Venus Rising?

girls soccer One of the ESPN documentaries which deserves another look now is “Venus Vs,” the 2013 film narrating how Venus Williams took on the titans of tennis – the financial titans – and won.  It took until 2007 for women to receive the same prize money at Wimbledon as men, and it required Venus Williams to draw the line at what was acceptable in her Times op-ed.  Now, the parade for the US Women’s National Team is over, and presumably the cake’s been eaten and the ceremonial key to the city handed over. However, when the debris from the parade is cleared the economic prospects for women will be essentially the same as they were before the ride through Manhattan began.  Nor are we close to training and coaching the young people we need to develop the talent required to maintain our rankings.  We could use another Venus rising.

We’re Number One!

The disparity in men’s and women’s financial support in athletic endeavors is in too many ways illustrative of our perspective on sports in general: We expect to win, but we really aren’t all that excited about financially supporting youth development programs.  The parsimonious way in which we support after-school activities in general (for both boys and girls, academic and athletic) contrasts sharply with our expectations of the national teams which later represent us.  Since we’re speaking of soccer, let’s look at those statistics.

In 1974 there were 103,432 youngsters enrolled in youth soccer programs, and as of 1995 there were 2,388,719.  55% of that number were boys, 45% were girls. [usyo]  Somewhere in that 2209% increase in participation were members of the 1999 World Cup winning women’s national soccer team.  Further, if we drill down we find the members of that trailblazing crew came from collegiate programs – including Portland, UMass, Cal, Notre Dame, Central Florida, Stanford, and of course UNC.  Title IX worked.

As of 2014 there were 3,055,148 youngsters participating in youth league soccer, and we’d have to guess the breakdown was close to the 2008 reporting – 52% boys, and 48% girls.  Again, from this group came the ladies who enjoyed the parade in NYC.  School programs, youth/community programs, and collegiate programs contributed to the talent pool from which this team was drawn.

TV commentary made much of the “16 year drought” since the ‘99 World Cup match in women’s soccer, and when the US men’s basketball team placed 3rd in the Seoul Olympics (1988) one might have expected the sky to shatter at any moment – a problem corrected by sending the Dream Team to Barcelona the next round.  When the 3rd place finish repeated in Athens (2004) the response was to send in the Big Guns again in 2008.  We expect the national men’s team to excel, to win, – to crush opponents. We expect the women’s soccer teams to rank in the top five – and we expect to win.

However, we don’t necessarily DO what it takes to expand the talent pool from which we derive these teams.

Penny Wise Pound Foolish

We’ve left some after school programs in general languishing on the vine, both for academic and athletic interests:

“In the Afterschool Alliance’s 2012 survey, although a majority of afterschool program providers revealed that their program’s budget is inadequate to meet the needs of the students and families in their community, this number is even higher among Latino majority programs and African-American majority programs.  Additionally, African-American majority programs and Latino majority programs were more likely to report that their funding is down from three years ago.” [asall]

Not only is funding strained for after school programs but we’re not addressing a crucial factor for African American and Latino youngsters, safe transportation to and from program venues.

“Transportation, safe transport in particular, is a significant hurdle to enrollment in afterschool programs in African-American and Latino communities.  African-American parents and Latino parents were both much more likely to cite that their children did not have a safe way to get to and from afterschool programs as a barrier to enrollment than parents overall.  Additionally, approximately half of African-American and Latino parents of kids not enrolled in an afterschool program indicated that transportation to and from afterschool programs factored into their decision not to enroll their child, compared to less than two-fifths of parents overall.” [asall]

All too often we’re pleased to lecture parents on how their children need more exercise, more academic assistance, more Story Hour, more Anything After School – but we’re obviously not willing to invest in the transportation which would enhance those enrollment figures.   If we drill down to athletic activities, the money issues become ever more evident.  Consider the implications of the following ESPN graphic:

Age entry sports graph The single largest factor in establishing when children start participating in youth activities is whether or not the parents are earning over $100,000 per year.

Here’s another ESPN graphic which sheds a bit more light on the subject.  Whose children are more likely to participate in a variety of after school exercise/athletic activities?

most likely playing on teamsIf you noticed “Suburban/Affluent” across the “most likely groups” and urban/low income across the graphic for “least likely groups,” you’ve gotten the point.

Should we continue to constrict the talent pool to suburban/affluent families, to those families which can afford transportation, to those families which can come up with the cash for equipment and other necessities, then we’ve artificially constrained our own cohort of prospective talent – and yet we still demand that the outcome in world competition be the same – we crush opponents in soccer and basketball.

