I have a deep personal and professional commitment to play equity. As someone who grew up in modest circumstances, I know that having access to a low-cost tennis program played a key role in my subsequent success first in the military, then college and now in my professional life. The concept of play equity is simple: everyone has an opportunity to participate in sports and structured play so that they all can enjoy the benefits associated with them.
Creating equity requires overcoming many barriers, most often income, race, ethnicity, ability and gender. Each of these barriers presents unique cultural, political, organizational, marketing and financial challenges.
With the 34th Annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day coming up on February 5, my thoughts today are on gender equity in sports. Girls continue to play in fewer numbers than boys. Professional and intercollegiate sports leadership staffs are mostly male. The women’s pro leagues receive less corporate support. Coaching remains a male bastion, with women holding fewer than half the head coaching positions in NCAA women’s sports and the WNBA. The male-female distribution in the National Women’s Soccer League is even more imbalanced. Girls and women have been playing basketball and soccer in large numbers for over a generation. We can do better.
Perhaps most notably, coverage of women’s sports in the mainstream media remains far behind that of men even though girls and women play sports every day of the week. A story about women’s sport in my hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, is a rare event. Women’s coverage, when it does appear, usually is relegated to a couple of lines in a daily briefing, which itself remains mostly about men. Even high school sports coverage is disproportionally and overwhelming focused on boys. Let’s not pretend that this is simply a matter of what sells papers.
My day job involves youth sports. Supporting girls’ sport requires constant work, but of course the fight for equity happens at all levels, including elite. In April 2019, for example, California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsome launched #EqualPayCA, “a campaign to help close the pay gap in California.” One of the first convenings of the campaign brought together a group of women sports executives to discuss pay, job opportunities and women’s leadership in sports, and sport’s role in the broader equity movement.
We also saw the gender equity battle reflected in the “Equal Pay” chants after the U.S. won the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, and the lawsuit filed last year by 28 team members alleging “institutionalized gender discrimination” on the part of US Soccer, the sport’s governing body.
Against this backdrop I was delighted to read this week about the tentative collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and the WNBA Players Association. This is one women’s sports story that got good coverage and the details have been widely reported. Briefly, the agreement makes a “bet on women” by significantly increasing player compensation. The average compensation package, for the first time, will top six-figures. The eight-year plan also calls for significant maternity leave and child-care improvements, and a path to revenue sharing.
What I particularly like about the agreement is the recognition that it is one part of a larger plan to improve the league, and that league and player leaders want it to be a model. The league, when it unveiled the labor agreement, also announced its new Changemakers program, bringing together corporate partners AT&T, Deloitte and Nike to assist with marketing, branding and game experience enhancement. Meanwhile, WNBA Players Association President and Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike voiced her hope that the agreement “can set a precedent for women in the workplace and women in sports.”
As we celebrate the WNBA’s achievement, let’s also take some personal responsibility for supporting girls’ and women’s sport. Participate in National Girls & Women in Sports Day events. Lobby politicians to continue to support Title IX. If you’re a woman who has sat on the sidelines, take up a sport, or become a coach or referee. Complain to your newspaper and television stations about their terrible coverage. And, please go see girls’ and women play, whether it’s an admission-free youth game or a professional event like a WNBA or NWSL game. These professional leagues need your support. Last year, the WNBA had average attendance of under 7,000 a game, although I’m happy to note that the team I support as a season ticket holder, the LA Sparks, averaged over 11,000 a game.
There is a whole world of girls’ and women sports awaiting your attention and attendance. You don’t need some gatekeeper’s permission to get started. So, pick your favorite sports metaphor. And, step up to the plate, the free throw line, the penalty spot, and get actively involved.