Thursday, December 11, 2008
That's actually really big news. Professional women's basketball is still here, and they're finding ways to make it cool and exciting.
I need to know. Why is it always so hard to fill the stands at a women's basketball game? Sure, the UConns and Tennessees of the world can fill their women's stadiums pretty well, but what about the other teams?
Case study #1. Stanford women's basketball. Consistently one of the top-ranked NCAA women's teams in the country. Under coach Tara VanDerveer, the Cardinal have won 2 national titles, made 6 final four appearances, reached the Elite 8 on 11 occasions, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen 14 times. They are bajillion-time Pac 10 Champs. Last year they lost to the Tennessee Lady Vols in the NCAA finals, finishing their season with a 35-4 record. They are, by all accounts, one of the most exciting women's teams to watch.
And yet they don't even have a student section at their games. At least, the student section is nothing like it is for the men. Some of my friends have literally camped outside Maples Pavilion for 2 days just to secure their spot in line for big-time men's bball matches. The 6th Man Club for the men's team is a sea of rowdy college kids who chant in unison, boo thunderously at the refs for bad calls, and stomp the bleachers during the last 2 minutes of the game to rattle the opposing team's free throw shooters. They are a force to be reckoned with.
The women's fans? Primarily middle-aged women, families with young daughters, and senior citizens. Not the rowdiest crowd you've ever seen. And the student representation is just plain pathetic compared to the men.
Case study #2. Stanford Women's volleyball. TOTALLY different story. The bleachers are packed to see the Cardinal take on the likes of Nebraska and USC. Again, one of the most exciting teams to watch in the college game, and they have the crowd to prove it. The men's volleyball team--when is their season again? Is there a men's team?
I've been to hundreds of basketball games in my time. Maybe even thousands. High school games. Men's and women's Utah Utes and Stanford Cardinal games. Utah Jazz. Utah Starzz. Golden State Warriors. It's the same wherever I go. People just LOVE men's basketball. It is a fast-paced, exciting display of power and athleticism. Dunks are thrown down, blocked shots go into the 6th row, bodies fly into the photographers under the basket. The stuff is entertaining, right?
So why were there more fans at a Warriors game than you would be able to get into a WNBA finals game?!? (That might not be the case...I didn't crunch the numbers). The point is, what IS IT about women's basketball that just doesn't attract the same fans?
Women's tennis, golf, volleyball, figure skating--these sports all have a much easier time filling the seats. They've had their own challenges winning equal prize money (Wimbledon finally joined everyone else in 2007) and gaining media exposure and fans. But they are also wearing spandex, bathing suits, unitards, khakis, polo shirts, and skirts. They have sex appeal on their side. And sex sells.
I'm going to say that the single deep-seeded reason that the WNBA isn't anywhere NEAR as successful as the NBA is because it doesn't have sex appeal. Literally. Perhaps this has to do with homophobia. Perhaps this has to do with our culture's rigidly defined gender roles. Whatever it is--I honestly think that might be the underlying factor behind the professional league's struggles. How many times have I heard my guy friends crack jokes about seeing chicks in spandex and mini skirts? How many times have I heard other friends, male or female, joke about the "manly" women in the WNBA, with their baggy shorts and basketball struts.
I don't watch sports for their sex appeal. I watch them because I've played them and I love watching them played. I appreciate women's basketball because I love the game and I can appreciate a good women's player.
But women's basketball doesn't appeal to Joe Schmoe American who wants to be entertained. Joe probably wants to see tight shorts and a "feminine" athleticism that doesn't threaten his ideas about gender appropriate behavior. He'd probably rather not see his daughter in baggy basketball shorts playing pickup with the dudes at recess. And Joe Schmoe American is the one who has "Guys Night" every week with his buddies, either playing poker at home or heading out to a sports bar or an actual sporting event. He's the one who buys the ticket, buys 4-5 beers, then buys 1 or 2 hot dogs, and maybe even a baseball hat or a jumbo #1 foam hand. He may even paint his face...or his stomach. He, in essence, is the driving force behind the NBA or NFL or MLB's success.
So how do we get Jane Schmane American more involved if Joe Schmoe isn't going to come to the games? But also, how DO we start to appeal more to Joe Schmoe? What will it take?
THAT is what the WNBA is up against. That is why we see organizations like the WNBA clawing their way toward success. There are social factors at work that are extremely hard to overcome.
The success of women's sports has been a long time coming, and it's got a long way to go. The WNBA can definitely move forward without the Comets and they still have much to celebrate in their 11 years in business. But I wonder how long it will take to change the American public so that they're ready to truly support these women.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
“Multiple investors have come forward and expressed significant interest in purchasing the Comets and having them continue to play in Houston in 2009,” said Orender. “However, we made the judgment that we would not be able to complete a transaction with the right ownership group in time for the 2009 season. The WNBA is extremely grateful to the Comets organization, to the city of Houston and to the team’s loyal fans for helping build both the WNBA and the game of women’s basketball.”
For those of us who were following the WNBA from the beginning, we remember how dominant the team was. Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson led a rock start Houston line up to win the first 4 WNBA championships from 1997-2000. Cooper was a four-time finals MVP for each of those championships. They were a dynasty and a pillar of the league.
Sheryl Swoopes joined the Seattle Storm for the 2008 season after an 11 year career with the Comets. She released the following statement regarding the folding Houston organization:
"I am saddened by today’s news regarding the Houston Comets. Having been a part of the team, one of the WNBA’s first, for the majority of my career I can’t help but think of the rich basketball history created there with the first four championships. I will always feel a deep connection with the city of Houston and Comets fans and would like to thank them for their support and passion over the years. While this situation is unfortunate, I am focused on and excited about the 2009 WNBA season."
Kevin Pelton of Seattle wrote a great article looking back on the Comets' story. You can find it here.
