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Mapping a path forward for women's sports
As women's sports grow, should they follow in the footsteps of men's sports? Or is there a different way?
Hi, friends. I’ve got some great news. This month, I’ve been working with the great folks over at Global Sports Matters on their June issue, the Modern Sportswoman. The issue will look at the state of women’s sports from a variety of perspectives that I just know will be of interest to Power Plays readers. And because of that, I’m excited to say that we will be cross-posting a good portion of the issue straight to Power Plays over the next few weeks! It’s going to be such a treat to get to share the work of so many wonderful reporters and academics.
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Now I’m going to stop rambling on in the introduction, because you’re about to read my official introduction to this issue, a column on what’s next for women’s sports. It’s a bit more formal than my typical Power Plays tone, but let’s be honest, that’s probably a relief to most of you. Enjoy!
Can women's sports grow without the problems surrounding men's sports?
Every time I pick up my phone, I find out about a new record-breaking moment in women’s sports. In March, the National Women’s Soccer League smashed its opening-week attendance record by more than 50 percent, and the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns broke the NCAA softball single-game regular-season attendance record. In April, a jaw-dropping 9.9 million people tuned in to watch the NCAA women’s national championship game between Louisiana State and Iowa. In May, more than 60,000 fans packed into the Emirates Stadium in London to watch VfL Wolfsburg defeat Arsenal in the semifinals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, a British record, and the Women’s National Basketball Association had a historic opening weekend that saw attendance, television viewership, and social engagement soar.
In the upcoming years, television rights will be up for grabs for women’s NCAA championships (including basketball and softball), the WNBA, the NWSL, and the FIFA Women’s World Cup. As Rachel Bachman observed in the Wall Street Journal, if the leaders of these sports are able to turn the increased attention into fruitful contracts, these deals could “substantially boost” what is possible for women’s sports in the near- and long-term futures.
As someone who writes a newsletter about sexism in sports, I fully support taking a moment to celebrate every single milestone. But this is a critical juncture for women’s sports, and it would behoove the stakeholders to pause before jumping at every offer that comes their way. Not all opportunities are created equal, as FIFA learned the hard way when word got out they were talking with Visit Saudi about sponsoring the Women’s World Cup this summer.
Right now, the only model we have for long-lasting, incredibly lucrative leagues for team sports was built by men, for men. And so, instead of barreling straight forward to that future and following in those exact footprints, I think it would benefit us all to ponder: Is this even the direction we want to be headed? Is the goal to create a separate but equal space for women’s sports, or can women’s sports alter the existing blueprint to fit its specific needs? What would that even look like?
We won’t have all the answers this month at Global Sports Matters, but we do know that a one-size-fits-all approach to league-building isn’t the answer for women’s sports. Not because it's impossible for women’s sports to grow within the parameters established by men’s sports – the numbers at the top of this piece certainly disprove that – but rather, the models aren’t properly serving women’s sports. In fact, they’re actively limiting them.
Let’s focus on three aspects of the sports world where we see these limitations in action: Sponsorship, science, and leadership.
Corporate sponsorships: ‘A storm In a teacup’
In late February, news broke that FIFA planned to bring on Visit Saudi to sponsor this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Visit Saudi is the official tourism board for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and a prevalent purveyor of sportswashing – particularly in men’s sports. Currently, Saudi Arabia hosts world championship boxing matches, European football games, and Formula One races. It also launched an insurgent men’s golf tour, LIV Golf, that recently merged with the PGA Tour, and lured some of the biggest men’s soccer stars in the world to play in its domestic soccer league. It's currently working with Greece and Egypt to put forward a bid for the 2030 men’s World Cup, and will host the 2027 Asian Cup.
Now, none of these moves came without controversy over Saudi Arabia’s horrific human rights record, but the controversy was muffled by cash. So, perhaps FIFA thought the same thing would happen with Visit Saudi’s sponsorship of the women’s World Cup.
Their calculation was incorrect.
Speaking to media at the SheBelievesCup in early February, U.S. women’s national team striker Alex Morgan said, "I think it's bizarre that FIFA has looked to have a Visit Saudi sponsorship for the Women's World Cup when I, myself, Alex Morgan, would not even be supported and accepted in that country.”
