Surveying a significant year for women's sports
With 2011 drawing to a close, inquiring minds of those who follow women's sports might find themselves wanting to know: How did we do? Was it a good year or bad year? What kind of progress did we make? And what can we expect the coming year to bring?
My answers to all of the above are largely positive. The year 2011 proved that the women's sports glass is at least half full and, in my view, getting fuller all the time. While work still remains to be done to solidify women's sports enterprises as a business matter, 2011 should go down as another encouraging chapter in the story of the post-Title IX march.
Some of the progress was expressed in event-driven bursts. As the year's sports calendar unfolded, the top women's sports competitions held their own, and inspiring performances were plentiful. Japan's victory at the FIFA Women's World Cup was probably the lead competition story of the year, but the results of annual events also underscored the extraordinary skills and competitiveness shown by elite female athletes today. The tennis Grand Slams (where upsets were the rule), the ski racing circuit (where Lindsey Vonn completed a World Cup sweep), the NCAA Women's Final Four (won for the first time by Texas A&M), and the WNBA's 15th season (won for the first time by the Minnesota Lynx) all drew much interest, and other professional, national team and intercollegiate contests conveyed their share of compelling narratives.
On a more sobering note, the financial challenges faced by Women's Professional Soccer as it looks to establish its footing on the pro sports landscape reinforced the difficulties inherent in translating national team success into club league viability. How WPS fares in cultivating fan support and improving its revenue base will remain a lead women's sports story in 2012 and beyond.
This was a year of new faces. Asian women, it seems, are on the rise: Li Na has brought China to unprecedented heights in tennis, and Taiwan's Yani Tseng has emerged as a golf sensation, perhaps the next standard-bearer for the LPGA. If these young stars can maintain their winning ways and keep their countrymen (and countrywomen) electrified, women's sports globally will only gain. Closer to home, Baylor's Brittney Griner and Delaware's Elena Delle Donne are among the next big stars on the hardwood and proof that the talent pipeline in women's basketball remains full.
The reaction to the revelation in August that Tennessee's Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history, had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease demonstrated the power of women's sports figures. There are few people in women's sports more admired than Pat, and her decision to continue as the Lady Vols' head coach and to meet the challenges of her condition head-on has sent a deeply felt message about determination and courage. It's often said that the true meaning of sports goes far beyond wins and losses, and the example that Pat is setting more than proves the point.
A captivating story about women and sports that most people probably missed came out of Turkey. The Fenerbache men's soccer club, which has been racked by instances of fan violence, was banned from having male spectators at a home game in Istanbul in September and responded by throwing its doors open to women and kids under the age of 12. More than 40,000 of them showed up and proceeded to clap, chant and sing continuously throughout the game (according to published news reports, they even greeted the visiting team with applause "instead of the more customary loud jeers"). The display was not only unprecedented in the Muslim world, but it should silence anyone who doubts the passion of women as sports fans.
Some of the other progress in 2011 was, and continues to be, subtler. Every time I go to my fitness club and see women going through their workout paces, or sit through one of my daughter's high school soccer or basketball games, or check out who's in the stands at a sporting event, I'm reminded of just how much sports are now part of the everyday lives of women and girls. The gains on this front are hard to measure, but they're unmistakable and seem certain to continue in the years to come. This ongoing assimilation of women into the culture of sports, and sports into the culture of women, is perhaps the most important outcome of the women's sports odyssey, and 2011 did nothing to slow this process down.
So what does the new year hold? We already know two major storylines. The first will center on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which was enacted on June 23, 1972. Much will, and should, be written about the impact this landmark legislation has had on the evolution of girls' and women's sports in our country and on the lives of so many, including me and many of my colleagues in sports and other walks of life. Amidst the tributes and reflections, I hope women's sports leaders will use the occasion to realistically assess how girls' and women's sports best fit in a world which has dramatically changed since 1972, and devise new and creative ways to build on Title IX's extraordinary foundation.
A second big story will be the 2012 London Olympic Games, the once-every-four-years opportunity many female athletes have to shine. The Olympics afford women's sports an unmatched platform, and the performances of female Olympians will play a major role in defining London's legacy. Because of their visibility and imagery, the Olympics also offer an extraordinary opportunity to inspire positive societal changes, and I hope the storylines behind London's women's sports competitions will bring attention to, and help ease, some of the political and attitudinal restraints faced by many women across the globe.
The year 2011 did its part to move women's sports along. We'll see if 2012 can keep the progress going and, more importantly, do it one better.