It's certainly sad, and a little puzzling, to see the strongest team of the league fold only 8 years after they won their last championship. Granted, they haven't been in a championship game since then. The original owner of the team, Les Alexander, sold the franchise to Houston furniture salesman Hilton Koch in early 2007, but Koch apparently couldn't keep the business afloat. It's unclear whether he lacked the appropriate resources to invest in the organization, or if he didn't have the business acumen take advantage of what appears to be a vibrant community of fans in the Houston metro area.
It doesn't help that Koch decided to put up the "For Sale" sign in early August of this year. As the economy has spiraled into a dark, gloomy place across the globe, it's no wonder that an investor was hard to come by. The WNBA has been notoriously tough to navigate financially--the NBA props up its sister league with loads of cash and a number of franchises have folded since the league's launch in 1997 (Charlottle Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Miami Sol, Portland Fire, Houston Comets), not to mention a few relocations (Utah Starzz to San Antonio Silver Stars, Orlando Miracle to Connecticut Sun). Women's professional sports teams and leagues may be the last thing on investors' minds these days. Until the economy starts to turn around, we may see a few more teams experience some rough times as they struggle to fill the seats in the stadium.
I always anxiously await the future of the WNBA, especially as I see organizations like Houston fold. I've got my fingers crossed that Women's Professional Soccer figures out the key to success for running a professional women's athletic league in the US, because Lord knows we need to get it right.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Check out this article in today's SF Gate.
I'll be curious to see how she performs. Apparently she's only 5 feet tall and 114 pounds--but she must have quite an arm!
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Why do women's teams continue to struggle to fill their stadiums? I thought girls' participation in sports was higher than it's ever been, and growing exponentially! So why don't we see more of them in the bleachers, cheering obnoxiously for the home team?
Why don't the Sex and the City girls ditch their swanky clubs and dirty martinis for a $4 Coors Light and a foot long hot dog at the ballpark? Why does every professional women's team have to pander to youth leagues, senior citizens, and lesbians?
Where are all the straight women ages 20-50? Why do they simply disappear from the sports world entirely? Unless they're playing "team mom" for the night and dragging the carpool to a local college women's game, they are sorely missing from these events. And what makes it even worse is that their husbands are still rabid season ticket holders. The guys are still dawning their over-sized jerseys and foam hands and packing into the stadiums, even if they never touched a football in their life. They're still making small-talk about "last night's game" when they show up to work each morning.
We may be back to the age-old nature/nurture debate. Are guys simply more interested in sports because they are generally stronger, taller, and faster than girls? Maybe. But I know a LOT of guys who are about as coordinated as the mismatched socks they're wearing. Guys who don't play sports still watch 'em. So why isn't it the same with women?
I'll be looking into this as an ongoing research question for this blog. If you participated in sports but now you can't remember the last time you attended a professional women's game, tell me what you think happened. I want to know.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
And by the way, congrats to Candace Parker who managed to bring home a WNBA MVP award, a WNBA Rookie of the Year award, a collegiate national championship, and an Olympic gold medal. All in 2008.
Watching Game 2 of the WNBA finals, I realized that the WNBA has come a long way. They actually had fans in the stands. They had major partners like T-Mobile presenting the MVP award. IHOP sponsored the half-time show, Discover card was all over the commercials and the arena, and the usual suspects Nike and Gatorade had their own signage up. Overall, I have to say that I was impressed. I was impressed by Katie Smith's ridiculous athleticism (and rather muscular physique) and I was impressed by the general professionalism of the event. It didn't feel like a rec league for overgrown children. It felt like a professional basketball game.
I ran across this letter written by the President of the WNBA, Donna Orender, and posted by Seattle Storm blogger, Jayda Evans. Here's the par t of the letter that struck me the most:
After 12 years, the WNBA deserves more credit for what it has accomplished -- for the athleticism of the players, for the power of the game, for the emotional connection created when our teams nakedly put their passions on the floor.
The product is great; these women are fantastic. Our fans have responded to the high level of play by pushing increased attendance -- including a record 46 sellouts -- TV ratings, Web traffic and merchandise sales. These women are spreading this work ethic and universal language around the world -- note the 41 current-and-former WNBA players on Olympic rosters in Beijing, including the 12 members of Team USA who brought home their fourth consecutive gold medal.So here we sit after the Finals, with one team -- San Antonio -- coming up short after bringing the excitement of a championship round to their city for the first time, while another team -- Detroit -- cements its legacy as a dynasty by winning their third title in six years. We were squeezed in with the baseball playoffs and football season, competing for the eyes of sports fans, but it is worth noting that just over a decade ago, the choice to tune in to the WNBA didn't exist at all, and that is something worth recognizing.
We do need to recognize the WNBA for its success. I can't believe they actually had 46 sellouts this season. But I'm still a little disappointed about a few things:
1. The Finals could only be found on ESPN2...regardless of the baseball and football seasons, they should have had at least the FINALS with a primetime spot on ESPN.
2. The Finals didn't appear to be sold out, despite the other 46 sellouts in the league this year. If you still haven't filled your stadium at that point, start giving the tickets away. Players should never have to see empty seats in the lower bowl during the WNBA Finals.
3. Please change the color of the damn orange and white basketball. For some reason, that ball makes the athletes seem less athletic. I'm being totally serious. When that ball bricks off the back of the rim, it looks worse than the standard brown basketball doing the same thing in a college or NBA game.
Considering those are my only real complaints, it looks like things are going pretty well. Madd props to you, WNBA, for boosting your ticket sales and improving your web traffic and fan interaction throughout the season. More madd props for getting better-qualified broadcasters with cooler graphics for the half-time analysis. And madd props for staying afloat for 12 whole years--you've proved a lot of people wrong.
I look forward to next year's season already.
Monday, September 29, 2008
So how many of you consider yourselves sports fans? And how many of you have actually watched a WNBA game this season? And out of curiosity, how many of plopped down to watch an NBA game during their season? I have to admit that I've been slightly shocked that the WNBA is still around after 12 years. Professional women's sports teams are notoriously impossible to sustain in the US, and elite female athletes have often fled to Europe in hopes of pursuing an actual career. But the WNBA is still here. And it's stronger than ever.