Morgan went on to add that Saudi Arabia should instead invest money into its own women’s team, which isn’t even ranked by FIFA because it hasn’t even played enough games, because it can’t get the proper support from the government.
Football Australia and New Zealand Football both issued statements expressing shock and disappointment that they weren’t consulted on the decision, and Human Rights Watch strongly condemned the move, stating, “So long as Saudi Arabia discriminates against LGBT people and punishes women for their rights activism or their otherwise peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, FIFA should not be allowing Saudi authorities to use the most-watched women’s sport event to sportswash its rights abuses.”
Less than six weeks later, FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that the sponsorship with Visit Saudi was not going forward: “I can clarify that there were discussions with Visit Saudi. At the end, this discussion didn’t lead into a contract. How do you say it? It was a storm in a water glass. A storm in a teacup.”
By referring, in his typically out of touch fashion, to the backlash as a trivial matter (which is apparently what “a storm in a teacup means”), Infantino was attempting to downplay its significance. But it was far from trivial. Infantino learned that the sponsorship playbook in women’s sports contains some tweaks from the one he's used to: While compromises must always be made under capitalism, the athletes and fans in women’s sports often require sponsorship partners to at least give women and the LGBTQ community a base level of respect. Of course, that respect should be the norm in men’s sports as well, but it is often a bigger priority to fight for marginalized communities when you come from that community yourself.
Science: An unsustainable six percent
It should have been a night of celebration: Arsenal women qualified for the Champions League quarterfinals after only surrendering one goal to Lyon in a December game. But the mood was somber in the locker room afterwards.
That’s because in stoppage time right before halftime, Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema landed awkwardly while challenging for a loose ball, and writhed in pain on the grass.
“Absolutely gutted to share I’ve ruptured my ACL in our last game against Lyon,” Miedema wrote on social media. “It was one of those moments where I knew straight away. So many things going through your head: I won’t be able to help my team anymore this season, no World Cup, surgery and rehab for a long time.”
There was a bitter irony to Miedema’s injury, given it came just weeks after she wrote a column in a Dutch newspaper pleading for better protection of women’s soccer players, arguing that the calendar for elite women’s players is simply too crowded and provides no time for rest.
Miedema’s ACL tear is part of what The Athletic recently referred to as “the ACL epidemic” in women’s soccer. In the past year, stars like Beth Mead, Catarina Macario, and Christen Press, among many others, have torn their ACL. Five of the top 20 players for the Women’s Ballon d’Or are currently rehabbing an ACL injury. Many of these players won’t get to participate in the World Cup this summer.
Of course, injuries – including ACL tears – happen in men’s sports, too. But non-contact ACL tears are up to six times more common in women athletes, particularly female soccer players and basketball players. And this isn’t new information. We’ve known that since the 1990s.
"We published a paper about a year ago which showed that, in sport and exercise science research, only about six per cent of the studies are done exclusively on females …so we don't have a lot of research on female athletes,” Dr. Emma Ross told Sky Sports earlier this year.
That’s right: Six percent.
Ross said that it is known that the menstrual cycle “can impact the physiology and biomechanics of the body” and lead to a greater increase of injury. But because only 6 percent of sports science is dedicated to studying cisgender female bodies, there are so many unknowns about the specific causes of said injury risk, and what to do in order to make things safer.
While ACL tears in women are receiving attention now due to their prevalence among high-profile athletes, it’s far from the only injury in women’s sports that could use an extra dose of sports science. There’s some evidence that ankle sprains, stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendon tears, and more, occur more often in female athletes than male athletes. Although there are theories about what is behind this difference– higher estrogen levels, a wider pelvis, less muscle mass – there are few definitive answers.
The lack of information about the cisgender female body leaves so many questions about how to safely prevent and rehab injuries, like how the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and childbirth impact training, and even how to safely include transgender people at the elite levels of sport. In fact, while politicians stoke fear about how transgender women are the biggest threat to women’s sports, I’d argue that the sports science gap is much more dangerous. (As I’ve written before, transgender women are actually not a threat to women’s sports.)
