Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women's pro sports 10 years after the World Cup: Is the sky really falling?

I read with interest a series of stories published on ESPN.com late last week about the state of women's professional sports in the U.S. The thesis driving the package: Women's spectators sports are teetering on the brink of an uncertain and perhaps calamitous future.
This storyline isn't new, as Mechelle Voepel points out in her analysis of the WNBA. But unmet predictions of the demise of the WNBA and other women's leagues may offer little comfort when leagues are struggling to survive.
Stories on each of the major women's sports/leagues -- including the WTA, LPGA, WPS, and WNBA -- speculated on individual problems such as poor public relations and marketing (LPGA) and lack of individual superstars (LPGA and WTA). But these problems for women's sports are symptoms, not the cause, for the struggles of women's professional sports to move beyond survival mode. Treating the symptoms does, indeed, keep women's sports in a tenuous position as leagues and teams constantly search for a formula that will have mass appeal.
Women's pro leagues and teams in the U.S. continue to operate in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" climate where they are blamed for cultural/gender norms that dictate their second-rate status.
Perhaps illustrative of this is a recent column in the Washington Post, where Mike Wise takes the WNBA Washington Mystics to task for not using a "Kiss Cam" during games. He acknowledges the WNBA's marketing tightrope: appealing to homophobic ("family-friendly") fans while simultaneously welcoming its loyal lesbian fan base. He writes: "It's understandable that a financially shaky league is outright terrified it could alienate a chunk of its fan base if two same-sex people shared a chaste kiss on a video scoreboard." Yet he goes on to write about the team's decision: "Goodbye, progress."
Damned if they do, damned if they don't. Women's sports will survive -- thanks to a loyal, although small, fan base that can connect more easily now than ever. But the bar is one set by masculine values for sports. Until that changes, the struggle will continue beyond our lifetimes.

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