I came across an opinion piece from the LA times by a woman named Melissa Rohlin. You should read her piece first before you go any further. If you don't want to take the time, here's her basic point: the WNBA is boring and professional women's basketball sucks.
Ms. Rohlin claims that she played basketball her whole life. She had dreams of playing professionally someday herself. She was "the first to get to the gym and the last one to leave," and she worshipped local role models like Kobe Bryant.
Rohlin doesn't seem to have continued playing ball in college, but she's still an avid NBA fan. An an avid WNBA hater. She thinks the women are just plain un-athletic. I mean, men are jumping 4 feet in the air, throwing down dunks like nobody's business, and sprinting down the court at the speed of light, dishing no-looks passes to their teammates and working the crowd into a frenzy. It's exciting!
And the WNBA is just plain boring.
Candace Parker--I don't care if you won the McDonald's All-American dunk competition when you were in high school (over 5 male competitors). So what? Kobe would school you any day. And Sue Bird? Are you even related to Larry? Because his passes were so much more crisp and accurate.
Wait, wait, wait. Is Rohlin actually claiming to be a FAN of basketball? Or here's the bigger question. Is she actually claiming that the WNBA is boring because women just aren't good athletes?
There's a fundamental issue underlying Rohlin's claims that makes me sick to my stomach. She's saying that the WNBA is boring because women are inferior athletes. She's chomping into an apple, then sucking on an orange, and complaining that the orange just isn't crisp and crunchy enough for her taste. And the apple just doesn't have enough citrus.
Ms. Rohlin--I, too, was that kid in high school showing up early to practice and leaving late. I, too, had the dream of playing hoops in college. I didn't end up following that path, but good LORD do I love the WNBA.
In fact, I'm going to say that any legit female basketball player with an appreciation for the game should love watching the WNBA. I even argue that those of us who were the true gym rats in high school and college are the ones who can appreciate the women's professional game the most.
Should we really be embarrassed that it was such a big deal to see Candace Parker dunk in a game, when it would be "laughable" to make such a hoopla around an NBA player doing the same? Ms. Rohlin, you are an idiot.
I doubt you ever threw down a dunk. In fact, I doubt you were ever much of an athlete at all. I dare you to body up against Tina Thompson in the post, or try to drive past Sue Bird. Just try to stop one of Lisa Leslie's bank shots. Maybe you'll only be impressed if Candace Parker actually jumps over you to slam the basketball. Is that what it would take?
I watch the NBA and I grew up with posters of Michael Jordan on my walls. And yet I knew that I wasn't going to grow up to BE him. When the WNBA came along, I couldn't imagine anything better for every girl growing up in America who needed to have their own role models to look up to in their sport. How can you, as a self-proclaimed athlete, claim that the WNBA is boring? Answer: you never learned how to appreciate the game, and that's why you have to hate on it.
There's my scathing review of your article. If you want an amazing perspective from one of the best women's basketball players in the world, check out Diana Taurasi's response here.
And let's play a little 1 on 1 sometime. I'll kick your ass.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Unless you're Ellen DeGeneres and you can laugh your way through it, it's really hard to navigate sexuality when you're a public figure. (Actually, I take it back. It's never easy to navigate your sexuality when you're a public figure...especially when you're gay).
And when your sport becomes your career, you have to make careful choices about what you're willing share about your personal life and how it could affect your next endorsement deal. Sheryl Swoopes officially "came out" in 2005 with an endorsement deal with Olivia (a San Francisco-based travel and entertainment company for lesbians) and she seemed to weather it well. But then again, she's Sheryl Swoopes. She was the first woman to have her own line of Nike basketball shoes and she is a 3-time WNBA MVP. She made numerous appearances with Olivia for years, talking about her decision to come out and embrace her sexual identity despite the consequences it may have on her endorsements. Read this article for her own words on the matter.
When you take a step back from the pros and take a look at collegiate sports, homophobia is also prevalent. Coaches are constantly trying to recruit the best talent for their program and many won't hesitate to suggest that competitor teams are full of lesbians. This negative recruiting tool is designed to scare parents into preventing their daughters from joining a program where they may fall victim to lesbian attacks (whatever those are).
But there are a number of female athletes who have been very successful even after coming out. Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Rosie Jones to name a few. And more recently, Natasha Kai from the gold medal winning US women's soccer team in 2008.
This year, Billie Jean King celebrates the 35th anniversary this year of her victory over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match. She now runs the Women's Sports Foundation, which promotes girls and women's participation in athletics, and even has a task force for addressing homophobia in sports.
The times may be changing a bit, but homophobia still runs deep in our society. The California Supreme Court recently made a ruling to allow gays and lesbians to marry in the state, however there's a proposition on the ballot this November that could amend the California state constitution to remove that right (again).
If you're a female athlete, chances are you've had to deal with homophobia before. Whether it's your own or one of your teammate's or gossiping about other teams and coaches. It's very real. I intend to blog about this more but I wanted to open up the forum and get people thinking about their own experiences with this issue. Please feel free to comment on the post and let me know what you've witnessed.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
You should also keep your eye on the LA Sparks. The Candace Parker-Lisa Leslie duo is incredible to witness. They're the only two women who have dunked in regulation WNBA games. Leslie is now a four-time Olympic gold medalist and Parker left the Tennessee Lady Vols a year early (yep, first woman to skip the degree and dive right into the pros) and she is undoubtedly the league's rookie of the year.
Unlike collegiate March Madness, with 64 teams crashing onto the national bracket and clawing their way forward, the WNBA Playoffs features only the top 4 teams from each conference. In the Western Conference, the San Antonio Stars take on the Sacramento Monarchs, while the LA Sparks battle with the Seattle Storm. On the Eastern side of the bracket, the Indiana Fever face the Detroit Shock, and the Connecticut Sun will duke it out with the New York Liberty.