Women athletes are pushing their bodies to the brink in a world that does not put time or resources into studying the toll that work takes. And due to the lack of money in women’s sports, athletes often aren’t provided with proper care from experienced physios and strength and conditioning coaches. The result is a a vicious cycle, and to truly push women’s sports forward safely, that has to change.
"I think it's important that we as a collective try and get more done for ACLs and research into it. I think it is way too common in the women's game,” Beth Mead, who has become an outspoken advocate for better physical care for women athletes in the months since her injury, recently said. “If that ever happened in the men's game, a lot more would have been done sooner."
Leadership: Representation is not enough
Amelie Mauresmo is, by any measure, a trailblazer. The two-time major champion and former world No. 1 has broken many barriers. She came out as gay at the age of 19 after beating then-No. 1 Lindsay Davenport to make the final of the 1999 Australian Open. She became one of the only women in history to coach an elite male tennis player when Andy Murray hired her as his coach in 2014. And most recently, she became the first female tournament director at the French Open.
But last year, her first as tournament director, nine of the 10 French Open night sessions were men’s matches instead of women’s matches – a fact Mauresmo said was due to the current state of women’s tennis having “less appeal” than the men’s game. This year, that pattern of women's matches getting relegated out of primetime continued, despite the fact that marquee men’s stars, such as Roger Federer and Rafel Nadal, didn't play.
While Mauresmo's leadership position at the French Open is an important step for representation, it’s been disappointing in terms of tangible progress. She is upholding the status quo – perhaps because she isn’t empowered to do otherwise, because she feels it’s what she must do to keep her job – or because she truly believes she’s making the best decisions for the tournament. And she’s not alone.
“Hire women” becomes a rallying cry whenever there are scandals in the sports world. That’s been particularly true in the NWSL, where four male coaches – Paul Riley, Christy Holly, Rory Dames and Richie Burke – recently received lifetime bans due to allegations of misconduct uncovered in former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates’ investigation of the league.
But hiring women to coach women does not automatically guarantee a safe environment for players. Amanda Cromwell, former head coach of Orlando Pride, had her contract terminated over retaliation against players who participated in the league’s investigation into abuse. Rhian Wilkinson stepped down as head coach of Portland Thorns following an inappropriate relationship with a player. And this isn’t an NWSL-specific problem by any means. Katey Stone, the long-time head coach of Harvard women’s hockey, is currently under fire after an investigation at The Athletic uncovered decades of allegations of abusive behavior within the program. Becky Hammon, head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, was just suspended for two games for violating the league’s Respect in the Workplace rules in comments she made to former Aces player Dearica Hamby related to Hamby's recent pregnancy.
I’m not bringing up all of these incidents to simply throw powerful women under the bus – it’s crucial that we keep promoting women and people of Color, particularly women of Color, to prominent positions in sports. But too often, systems reward and promote those who will uphold and cover up its flaws. Leaders in women’s sports must be willing, able, and empowered to challenge the status quo at every turn. This is exceedingly difficult, because often the people who hired them benefit from the current system, and don’t want to see it changed. But nobody ever said this would be easy.
A brave new world
In this issue of Global Sports Matters, we’ve got an array of stories that take a unique look at how women’s sports reached today’s milestones, and different paths forward, such as:
A dive into how coverage of women athletes has evolved by sports media historian Katie Lever.
A look back the NBA’s explosive growth in the 1970s and 80s, and what the WNBA can learn from that.
A study of a key legacy of Title IX, which is how it has driven the growth of women’s sports globally, including women’s soccer at this year’s FIFA World Cup.
And a look at the groundbreaking coachingHER program developed by Nicole Lavoi and her team at the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Women & Girls in Sport.
When I imagine the future of women’s sports, I think of a place where physical, mental, and emotional safety are paramount. I think of a place where athletes have financial security, first-class accommodations, and extreme cultural currency. I think of a place where these teams aren’t used as a means to gentrify communities and exacerbate the wealth gap, but to bring communities together and strive for more equality for all.
I realize that some of these dreams are a bit pollyannaish, but I do firmly believe that if women’s sports build these ideals into their blueprints now, they can get much closer to this ideal than men’s sports ever will.
Explosive growth is exciting, but intentional growth could create the power, permanence, and protection that women’s sports deserves.