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Ladies, Want Women's Sports To Get More Attention? Pony Up

Indiana Fever guard Erin Phillips (right) drives past Phoenix Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner during the first half of their WNBA basketball game Aug. 25.
Indiana Fever guard Erin Phillips (right) drives past Phoenix Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner during the first half of their WNBA basketball game Aug. 25.

Fans of women's sports often maintain that female athletics get short shrift from the media, so it had to be something of a surprise gift when ESPN presented the start of the WNBA's draft live.

This happened as it was announced that after two abject failures in the past decade, yet another professional soccer league for women will dare venture forth in the United States.

Not to excuse the media, but the reality is that most attention is given to team sports, where there is an identity with the community –– and, by extension, with the local newspapers and broadcast outlets. Pick up any sports section, and most of it will be jammed with box scores from the various leagues. And the men have the leagues.

In counterpoint, most attention to women's athletics has, historically, been devoted to individual sports –– and often as not to the prettier stars. This dates back to the innocent so-called "America's Girl," Helen Wills, in tennis almost a century ago.

Figure skating, where appearance is more important than any other sport, has been the natural catch basin for popularity in winter Olympic years. Figure skating is a terribly demanding discipline, but it is to sports what the red carpet is to show business. Nevertheless, that sustained attention to pulchritude aside, it does not help right now that American fans of both genders are especially provincial, and that in tennis and golf and figure skating foreigners dominate.

Still, I think the sisterhood has to look more into the mirror. In the post-Title IX era, as girls have flooded into athletics, there has been no comparable explosion by female spectators. It's all very comforting to blame media men for a lack of coverage, but if more women buy tickets to watch female athletes play, then more coverage will follow.

This may be only anecdotal, but I have noticed that in small-town newspapers and on community websites, female high school and college sports seem to get a commensurate amount of attention with their male jocks. The imbalance of coverage is so much more at the top, where commerce matters.

Women's soccer may have the best chance, for the U.S. female stars seem to have been as popular as our men on the pitch. But with the new National Women's Soccer League, and also especially with the WNBA and college basketball, success ultimately will surely be determined by whether female fans will support female athletes in their pocketbooks.

And, oh, yes, for basketball in particular, there should be a coordinated effort to get Las Vegas to run a line on women's games. I'm not being facetious. Hey, Vegas makes a line on American Idol. Anything you can bet on gets more attention. The bookmakers, ladies, may be more important than the editors.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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