WPS woes sign of bigger trend in women's sports

Seeing Women's Professional Soccer suspend operations for the 2102 season is disappointing. But in some ways it might be inevitable, at least for now.

Women aren't watching women's sports. At least not in numbers large enough to make professional leagues that are independent of a men's league financially viable.

Women's team sports have struggled at the box office, despite the millions of women who have grown up playing team sports since Title IX became law nearly 40 years ago.

Two academics, Marie Hardin and Erin Whiteside, authored a study last year based on three 90-minute focus groups with 26- to 43-year-old women and drawing extensively from published work on the subject. It wasn't a statistical poll, but they listened to the women describe their sports backgrounds -- many benefited from Title IX -- and the way they follow teams and players.

Hardin and Whiteside found that while women are becoming participants and fans, it isn't a model that follows the way men consume sports.

Boys who play Little League grow up to watch baseball, while girls who play in soccer leagues grow up to watch "Glee."

"Title IX was, and is, absolutely unparalleled for what it's done for girls and women's sports participation," said Hardin, a Penn State College of Communications associate professor, "but girls and women's sports participation has not, and probably will not, lead them to be sports spectators."

Girls who play sports grow up to compete with men in the workplace and rise to higher levels in the corporate structure than women who didn't participate in athletics growing up. They graduate into nontraditional fields for women, such as medicine and law, but as of yet those same women have not consumed sports in the same way their brothers do.

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Attendance is sparse at most WNBA games due in large part to the fact that women who grew up playing sports don't consume thm in the same way as their male counterparts.

This isn't to say there aren't women who have season tickets to the WNBA and can name the top 10 college softball players. It just means that there aren't enough of them to support professional women's team sports based on a traditional financial model.

Certainly there are women's sports that are successful, such as tennis. But in general it's individual athletes, rather than teams, who get the spotlight. The UConn and Tennessee women's basketball teams are exceptions, as is big event coverage for the Olympics or World Cup.

But garden variety women's sports leagues have failed, in part, said Hardin, because women who play sports were expected to morph into spectators. But they didn't.

When they did watch, the predominantly married heterosexual women who Hardin and Whiteside interviewed tended to watch men's sports.

This year's Super Bowl drew 43.3 million women over the age of 18, according to the Nielsen Company. They were 39 percent of the total audience, and it was the highest-rated Super Bowl in the demographic. Yet the stature of the Super Bowl as a social gathering event may disqualify it as a measure of women's general interest in sports.

There are encouraging trends. Certainly ESPN's commitment to women's basketball has raised the sport's profile, and from what I've observed many daughters are no longer automatically trumped by their brothers when it comes to accompanying a parent to a sporting event.

Change is occurring gradually, but not fast enough to create parity between men and women in the professional arena.

Viewing habits hurt professional women's leagues because of advertising. Sports ads tend to be very focused -- usually advertisers are looking to reach a homogenous audience. That's easy with, say, the NFL. There are loads of males in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic who are sitting ducks for a beer ad.

A company will get men by advertising during a women's sporting event, but not as many. And a company that might be drawn to a women's league, like Tampax was to the WTA, won't reach as many women in the audience as they would by advertising during a prime-time drama.

The result: Women's leagues struggle for sponsorships and female viewers.

Hardin also said women's sports have to fight the perception they are just a watered-down version of men's sports, or that women are pantomiming an endeavor that is inherently masculine. This may seem ridiculous to any woman who has spent hours in a gym perfecting her jump shot, but it's out there.

So we have evolved when it comes to participation, but as far as society's idea of what men and women are valued for -- not so much.

Hardin said that doesn't mean women are failing their sisters by not following college softball as closely as the NFL. Some research shows that women want female athletes to have the same professional opportunities as men when it comes to sports, but Hardin said they can't be expected to behave as fans in the same way that men do, and women should be free to choose their own way of experiencing fandom.

So we are in a state of flux when it comes to women and team sports. It's a chicken and egg problem. Women's team sports aren't a significant part of the viewing landscape, and it's tough for that to change if professional leagues cannot sustain themselves.

Expecting women to behave as an audience like men have hasn't worked. And we are in a bit of an in-between space in which women play sports in record numbers but the path to professionalism is still rocky.

Hardin stressed that it won't always be like this; cultures change.

In the meantime, seeing yet another professional women's soccer league suspend operations, well, that's hard to watch.

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