After World Cup Win, Other U.S. Women's Sports Leagues Ask, 'What About Us?'

Aug 8, 2019
Originally published on August 8, 2019 7:19 pm

Fans of the World Cup champion U.S. women's national soccer team are getting what they want.

More.

The team began a victory tour last weekend. It runs until October.

It's a heady time for women's soccer. But other women's sports want to take advantage of the moment as well. And they're hoping to overcome cultural obstacles that traditionally have made their sports less relevant.

Powerful potential

Five days after the U.S. won the Women's World Cup, fans of the WNBA's Seattle Storm welcomed a surprise visitor to the team's home arena. Even from the cheap seats, the pink/purple hair gave it away.

"Well, look who has graced us with her presence," Storm play-by-play announcer Dick Fain told a television audience. "Is there a more recognizable face in the world of sports over the last month than that young lady on the right, Megan Rapinoe?!"

Actually, this moment wasn't a shock. Rapinoe and Storm star Sue Bird are one of Seattle's "it" couples. Still, Rapinoe's appearance and standing ovation from an arena full of basketball fans was a reminder of the powerful crossover potential of the women's World Cuppers.

"For me it was just simply hopeful," said Storm CEO and General Manager Alisha Valavanis. "That that awareness would continue to expose the country and the globe to the other sports."

Like ice hockey, lacrosse, softball, pro soccer — and basketball, the most prominent of this country's women's professional sports.

A complex game

It would be wonderful, Valavanis said, if this awareness of the women's soccer team and exposure to the others were like a magic wand. That could wave away the chasm separating women's and men's pro sports, on issues of money, visibility and relevance.

But there's no magic wand.

"This is a complex game," Valavanis said, adding, "there is no quick fix to ... the gap."

Talking is a start.

Rapinoe and her soccer teammates have done plenty of that, about the gap in pay and inferior working conditions. WNBA players are confronting similar issues. Seattle forward Alysha Clark said they've been newly inspired by the soccer team.

"They're helping grow the confidence of women athletes," Clark said, "to speak up for what we feel is right."

An uncomfortable truth

But if a conversation about women's sports truly has been sparked by the success and audacity of the U.S. women's team, ultimately it has to also confront an uncomfortable truth.

The biggest problem is ... what I would call invisible and cultural bias against women professional athletes. - Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder

"Whatever sport is out there that women are trying to make their way professionally," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder, "the biggest problem is the extent, the depth of what I would call invisible and cultural bias against women professional athletes."

Gilder has owned the Seattle Storm with two other women since 2008. As an undergraduate rower at Yale in the 1970s, she took part in a Title IX protest — Title IX is the federal law that, among other things, bans gender discrimination in girl's and women's sports. Gilder says the protest radicalized her and made her keenly aware of the bias.

"I think we make an assumption, it's a very deeply held assumption," she said, "that men are more important. And you actually start seeing that in sports at a very young age."

"[Even at] 10 years old, boys are starting to have more fans. By the time you get to high school, this interest in supporting boys' sports has been well established."

The choice of what to watch

The traditional argument is that male sports are better. Because the athletes mostly are bigger, stronger, faster. Gilder says it's what often tips the balance when fans have a choice — between paying money to watch a men's pro sporting event, or a women's.

"But who decides that?" Gilder asked. "Who decides that women's basketball isn't interesting?"

Ginny Gilder at her home in Seattle. Gilder, who won a silver medal in rowing at the 1984 Olympics, owns the Seattle Storm with two other women.
Tom Goldman / NPR

Storm CEO Valavanis places some of the blame on mainstream sports media.

"What if we started to play more highlights of the women?" Valavanis said. "Would we then have those individuals watching and saying, 'Gosh, I need to see the dunk. I'm only interested if they're as fast and strong as the men.' Or is that something we perpetuate because it's exactly what you're watching every day?"

Certainly the choice isn't always to watch men.

At a recent WNBA game in Washington, Mystics fan Teresa Tidwell said she's had the choice of basketball games. And she prefers the women.

"I think in women's basketball, particularly in women's professional basketball, the team play is better," Tidwell said. "In men's professional basketball it's a lot of run and gun. It's not really very entertaining from my point of view."

The WNBA hasn't had enough Teresa Tidwells.

In each of its 23 seasons, the league reportedly has never made a profit. Building up attendance is an ongoing problem. Heading into the recent WNBA All-Star break, Seattle ranked fourth out of 12 teams in total attendance. Still, the Storm does what it can to bring fans to games. Including a promotion offering free tickets — for donated blood.

Jordan Lake, 29, and two friends took advantage of the deal at a recent home game. Their first WNBA experience.

"It's entertaining," Lake said, watching the Storm play the Las Vegas Aces. "I've grown up with sports. I love sports. You've got to find something else to watch in the off-season of football, I suppose."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Despite the athleticism on display in a tight, competitive game, Lake said he probably wouldn't come back if he had to pay for a ticket.

Not betting, but hopeful

In the face of resistance, still, is there the chance to nudge a cultural change more toward women's sports?

