Women’s professional sports are in big trouble. The LPGA is losing sponsors left and right and just fired its commissioner. The WBNA continues to exist only because it’s subsidized by the NBA and its winningest franchise just folded. Women’s professional soccer lasted about five minutes after Brandi Chastain’s famous pose after winning the 1999 World Cup.*
Professional sports are a business. They’re one of many forms of entertainment competing for limited eyeballs and dollars. Americans love the NFL year-round. They care about the NBA during the playoffs or when there’s a matchup of superstars. Major League Baseball isn’t what it was but people still like it. The PGA tour does well when Tiger’s in contention or there’s a compelling storyline, like 59-year-old Tom Watson in contention at The Open. NHL, MLS, and others fight for the scraps with large numbers paying attention only when there’s a reason to. College football and men’s college basketball (especially around March) are bigger.
Women’s sports, with the rare and local exceptions of North Carolina soccer and Tennessee and U-Conn basketball, just don’t get much attention. Oh, there’s figure skating — arguably the most popular event in the Winter Olympics — and gymnastics during the summer games, but there’s legitimate debate as to whether they’re even sports. And beach volleyball, too, if you don’t mind the fact that the main draw is hot bodies in skimpy swimsuits.
It’s not that these women aren’t fine athletes who work incredibly hard at their sports. At the highest level, they most certainly are. Many believe that women’s basketball, at both the college and pro levels, is more fundamentally sound than their male counterparts. But the bottom line is that men represent the highest levels of competition. I doubt that there’s a single woman in the WNBA who could make an NBA team in fair competition. That’s true even of golf, which prizes skill rather than brute strength. We’ve always suspected it but, over the last decade, we’ve seen the PGA Tour offer the best women in the game sponsor’s exemptions as publicity stunts. None has even made the cut at a minor tournament, even though the very best men tend to sit those out.
But, again, so what? Nobody whines that there are no huge paydays for playing minor league baseball or semi-pro football. Why should it be any different for the novelty tours for women?
What very much matters is that women or, more to the point, young girls, have an opportunity to play and learn the lessons of sports. When I was in high school a quarter century ago, women weren’t supposed to be athletic. Girls who played sports well — especially if they were too tall or had too much muscle tone — were made to feel like freaks. Now, they’re not only accepted but viewed as the female ideal. It’s great that girls and young women are able to get out there and sweat and exert themselves physically and compete at very high levels. It’s good for their bodies, their psyches, and their social development.
So what if, after getting a scholarship at a great college or university, they have to settle for playing sports recreationally and get on with their lives? After all, that’s true of all but a tiny, tiny handful of men, too! The vast majority of those who play football or basketball or hockey or golf at even the most elite level in college never get a shot at the pros. Most of those who do don’t make it.
The same is true, by the way, of all manner of other hobbies. There are plenty of talented singers, musicians, artists, actors, and writers who enjoy those pursuits through their childhood and young adulthood — or beyond — but don’t quite have the skill, drive, or luck to make a living at it.
*A new league, called “Women’s Professional Soccer,” has just formed. WUSA, the league the came in the wake of the 1999 win, folded in 2003.