The failure or success of female sports leagues in the United States rests primarily with female sports fans, Frank Deford said in a piece for National Public Radio titled “Ladies, Want Women's Sports To Get More Attention? Pony Up.”
Unfortunately, Deford missed the point entirely. Women’s sports should not appeal to uniquely to females because women are playing. Women’s sports should appeal to all sports fans because elite athletes are competing. Men do not feel mandated to watch LeBron James because he is a man. Men and women watch LeBron James because he is the best men’s basketball player in the world.
Note that I said James is the best men’s basketball player. This distinction is critical to understanding the problems facing women’s sports leagues. There is a tendency in mainstream media to deem male athletes or male sports as the unquestioned best or standard. For example, Deford mentions a new women’s soccer league is forming. Just saying women’s soccer league delegitimizes the athletes in that league because there is a qualifier to their prowess—their gender. Why can’t Major League Soccer be called Men’s Major League Soccer? By having their sports leagues gender marked, women athletes are already placed at a disadvantage because there is a latent implication that their leagues are inferior to men.
The second issue I have with Deford comes from the written summary of his piece. An excerpt states: “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.”
This argument is misguided. Women make up about 40 percent of fans in major North American sports leagues, according to 2009 research by Scarborough Sports Marketing published in Sports Business Daily. Male sports leagues need female fans to help fuel their billion-dollar industries. By extension, female sports leagues need male fans for their leagues to thrive.
And since the “sisterhood” of sports fans is markedly smaller than the “brotherhood”, it would be most appropriate to question why male fans are exempt from Deford’s critique of the struggles of women’s sports leagues.
-- Steve Bien-Aimé