It seems like this article has been written before, and more than once: New York Time’s “Women’s Soccer League Tries to Connect and Survive” reports that yet another professional women’s sports league is struggling not just to prosper, but to simply hold on. I think I’ve read that article before, as a kid, about the ABL, the USWNT, the WPS. I’ve also read articles recently on how we could save women’s college basketball–which, almost every year, people (mostly men) have argued in favor of lowering the rim. And then the WNBA, the only league of its sort to close in on its twentieth season, gets slapped in the face because the only reason it survives is because it piggy-backs off of its male-counterparts.
When I was a kid, right between the summers of 1996 (Atlanta Olympics) and 1999 (Women’s World Cup), it felt as if Title IX had achieved its goal–that the exponential increase in the participation of girls’ sports led to women athletes being able to compete at the highest level, to draw crowds, and to experience the same fame and glory as male athletes. I’m not sure that anyone ever believed that women would make the same salary as men, but I think it was the simple desire to be taken seriously as athletes, to sell our games for its fundamentalism, for its team spirit, its sportsmanship, for bringing people back to the way sports used to be. Yet, somewhere since Mia Hamm broke Pele’s record of international goals, since Brandi Chastain sent us into the new millennium with a penalty in front of 90,000 screaming fans, we have plateaued–or maybe even declined.
What happened? Why are the high school girls I coach un-interested in women’s basketball? Why are their role models Dwayne Wade and Lebron James and Stephen Curry? Why have they heard of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, Hall-of-Famers way before their time, but when I tell them about Pat Summit or Sheryl Swoopes or Diana Tarausi their faces draw a blank?
Where are the new female athletes who were supposed to carry on the torch? Have the new generation of professional female athletes, having grown up with opportunities to compete, like a birthright, become complacent to promote our sport? Were the 1990s a fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime sports craze, or were those women pioneers, paving the road for us to take women sports to a place we’ve never gone?