Check out the WNBA website for all the juicy details.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
I've been appalled each time I've seen McDonald's as a major partner with the Olympics. I loved the commercial this year with a U.S. female gymnast chowing down on a chicken sandwich. I mean, how many times do these female gymnasts actually wolf one of those puppies down? Never--if they're at all concerned about keeping their mostly prepubescent bodies trim and lean. But the Golden Arches was the first official restaurant of an Olympic games in 1996 in Atlanta, and they've been feeding the world's athletes ever since. This year, US swimmer Ryan Lotche bragged about his huge MacDo meals in the Olympic Village in Beijing. For someone like Ryan, who's burning more calories per day than he can actually ingest, that might make a lot of sense. Just don't check his arteries in 20 years.
Apparently McDonald's considers their time in Beijing a success. They installed their first drive-thru restaurant (where confused customers drove through the line, then parked their cars and went inside to eat), and they have grand plans of infiltrating the Chinese fast-food scene in the same way they've conquered the U.S. market. We'll see if they show up in London in 2012.
As for the more serious question facing the sports industry, much of the focus of this conference was how to continue to grow your business in a time when consumers are massively cutting back on extraneous expenses. They're not gonna slap down thousands of dollars on season tickets anymore if they've already traded in their Chevy trucks for a more fuel-efficient Prius. Priorities have shifted.
But many sports marketing executives argued that this is an opportunity for companies to provide a better product for their consumers in order to keep driving the business. Improve the in-stadium experience with enhanced media features, deliver more channels for keeping tabs on your local team, like mobile TV and video, and make your customers feel like they're putting in the same amount of money for those season tickets but they're actually getting a vastly improved product--it's almost a steal! Mark Tatum, Sr VP of Marketing and Partnerships for the NBA, claims that the sports industry might even be at an advantage right now. People will need an outlet from all their financial fears and concerns, and many will likely turn towards sports as a way to blow off some steam. I mean, what could be better than drowning your sorrows in a $17 plastic beer cup at a Giants game in AT&T park with all your 41,000 closest friends?
Unfortunately, there did not appear to be females on the keynote speaker lineup, nor could I find any commentary about the conference from them. I guess men continue to dominate this industry the way Big Macs dominated China this August...
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Now, I absolutely agree that sports can teach a person a lot. Playing a sport will teach you about teamwork, cooperation, setting goals, self-discipline, performing under pressure, performing through pain, pushing your physical limits, and pulling through emotional challenges. And watching how an athlete trains for and plays her sport will reveal a lot about her character. But I'm not convinced that it will make you a great VP...
Christine Brennan commented on Palin's athletic background, too. Here's one of the excerpts:
"I had a great upbringing under Title IX," Palin told Alaska Business Monthly shortly after becoming governor in late 2006. "I can't imagine where I'd be without the opportunities provided to me in sports. Sports taught me that gender isn't an issue; in fact, when people talk about me being the first female governor, I'm a little absent from that discussion, because I've never thought of gender as an issue. In sports, you learn self-discipline, healthy competition, to be gracious in victory and defeat, and the importance of being part of a team and understanding what part you play on that team. You all work together to reach a goal, and I think all of those factors come into play in my role as governor."
You can read the full article here.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
When she returned from the Olympics in China, she found out that she'd been selected as the recipient of the 2008 Hall of Fame John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award. Take the time to read the article, and then scroll down to the very bottom of the page to see all the former recipients. Then tell me how many of them are women...
Ackerman seems to be one of those people who is blessed with natural executive and business acumen, but she has also worked hard to get where she is today. She dominated the New Jersey high school athletics scene, captured a few All-American titles playing basketball at the University of Virginia, and then headed to law school and worked for a huge firm for a few years before she found her way back to basketball. She got to know David Stern and some other NBA big wigs before being appointed to run the new WNBA venture. She guided the WNBA through its first eight seasons and then became the first female President of USA Basketball.
Now that's a resume.
Congratulations, Val! You've inspired us all.
Friday, September 5, 2008
I'm excited that I'll have a local team to check out. I've been so curious about how this new league is progressing. I sincerely hope that the league survives this time around--but they're going to need one helluva fan base to support them. Investors are great, but they can't sustain the league indefinitely. I want to go to one of these games and see how many other people show up. How much are the tickets? How much are the hotdogs? Is it only soccer moms and girl scouts in the stands, or is there finally a broader appeal?
You should all buy a ticket and come with me to the game. It's the least we can do.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Let's be honest--maybe she does deserve a little credit for giving birth to such a phenomenal athlete (who has always praised his mom for giving him his Olympic work ethic).
Friday, August 22, 2008
I will admit that I hadn't even heard of Christine Brennan before a few weeks ago. But apparently she's been around for a while, and she's kind of a big deal. The nut shell of her life: she is considered one of the pioneers of women in the sports reporting world. She got her journalism degrees (B.A. and M.A.) from Northwestern, then went onto become the first female sports writer for the Miami Herald. She moved to the Washington Post in 1985 (this is all compliments of Wikipedia) and then she blew up on the scene and started broadcasting for all sorts of major media outlets. She landed a sports column at USA Today, wrote some books, and now she's considered one of the most influential women in the sports media field. Not too shabby, Ms. Brennan.
I decided to check out her Olympic blog and I have to admit, I am totally in love with her. Why? Because her posts are informative, relevant, and everything that NBC has failed to draw attention to in their narrowly focused broadcasts. She's covering her 13th, yes, 13th consecutive Olympic Games. She covers all the topics that I actually want to read about, and she makes her posts concise and easy to digest.
Here are a few of my favorite posts over the past few weeks. Every single one of them is worth a read. For real.
IOC washes away softball for no good reason
Rising soccer stars romping into hearts of fans
Chinese long to embrace Games if only their government would let them
And one that relates to my previous post about women's gymnastics (I LOVE this post):
A gymnastics final for the ages
Even after watching all the nail-biting events and goosebump-producing races, this woman still tops all the athletes as my personal Olympic hero this year.
Enjoy the reading.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
There are a few items I've been considering that I want to put down in writing.