"I absolutely believe that it's possible, said Storm co-owner Gilder. "At the same time, I'm a business person and I've been in this business for 12 years and I'm not betting on it."

But she's hardly giving up, either.

"I am a believer in progress," Gilder said. "And without showing up and agitating in some way, then you're wishing. That's your choice. Agitate or wait."

"Is this a pivotal moment?" she asked. "Has the Women's World Cup team been able to bring more awareness in a way that individual Americans start looking at themselves, not in a critical way but like ... 'Oh my gosh, [women's professional sports] could be fun to be part of,' or 'I want to do this,' or maybe a little bit of 'I should do this.' "

"I hope so."

A new WNBA plan could help fuel Gilder's hope.

This fall and winter, some of the league's best players will tour the country as part of the lead-up to next summer's Olympics in Tokyo. The training and games will also help increase visibility and connect players more with fans.

Seattle guard Sue Bird helped come up with the idea.

Her inspiration, in large part, was the electric experience of the U.S. women's soccer team.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Fans of the World Cup champion U.S. women's national soccer team are getting what they want - more. The team began a victory tour last weekend. It runs until October. It's a heady time for women's soccer. Other women's sports are hoping to take advantage of the moment as well, and hoping to overcome cultural obstacles that traditionally have made their sports less popular. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Five days after the U.S. women won the World Cup, fans of the WNBA's Seattle Storm welcomed a surprise visitor to the team's home arena.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Well, look who has graced us with her presence.

GOLDMAN: Even from the cheap seats, the pink-purple hair gave it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Is there a more recognizable face in the world of sports in the last month than that young lady on the right, Megan Rapinoe.

GOLDMAN: Actually, this moment, courtesy of Force 10 Hoops, wasn't a shock. Rapinoe and the Storm star Sue Bird are one of Seattle's "it" couples. But still, Rapinoe's appearance and standing ovation from an arena full of basketball fans was a reminder of the powerful crossover potential of the Women's World Cuppers. Alisha Valavanis is the Storm's CEO.

ALISHA VALAVANIS: For me, it was just simply hopeful that that awareness would continue to expose the country and the globe to the other sports.

GOLDMAN: Like ice hockey, lacrosse, softball and basketball, the most prominent of this country's women's pro sports. It would be wonderful, Valavanis says, if this awareness of the women's national team and exposure to the others were like a magic wand that could wave away the chasm separating women's and men's pro sports on issues of money, visibility, significance. Alas, she says, no magic wand.

VALAVANIS: This is a complex game. There's no quick fix to the gap.

GOLDMAN: Talking is a start. Rapinoe and her soccer teammates have done plenty of that about the gap in pay and inferior travel conditions. WNBA players are confronting similar issues. Seattle forward Alysha Clark says she's been inspired by the soccer team.

ALYSHA CLARK: They're helping grow the confidence of women athletes to speak up for what we feel is right.

GOLDMAN: But if a conversation about women's sport truly has been sparked by the success and audacity of the U.S. women's national team, ultimately, it has to confront an uncomfortable truth, says Ginny Gilder.

GINNY GILDER: Invisible and cultural bias against women professional athletes.

GOLDMAN: Gilder has owned the Seattle Storm with two other women since 2008. As an undergraduate rower at Yale in the 1970s, she and others demanded and won equal treatment for female athletes.

GILDER: It's a very deeply held assumption that men are more important. And you actually start seeing that in sports at a very young age.

GOLDMAN: By the time kids reach high school, she says, this interest in primarily supporting boys' sports has been well-established. The traditional argument is male sports are better because the athletes mostly are bigger, stronger, faster. It's what often tips the balance, says Gilder, when fans have a choice between paying money to watch a men's pro sporting event or a women's. It's a choice the WNBA knows all too well. In each of its 23 years, the league reportedly has never made a profit.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Defense, defense.

GOLDMAN: In Seattle, the quest to boost attendance has included a promotion offering free tickets if you donate blood. Twenty-nine-year-old Jordan Lake and two friends took advantage at a recent home game, their first WNBA experience.

JORDAN LAKE: You know, it's entertaining. I've grown up with sports. I love sports. You got to find something else to watch in the offseason of football, I suppose.

GOLDMAN: Despite the athleticism on display in a tight, competitive game, Lake said he probably wouldn't come back if he had to pay for a ticket. Still, in light of the women's soccer success, is there the chance to nudge a cultural change more toward women's sports?

GILDER: I absolutely believe that it's possible.

GOLDMAN: Storm owner Ginny Gilder.

GILDER: At the same time, I am a business person. And I've been in this business for 12 years. And I'm not betting on it.

GOLDMAN: She's hopeful, though, and a new plan could help fuel that hope. This winter, some of the WNBA's best players will tour the country as part of the lead-up to next summer's Olympics. The training and games were designed to increase visibility for the players and to connect them more with fans. Seattle guard Sue Bird helped come up with the idea. Her inspiration, in large part - the electric experience of the U.S. women's national soccer team.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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