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Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Where do women's sports go from here?

By Val Ackerman

I recently attended two conferences devoted to the state of women's sports. The first was the espnW Summit in Tucson, Ariz., attended by more than 200 athletes and executives from across the sports spectrum, all with a shared interest in seeing women's sports continue to grow. The second, in Kansas City, Mo., was the annual convention of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA), which attracted upward of 500 conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches, senior women's administrators and NCAA staff who work daily with women's sports programs at all divisions of intercollegiate athletics.

Coming on the heels of this past summer's celebration of the 40th anniversary of Title IX, a recurring theme at both conferences was the question of where women's sports will, or should, go from here and, assuming that question can be answered, what it will take to get there.

As the presentations, panels, interviews and hallway chatter at each conference made clear, no one set of answers exists. That's because women's sports today aren't a monolith with a single, defining element that can easily be distilled into a common vision or action plan. Women's sports now are much more fragmented, and the needs, priorities and objectives within the "category" vary widely.

For those focused on encouraging more females to play sports or making sure the dictates of Title IX continue to be honored and enforced, one set of goals applies. For those trying to market athletic shoes, apparel, equipment and other products to the many girls and women who are now active sports participants, another set of strategies is required. For men's sports teams and leagues looking to attract female fans or expand their existing female fan bases, the critical path is different still. And for those on the front lines of elite women's sports outlets (be they collegiate, Olympic or pro) who are trying to get exposure, build audiences, generate revenue and eventually turn a profit, the appropriate course of action is another story altogether.

If all of that weren't enough, a separate battle plan seems to be needed to increase the number of women in key leadership positions in the sports industry (a goal that pretty much everyone in Tucson and Kansas City shared). Given all these moving parts, each involving different issues and requiring different responses, it's not surprising the way forward for women's sports isn't readily apparent. In fact, both conferences in many ways engendered more questions than answers.

As I sat through these two conferences and reflected on the gains that girls' and women's sports have made over the past 40 years, and the work that remains to be done, I tried to imagine what form progress will take going forward. To that end, I jotted down a few outcomes I'd like to see happen during the "next phase."

Some of the items on my wish list have to do with the creation and growth of new or existing women's sports properties. Others speak to the influence of women in the sports industry and their assumption of leadership positions in major sports organizations, particularly those that have a direct stake in women's sports programs.

The time required for these developments to occur would be anyone's guess; it could be five years, 10 years, 20 years or another 40 (and some might never come to pass at all, although the optimist in me hopes otherwise). Describing how each of the outcomes might be achieved, what people or groups would be needed to pull them off and how long it might take in order to see results in each case would likely require several more columns. In a few cases, the results might not even be quantifiable, although improvements would probably be easy to discern.

With all that said, here's what I came up with:

• Women's professional soccer in the U.S. is re-established in some form and is sustained on a long-term basis.

• Women's softball is reinstated as an Olympic sport.

• The WNBA's business solidifies: The fan base grows, teams become consistently profitable and the highest WNBA player salaries rise to be on par with the top salaries in the European leagues (i.e., in the mid to high six-figure range) or higher.

• The LPGA's top players regain the level of name recognition associated with past stars such as Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa.

• Women's ice hockey becomes a sustainable professional sport, either on a stand-alone basis or through "bundling" with figure skating, speed skating or other Olympic winter sports.

• The NCAA championships for Division I women's sports other than women's basketball take on added cachet, produce consistently solid attendance figures and generate respectable national television audiences.

• A well-funded agency is created to help develop and market women's sports properties, and to promote top female athletes in innovative and effective ways.

• Women are hired as assistant coaches on NBA and men's college basketball teams, and a woman is named head coach of a major Division I men's basketball program.

• Women are hired for the following positions: commissioner of a BCS conference, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, president of the NCAA and head of a major U.S. sports network.

• Women increasingly assume ownership stakes in professional sports franchises (men's and women's).

• Legal mandates similar to Title IX are enacted in other countries, opening the doors for increased sports participation for girls and women around the globe.

• Women are elected as chairs of international sports federations, and measurable progress is made in the number of women functioning in leadership roles within sports organizations outside the United States.

• A woman is hired as the president of the International Olympic Committee.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should keep all of us busy for a while. Like most groundbreaking undertakings, each of these outcomes would in turn require sustained effort, considerable groundwork and myriad interim steps along the way. These interim steps might themselves take considerable time to unfold, and there will almost certainly be a few setbacks before the corners are turned for good. Where the growth of women's sports properties is concerned, the challenges will be especially daunting, and a clear-eyed grasp of economic and marketplace realities will be paramount.

But even if change comes slowly, or erratically, or hardly at all for a while, one thing is clear: Our sights with respect to the future of women's sports need to be set high. The energy levels in Tucson and Kansas City suggested nothing less.