The first one has to do with doping. As I sat there watching Michael Phelps and his team absolutely destroy the world record in the 4x200m freestyle race, I felt a rush of excitement and support. Their time of 6:58.56 was 4.68 seconds faster than the previous record (also set by U.S. men in 2007). I had never seen such a huge lead in a swimming event. At one point, the commentator even noted that the camera had to pan back and forth between the U.S. swimmers and the rest of the field because the lead was so great that the swimmers would not all fit into the same camera frame. The accomplishment was amazing to watch, and I was proud of the U.S. men!
And while I was grinning from ear to ear watching their victory, my smile faded as I thought to myself "These guys just aren't human." It occurred to me that elite sports in this day and age are plagued by doping scandals. The athletes undergo enormous amounts of testing throughout the year, however you have to wonder if some of them slide under the radar. I believe that athletes like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong may just be "inhuman"...maybe every-so-often, nature actually does produce those unique bodies that outperform fellow human beings in "inhuman" ways. But for the rest of the field, I wonder if they feel that they must resort to performance-enhancing drugs just to keep up.
An ex-UC Berkeley swimmer, Jessica Hardy, tested positive during one of her tests leading up to the Games and eventually withdrew from her spot on the US team, unable to mount a huge legal defense in the week and a half she had before events began in Beijing. We have heard so much about the messy world of performance-enhancing drugs in men's cycling, but I don't remember hearing as much about these issues in women's sports. As I watch the Olympics and witness the pure love and passion for sport that these athletes possess, I am completely endeared by their trials and tribulations. But I have also grown more weary as I realize that these athletes are desperate for success, and some will do whatever they have to do (illegal or not) to achieve their goals. I can only hope that most of whom we see on our screens are competing through legitimate means.
Another topic that came to mind was the vast difference between the women's U.S. and Chinese gymnastics teams. I was literally biting my nails and sitting on the edge of my seat as I watched these girls throwing their bodies into picturesque cartwheels and back flips on a 4 inch slab of wood, or spinning madly around an elevated bar, suddenly freezing in perfectly executed handstands, then spinning around again to launch their bodies to a bar 5 feet away. The events were riveting, and the rivalry between the U.S. and China, both as gymnasts and as political nations, was palpable.
I want to provoke you to think about the differences in how the two teams were formed, and how that process reflects the culture in which these girls were raised. NBC commentators noted that many of these Chinese athletes were literally plucked up from their daycare centers at 3 years of age and entered into rigorous gymnastics training programs. After spending their entire childhoods in the gym, they appear 12 years later on our TV screens as the poised, graceful, and often-far-too-small athletes competing for gold medals.
Then there's the U.S. team, with girls whose bodies at least appear to be much "thicker" (though still tiny), and who seem to smile just a bit more than their Chinese counterparts. They have gone through their own rigorous training for years, but they happened upon their sport in a much different manner. Many probably chose to head to the gym and learn how to do somersaults when they were toddlers, then developed a passion for the sport and stuck with it until they achieved their Olympic dreams.
I see China producing its athletes in a vast national machine, where the love for the sport is often eclipsed by the pressure to succeed. The US athletes face their own pressures to achieve greatness, though they do not often look as though the weight of 1.2 billion fellow countrymen is weighing them down. They seem to respond to their own internal expectations and suffer much more personal failures, while the Chinese athletes seem to look to the faces of the crowd to gauge their self-worth.
In the sports industry in the U.S., athletes can easily lose sight of their pure love for their sport as heavy endorsement deals and salaries require an increased sense of responsibility and "work." But I can't help but think that the Chinese athletes take on this burden at such an early age that they may never get to experience that same love for their sports as U.S. competitors. This may be a reflection of the political and national goals instilled by each country in its citizens, where China focuses on being "one of many that collectively make up The Republic of China," while the U.S. encourages individualism and personal fulfillment.
These are thoughts that came to me as I watched and I have not filtered them in the hopes that I will stir up the pot and ruffle some of your feathers as you think about the nature of the Olympic games and what they might actually mean to the athletes whose careers are on the line...
Friday, August 8, 2008
This post will be a top 10 list of the Olympics--Top 10 being a wide assortment of things. Observations thus far, commentary on China as a host, female athletes to watch, and a couple other juicy tidbits. We'll start at 10 and work our way down to numero uno.
Olympic "Top 10"
Commentary and Observations first...
The fact that these games are in China has raised a whole HOST of issues. Human rights are top on the list. China's human rights track record (Tibet, internal workers' rights, support for the Sudanese government, etc) is a hot topic. The Olympic torch route had to be changed or shortened a number of times, and the flame even had to be extinguished in Paris for security concerns. But the torch did make it to the summit of Mt. Everest...though this was basically a huge political move by China to assert its dominance over the highest peak in the world, which happens to lie on the border between Tibet and Nepal...
Oh, and Team USA chose Sudanese-born Lopez Lomong (track and field) as their flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremonies.
The air quality in Beijing. It's hard to ignore a huge cloud of goop hanging over the city when the world's most elite athletes are flying in to compete. Who will wear masks? How controversial will it be? I'll just say that I hope the athletes make a statement about the air quality there. I'd ask them to do the same in L.A. because I think global warming is something we should all confront. It's not a pointed political statement...it's bigger than that.
Team USA basketball takes on Australia on August 5th, 2008. Aussie Penny Taylor comes away with a huge black eye (from Tina Thompson) and the whole Aussie team claims that the US squad was a bit too physical and they feared injuries to their players. Emotion ran high for the Americans who are 3-time defending Olympic champs, but missed their chance at the 2006 World Championships as the Aussies took the gold. Don't worry--USA pulled off the 71-67 victory, but I think there are some emotional bruises, too, after that one.
USA Soccer vs. Brazil, July 16, 2008. In what was called a "pre-Olympic friendly" between the two teams, a collision with Brazilian defender Andreia Rosa left Abby Wambach with a broken tibia and fibula in her left leg. And that's kind of a big deal. Why? Because Wambach is the best women's soccer player in the world right now--or at least the leading scorer for the US team. They will really be hurting without her, no doubt.
