, according to Futbolera, “Brazil was at the vanguard of women’s sports on the continent” and “one editorial estimated that there were 1,001 women’s games played each day.”
But not everyone is happy about this. Dr. Leite de Castro, a chief doctor of the football league of Rio de Janeiro, “declared that men benefited from struggle, but that violent sports diverted women from their biological destiny.” Castro’s declarations led one sportswriter to beg women to “flee football fields in favor of the swimming pool for the happiness of the nation, as well as for their own health and beauty.”
That day, President Getúlio Vargas establishes a National Sports Council and immediately gives them regulatory powers and directions to “determine which sports were ‘incompatible’ with women’s nature and to establish rules regarding their legality.”
The first thing the council did? Ban women from “playing a variety of team sports, including ‘football, rugby, polo, and water polo, because they are violent sports and not adaptable to the female body.’” While the ban in England bans women from playing on grounds associated with the FA, the ban in Brazil makes it illegal for women to play most sports anywhere. The ban lasts until 1981.
We do not need that kind of character in our girls
The past two weeks have seen a non-stop stream of good news about women’s sports. The OL Reign smashed the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL’s) attendance record when 34,130 fans came to watch Megan Rapinoe’s farewell match in Seattle. The New York Liberty broke the record for largest gate attendance in WNBA Finals history with 17,143 fans. And in an outdoor exhibition game, Iowa set the record for the most-attended women’s basketball game ever when 55,646 fans came to the Iowa football stadium to watch the Hawkeyes take on DePaul.
This fortnight isn’t an outlier, it’s the norm. Just shy of 2 million fans attended women’s World Cup matches in person this summer in Australia and New Zealand, and the event broke viewership records for women’s soccer across the globe – in China, 53.9 million people tuned in to watch their women’s team play England. Last month, 92,003 people attended a women’s college volleyball game between Nebraska and Omaha.
There’s every reason in the world right now to be optimistic – even bullish – about the future of women’s sports. But that doesn’t mean the path forward is going to be easy. Not only are women’s sports fighting normal battles facing any growing industry, they’re attempting to upend the patriarchal structures our society was built upon at the same time. And as women’s sports continue to grow and push boundaries and shake up power imbalances – which they will, no doubt – we must not only brace for backlash, but understand the root of said backlash.
When I think about the challenges that lie ahead, I always come back to two moments.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, girls and women in sports were beginning to spin threads of momentum across the country – threads that would soon create a tapestry with the passing of Title IX in 1972. But in those days before Title IX, most schools still didn’t have girls programs.
It’s March 29, 1971. Susan Hollander, a student at Hamden High School in Connecticut, is a proficient runner, but state regulations bar her from competing on the boys’ team. So, she and her parents sue the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. Unfortunately, Judge John Clark FitzGerald rules against her.
In giving his decision Judge FitzGerald states, “The present generation of our younger male population has not become so decadent that boys will experience a thrill in defeating girls in running contests, whether the girls be members of their own team or of an adversary team. It could well be that many boys would feel compelled to forgo entering track events if they were required to compete with girls on their own teams or on adversary teams. With boys vying with girls … the challenge to win, and the glory of achievement, at least for many boys, would lose incentive and become nullified. Athletic competition builds character in our boys. We do not need that kind of character in our girls.”
It’s 2014. The men’s and women’s pro squash tours merge to create one super tour, the Professional Squash Association (PSA), because PSA chairman Ziad Al-Turki believes that the two tours will be much more financially successful together rather than separately. Women’s squash players at the time were being paid far less than male players, and events were given three years to figure out how to offer equal pay to women without taking any money away from the men.
As reported by the indomitable Reem Abulleil, the merger increases the pie for everyone – within three years, the PSA’s revenues increase by 68.4 percent as a whole; the women see an increase of 52.9 percent in prize money, while the men’s prize money increases by 19.4 percent.
But despite the men’s prize money increasing by almost 20 percent, Abulleil reports that many on the men’s tour are unhappy with the merger because the women’s prize money increased by a larger percentage. It doesn’t matter that they are getting more overall because the women joined their tour; it matters that they aren’t getting paid more than the women, period, because they believe they were worth more.
Remember: There’s a reason why women’s sports have been kept on the margins, and it has very little to do with money; it’s all about power, and who we’re comfortable having it.
“Women’s presence in sport as serious participants dilutes the importance and exclusivity of sport as a training ground for learning about and accepting traditional male gender roles and privileges that their adoption confers on (white, heterosexual) men,” Pat Griffin wrote in Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport. “As a result, women’s sport performance is trivialized and marginalized as an inferior version of the ‘real thing.’”
“What women can learn in athletics contradicts societal messages that encourage girls and women to see themselves as powerless and subordinate,” Griffin continued. “Meeting the physical, mental, and emotional challenges in sport is exhilarating. In athletics, women develop a sense of physical competence.”
A reason for hope
It’s October 18, 2023. The Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty are trapped in a nail-biting, defensive battle in Game 4 of the WNBA Playoffs in front of more than 17,000 fans in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Listening to the rambunctious crowd, I’m moved to tears.
For decades, women’s sports have been viewed as money losers and treated like burdensome charity projects by owners and investors. In 2017, Phil Murphy, governor of New Jersey and owner of the NWSL’s Gotham FC, formerly known as Sky Blue FC, had his players taking ice baths in trash cans, practicing at facilities that lacked plumbing, and living in unsafe conditions. In 2018, James Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks, left the WNBA’s New York Liberty for sale on the side of the road playing in a community gymnasium in Westchester that was too small to host high-school games.
But in the past couple of years, things have started to shift. In the NWSL, this shift has been primarily spurred on by successful women – such as the group of Hollywood actresses behind the founding of Angel City FC; and businesswoman Michelle Kang, who bought the Washington Spirit for a then-record $35 million in 2022. As recently as three years ago, NWSL expansion fees were reportedly less than $5 million. Today, the average valuation of an NWSL team is $66 million, according to Sportico, and Bay FC, the newest expansion team, paid a record expansion fee of $53 million.
The WNBA is seeing a similar pattern of explosive valuation spikes; it’s been reported that Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis bought the Las Vegas Aces for just $2 million in 2021; this year, the Seattle Storm achieved a $151 million valuation and the Chicago Sky achieved an $85 million valuation.
Interestingly enough, in the WNBA, a lot of growth has been driven by billionaire owners of men’s sports teams, like the owners of the two teams in the WNBA Finals. Davis just built the Aces a state-of-the-art practice facility, the first built specifically for a WNBA team in league history. Joseph and Clare Tsai, who also own the Brooklyn Nets, have turned the Liberty from a laughing stock to one of the premiere franchises, on and off the court.
It’s not that men are no longer threatened by success in women’s sports; the comment sections of every social media post about the WNBA or NWSL will quickly prove otherwise. It’s that there seem to be select deep-pocketed men who are taking pride in showing how much they can invest in women’s sports, which is a significant change.
As the confetti falls on the Ace’s second championship win, it gives me enough hope to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this time, in this era, things really are different.