Why in the WORLD are these women's teams playing each other right before the Olympic games?!?! Of course they should be fearful of injuries...your worst nightmare is what happened to the US soccer team. Losing your best player (or ANY player) from your roster just weeks or days before the Games begin is devastating. I seriously question whoever put together those schedules for women's soccer and women's basketball.
Athletes and Events you shouldn't miss...
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, beach volleyball
Misty May has pretty much dominated the beach scene for the past decade, first with teammate Holly McPeak, now with Kerri Walsh (since 2000). They're incredibly fun to watch, and they're gonna win it all.
Shawn Johnson, gymnast
She's 16 years old and only 4'8". Small but mighty, you might say. She's favored to have one of the best showings for the US squad.
Dara Torres, swimmer
41 years old
5th Olympic Games
When she won her first Olympic gold in 1984, 26 of this year's 42 member swim team hadn't even been born yet...she'll be swimming in the 50m freestyle.
Team USA Softball
I'm going to be honest, I haven't done all my research on this team. But I do know that they're favored to win. They're going for their 4th consecutive gold medal (and they've won 6 world championships to boot). Try to catch at least one of their games because it will be softball at its finest.
Team USA Basketball
This is a dream team like you can't believe. Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles are two WNBA rookies who will dominate the Games. They're joined by a crew of seasoned veterans, like Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Lisa Leslie, and Diana Taurasi, who will trounce their opponents. The Aussies might be the only team to give them a run for their money (with WNBA Seattle Storm star Lauren Jackson helping out the team from Down Under). Try to watch every game you can...you won't be bored. Ever.
A few more facts for you:
- In 1996 at the Atlanta Games, 34% of participants were women.
- In 2004 in Athens, 41% of participants were women.
- In 2008 in Beijing, the IOC has added Women's Steeplechase and Women's Sabre Team Fencing to expand participation of female athletes.
- Some female athletes will be required to undergo "sex tests" to confirm their sex if it has been called into question. This will include a review by a panel of "external appearance" experts along with a number of blood tests. Apparently 8 athletes failed the tests in Atlanta in 1996 but were all eventually cleared with subsequent tests.
- There are 20 moms on Team USA, ie, women who have given birth. Madd props, mommas!
- They agreed to hold the swimming and gymnastics finals in the morning in China in order to create prime-time viewing for US Olympic fans.
Whew. That's my entire preview. Now we should all sit back and relax, and let the Games begin!
(Serious thank you to the Sports Illustrated Olympic Preview issue for much of the information you find here about athletes, Olympic history, etc).
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
But today, as you read this, when you think about the most famous celebrity athletes, who comes to mind? I guess it depends on who you are and what you pay attention to. I am biased now because I'm always looking for news about women in sports. But when I was younger, there was one athlete who stood head and shoulders above the rest. His Airness, Michael Jordan.
I grew up with three Jordan posters in my room. I had his autobiography, his coffee table book, a couple of treasured basketball cards, and I even got to see him play a game with the Birmingham Barons during his brief stint in AAA baseball. He was never a role model for me (obviously I wasn't going to grow up to be in the NBA...) but he was "it" when I thought about an elite athlete. He was the one doing Nike commercials and endorsing athletic equipment. His image was everywhere, and he became a household name.
I also grew up in Tennessee as a rabid Pat Summit and Lady Vols fan. And Geena Davis was, in my mind, a professional athlete after her role in A League of Their Own. I followed tennis pretty religiously, and I was just as interested in a match between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi as I was in a match between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf. The female athletes in the early to mid 90s who were really on the map were Michelle Kwan and Kerri Strug.
Being well on my way to my 5'10" frame and size 12 feet, I couldn't identify with them as "athletes." I was looking for women who could body up against a defender in the paint for a layup, or put a forearm into someone's hip as they jostled for a soccer ball. I think I chose those posters of Michael Jordan because they captured the sheer power and agility he possessed. I wasn't looking to throw on a unitard and wobble around on ice skates. (Don't get me wrong...I have huge respect for the immense strength and stamina it takes to make ice skating look graceful).
But I just didn't see those Lady Vols on posters when I was 7 or 8. There was no "female Michael Jordan" in TV commercials or on Wheaties boxes. In fact, it wasn't until 1997 when the WNBA launched that I remember seeing any strong female athletes in mass marketing efforts.
And then in 1999, Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain swept the world with their World Cup victory. And Marion Jones was everywhere after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games, and then those Lady Vols and the UConn Huskies produced a rivalry that would dominate NCAA women's basketball for years. And then Serena and Venus Williams were changing the sport of tennis with their extremely physical style of play. And then more and more women were finally in the spotlight. What changed?!
Simply said, women's sports blew up in the 1990s, and corporations were finally throwing bigger dollars at female athletes to endorse their products. According to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, women's participation in intercollegiate athletics (varsity, club, IM, etc) jumped from 300,000 before Title IX to 2.25 million in 1997. Little girls born in the 1980s had a plethora of strong female athletes to look up to. Why? Because there was money behind it.
So what makes a female athlete marketable? Or any athlete, for that matter? Let's not fool ourselves. Marketing 101 will teach you that sex sells. Michael Jordan is not ugly. Neither is Michelle Kwan. Almost everyone out there with a big endorsement deal has a pretty face. Being athletes, they naturally have the hot bodies (well, some of them). And if they aren't pretty, they better be damn good at what they do.
I'm going to make the case that both male and female athletes are exploited for their bodies. However, I see a pattern that suggests that the best-looking female athletes, sometimes regardless of their actual talent, tend to be more successful than other female athletes, where this is not necessarily the case with the men.
Some have argued (Fink & Parker, 2008) that female athletes who really make the Big Bucks are those who play more "gender appropriate" sports, like tennis and golf, versus sports like basketball or softball, which often require bigger frames. I would venture to argue that most athletes who are good at their sport will attract endorsements. However, the female athletes who possess more "delicate" or "feminine" traits will remain on top, simply because sex sells. Fans want long, swishy ponytails and toned (but not bulky) bodies to look at. They want short spandex and tight swimsuits and women who are certainly athletes, but also not someone they'd be afraid to stumble upon in a dark alley.
According to a Forbes.com article published on July 22, 2008, the top four highest paid female athletes in the world are all tennis players:
1. Maria Sharapova, Russia -- $26 million
2. Serena Williams, USA -- $14 million
3. Venus Williams, USA -- $13 million
3. Justine Henin, Belgium -- $12.5 million
And nipping at their heels are the female golfers:
1. Annika Sorenstam, Sweden -- $11 million
2. Michelle Wie, USA -- $12 million
3. Lorena Ochoa, Mexico -- $10 million
Sports Illustrated (SI.com) had a "Fortunate 50" list based on 2006 salaries enumerating the top earning U.S. athletes, which was led by Tiger Woods at #1, raking in $112 million/year, with $100 million of that from endorsements alone. Next was Oscar De La Hoya (boxer) at $53 million in earnings, and $2 million in endorsements. Then came Phil Mickelson (golfer) with $47 million. Shaq and Kobe followed at spots 4 and 5, with $15 million and $16 million, respectively, in endorsements alone. The first woman on the list comes in at #22 with Michelle Wie (golfer) at $20.2 million. (Forbes had her listed at $12 on their list). The list continues with golfers, baseball players, basketball players, football players, and race car drivers.
All of them men.
In fact, Michelle Wie is the ONLY female on that "Fortunate 50" list.
Why? Because big endorsements happen where the money is. And money comes from fans--and the companies who will pay to market to those fans. Female athletes aren't getting endorsements like their male counterparts because they aren't pulling in anywhere near the same sized crowds or tickets sales. Except maybe in tennis and golf. Oh, and figure skating when the Olympics are around. And maybe soccer or swimming (if they agree to pose nude with a few well-placed soccer balls or American flags covering their most intimate parts).
Female athletes are more likely to endorse products like Dove soap or Caress body wash. Big money comes to the females when they can be marketed as "the darling of their sport" or "the girl next door," or the "girl you want to bring home to your parents." They ride the line between sex appeal and good girls--the kind of girl whose smile could sell you anything because you trust that she has your best interests in mind and really believes in the product.
Male athletes, when they are sexualized, can be aggressive and overpowering. We want to see hulking frames with bulging muscles holding onto a tube of Right Guard deoderant (does anyone remember those Charles Barkely commercials??) or gripping the wheel of a 300 horsepower Lexus. We want them to be assertive, confident, and smart. We want to buy a product from them because they know what they're talking about.
Now ponder this. Except for Tiger Woods, golfers are not often the picture of fitness and sex appeal. Look at Phil Mickelson at #2 on that list with $47 million in endorsements. He makes his money endorsing swanky watches or expensive golf clubs (and not by showing off his bod). Even the male athletes (namely golfers and baseball players) who aren't physically fit still have a market for endorsing luxury items that most businessmen would like to acquire.
So what's my conclusion about all of this?
The highest-earning female athletes are those with sex appeal. And their sex appeal commands attention. On the other hand, the highest-earning male athletes may or may not possess the sex appeal, but they at least command respect.
Some female athletes will choose to pose nude for Sports Illustrated (Jenny Thompson) or Gear Magazine (Chastain). Some basketball players, like Lisa Leslie, will try to model on the side. This sex appeal seems to be where the money is for most female athletes today.
But just to throw a wrench in this whole thing, try this:
1. Do a Google Image search for Anna Kournikova.
2. Now try the same for David Beckham.
It's not very obvious that either of those two are athletes, based on these images alone. Both happen to be fairly good at their respective sports (Anna is arguably the underperformer and David is a superstar), but their sex appeal is what makes them so marketable.
Little girls today now have more strong, powerful female athletes to look up to as role models. There's just more money, in general, going into women's sports because more women are playing. More female sports figures are visible to the public because more of them exist. But the majority of sports fans today are still being marketed to with the "sex sells" attitude in mind. If Brandi Chastain wants to pose nude, why not? Will she make more money for herself and her sport? Will her scantily-clad, toned, athletic body appeal to a male fan population who might not otherwise pay attention to her for her athletic prowess? Might they buy a ticket to her game just because they liked what they saw in the magazine spread, and not because she's a phenomenal soccer player?
So what about the WNBA? We've all heard before that many men prefer not to watch women's basketball because the game isn't as fast-paced as the men's. Only two women have ever dunked in a regulation WNBA game (Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker) and there's a much bigger focus on fundamentals, like shooting, since most women don't have 4 foot vertical jumps or 6'8 frames to work with. The game is simply different, and perhaps not as "showy" as the NBA. This means that the stadium is filled by families with little girls, or women who enjoy watching the game played by other women, but the majority of people in those arena's seats are not men. So is it terrible to pull a "Brandi Chastain" and pose nude for a magazine shoot if it will lead to more male fans? Feminists argue that the women are being exploited. I agree that this may be the case, however there are also male athletes being exploited for their bodies, perhaps just to a lesser degree. If the only way you can get a guy to a WNBA game is to add a little sex appeal, maybe it's worth having him there as a spectator for that reason initially because he might start to appreciate the actual game once he watches a few, rather than focusing on the sex appeal of the players on the court.
Fortunately, there seems to be an overall rise in respect for women's sports, as evidenced by the growing number of professional leagues. The fact that the WNBA exists and that they're launching Women's Professional Soccer in 2009 are both great signs. Maybe females just need more time in the sports industry to establish themselves as respectable for their actual talent, and not merely their sex appeal. Maybe we're getting close to a time when fans are willing to pay good money to watch women play basketball and softball.
But it's likely that the highest-paid athletes, male or female, will continue to possess that unique blend of raw athletic talent, a firm athletic body, and a dazzling smile. And that may be the most successful marketing tool ever developed, whether we like it or not.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
...and I remember exactly where I was when Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey after scoring the winning goal as the US Women's team beat China in the 1999 FIFA World Cup.
What an incredible moment. Those women played before a crowd of 90,185 rabid fans, making it the most well-attended women's sporting event in history. An estimated 40 million viewers tuned in to watch the game on TV. Even President Clinton was convinced that it would change the world as we knew it, saying "It's going to have a bigger impact than people ever realized, and it will have a far-reaching impact not only in the United States but also in other countries." (FIFA website). In one word, this game was epic.
In the wake of that 1999 season, women's soccer in the US got a huge burst of momentum. Teenagers dragged their moms out to the mall to purchase their own Nike bras (the one that Brandi exposed to the world was not released to the public until a few weeks after the game, and the sales were off the charts), and there was a general vibe in the US that the times, they were a-changin'.
In 2001, the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) celebrated its inaugural season, with many of those players from the 1999 team dawning WUSA jerseys for one of 8 teams across the United States. Professional women's soccer had finally arrived in America at it was full steam ahead. Stadiums would be filled, women's soccer players everywhere would finally get those fatty pay checks and endorsements, and Mia Hamm would be a household name like Michael Jordan. Everything was gravy.
Only it wasn't.
The league's financial backers quickly realized that they were losing on their investments. The stadiums were not being filled and companies were not throwing millions of dollars at the players (except maybe Mia and Brandi) to market their products. By 2003, WUSA had to shut down.
I don't remember where I was in 2003 for the FIFA World Cup (Germany won it all, the US took home the bronze). I had transformed from "teary-eyed, goosebump-covered soccer fan" to "ignorant busy-body" without even realizing it. But now, five years, later, I couldn't help but wonder what went so wrong with a sport that had the world wrapped around its little finger in 1999.
WUSA may have failed, but don't think they would give up that easily. Turns out a lot of people were pretty devastated by the collapse of WUSA, so they put together a "Reorganization Committee" to learn from its mistakes. They created a new non-profit, Women's Soccer Initiative, Inc. (WSII), to enable "sports participation and healthy active lifestyles for girls and women." And WSII's baby? Bringing back women's professional soccer...for good. Everyone is a-buzz with the announcement of Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) , a new professional league for our ladies, launching in the Spring of 2009.
Of course, it didn't hurt when two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and Yahoo! President and COO Jeff Mallett decided that the new league was worth their investment and became part owners of the league. Wait...did I say Steve Nash? Yep. A little online research revealed that Nash dabbled in soccer before his basketball days (and by dabble, I mean he played on the Canadian National Team as a teenager). He also has two little girls who are athletes, just like their daddy, so he has an emotional investment in the league as well. Don't you find it incredibly refreshing to see two normal guys, one Silicon Valley Tech Guru and one regular ole' NBA dad, supporting women's sports in the US?
I also think it didn't hurt that the WPS Commissioner, Tonya Antonucci, launched Yahoo! Sports and Yahoo! Fantasy Sports and probably had a coffee break or two to chat with Jeff about getting involved with the WPS venture. Tonya might deserve a blog post of her own based on glancing at her bio. She's one of those women who has been putting blood, sweat, and tears into sports since she was old enough to walk (she was a high school soccer All-American, a 1984 US Junior National player, and followed that with a four year varsity soccer career at Stanford. She went on to coach at Santa Clara and Stanford--two perennial women's soccer powerhouses--while she got her MBA). She was CEO at WSII for two and a half years before being named WPS Commissioner on September 4, 2007. Let's hope that her lifetime dedication to this sport, along with her exceptional professional background, will be the winning combination for WPS.
Now, for you fans out there. If you happen to live in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, LA, NJ/NY, St. Louis, or DC, you're in luck. These are the cities who are already committed to having their own WPS teams next Spring. Go buy season tickets and watch the WPS take the world by storm. And if you're in Philly or San Diego, hold on tight and wait for the league to expand to you next.
For those of us without a local team, I recommend showing your support by telling everyone you know about WPS. Tell your teammates, moms, daughters, coworkers, brothers, dads, and friends. I'm not sure if you realize it, but WPS is kind of a big deal. I can't wait to see the league launch (and let's be clear--Ms. Antonucci insists that it's NOT a re-launch of WUSA, but a whole new venture without the baggage of the past weighing it down). I'll be hoping that fans are filling the stadiums while WPS executives work behind the scenes to make this league a permanent fixture in this country.
If you want to check out more about WPS, go straight to the source.
Or check them out on Facebook and MySpace. They're tech-savvy and ready to tackle their fan base with grassroots passion and a commitment to using the newest, *bestest* strategies to broadcast WPS to the world.
I'll continue to follow WPS and keep you updated on its progress.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
I want to shed light on past, present, and future issues for women in sports. I want to explore more than just the athlete...I want to know about the people, the money, and the strategies behind these athletes and their organizations. What about that small number of women with the title "Athletic Director" on their resume? What about those women who sell the tickets and monitor the press releases for a WNBA team? And why do girls keep tearing their ACL's? Why haven't we seen a woman coaching a men's university basketball team yet? Which organizations are successfully supporting women's athletics...and on the other hand, which ones are failing miserably? What have we actually accomplished in these 35 years, and what is the next step for women everywhere who aspire to make sports the focus of their lives? In other words, now what?
Some of you may have been out on the field sprinting in full length dresses before "woman" and "athlete" could be uttered in the same sentence. Others of you may have been activists on the front lines who pushed Title IX legislation through to success. Some of you waged less visible battles at home to encourage your daughters to get out and play, even when there weren't any other girls out there. And still others (like me) were born at just the right time--growing up in the aftermath of this legislation when girls were given more opportunities than ever before to follow their passions on the court, on the field, on the track, and just about everywhere else.
I hope that this blog can be a resource for you, whether you're an athlete, CEO, coach, Athletic Director, soccer mom, or fan. I want to uncover past mysteries, keep you posted on current events, and begin to bridge connections that span across all the issues related to women in sports. I want this blog to educate, enlighten, and empower everyone who has an interest in understanding the real progress that women have made. I want these stories to remind all of us, from the 6-year-old soccer player to the 6-figure sports executive, that we are "Not Afraid To Flex."