Was Title IX supposed to fix all this, especially in women’s sports?  The law itself can’t fix the disparity in resources illustrated above.

“Most importantly, Title IX hasn’t managed to extend the enormous social and health benefits of sports to all girls equally. In 2008, a national survey of third- through 12th-graders by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that 75 percent of white girls play sports, compared to less than two-thirds of African-American and Hispanic girls, and about half of Asian girls. And while boys from immigrant families are well-represented in youth sports, less than half of girls from those families are playing.*The gender gap is also worse in urban schools and among kids from low-income families.

These disparities in youth sports persist at the collegiate level. African-American women are underrepresented in all sports except Division I basketball and track and field, and Latinas make up just 4 percent of female athletes in the NCAA. As Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, an Olympic gold medalist in track and field, recently explained to the New York Times, “[I]n the grand scheme of things, Caucasian girls have benefited disproportionately well, especially suburban girls and wealthy Caucasian girls.” [MJ]

The disparities we find in programs for very young children continue through collegiate competition.  And, here we go again – the gap is wider between the affluent suburbs and the urban, less affluent communities of color.

Thank you from a grateful nation….

And here we return to the money question.  If we can expand the talent pools for our national teams, and if we can get more youngsters involved in healthy activities at earlier ages, and if we can get more young girls involved, and if we can get more young girls from less affluent neighborhoods – what happens?

“This year’s (World Cup) tournament featured a generation of American women who have not lived in a world without Title IX and did their jobs elegantly and professionally: They won the game, defeating a longtime rival in Japan; and as they did during the 2012 London Olympics, they won with high-caliber athleticism, class and sports-womanship along the way.

Yet the total payout for the Women’s World Cup this year will be $15 million, compared with the total for the men’s World Cup last year of $576 million, nearly 40 times as much. That also means that the Women’s World Cup payout is less than the reported $24 million to $35 million FIFA spent on its self-aggrandizing fiction film, United Passions.” [Politico]

Yes, and two members of the USWNT were living with Jeff Van Gundy and his family because the salaries paid in the professional leagues make finding accommodations a real problem. [USAT]  The salaries in the US for women players range from a measly $6,000 to $30,000. [STFAnother graph may tell part of the tale:

Air timeAt this juncture we have a Chicken and Egg argument of sorts – do we have to have air time before people get engaged sufficiently to attract more corporate and advertising sponsorship? Or, if we have more corporate and advertising sponsors will the women’s side of the ledger get more public interest? What will crack the egg or chase down the chicken?

“Most of us have been socialized to accept men’s sports as dominant, and somehow automatically more interesting. The problem is that once society has internalized this falsehood — and let’s face it, it’s a falsehood that’s millennia in the making — it’s not so easy to correct it. Women have been fighting for decades, centuries, to be seen as equals to men both on the playing field and off of it.” [BusInsider]

There are some glimmers of hope on the horizon.  EA Sports will include women’s soccer in its products, Fox Sports did a good job of broadcasting this latest World Cup tournament and was rewarded with high ratings for the final game, and advertisers dipped their toes in the water – even Clorox got into the act. Nike sold jerseys, and no doubt other firms will find ways to capitalize on the market.  However, it may not be all sexism and short attention span theater issues, there’s also the problem of longevity.

As long as investors in women’s sports leagues continue to demand immediate returns there will be problems – just as there are with short-termism in other markets such as our financial ones.  Even a league as formidable as the NBA has had its problems – remember the original Denver Nuggets? Few do. Or, the end of the ABA in 1976? Or, the much traveled Hawks from Moline, to Milwaukee, to St. Louis to Atlanta?  Or, the struggles and travels of the Philadelphia Warriors and the Syracuse Nationals?  Obviously,  some patience is required.

Now What?

While it would be nice to have some powerful voice like that of Venus Williams championing more compensation for female athletes, we probably can’t afford to wait for that day.  Instead, if we truly want to see continued top level, world class, performances by our players and teams we need to:

  • Invest in after school activities for young people, and not just those in the affluent suburbs, with attention to such quotidian problems as transportation for the children so they can participate safely.
  • Encourage the development of youth programs, both academic and athletic for urban and rural youngsters, and be willing to staff and maintain these efforts.
  • Encourage and invest in programs for youngsters from ethnic minority groups – leave No Child’s Behind Left on the Couch.  To accomplish this we’ll need to invest in creating safe public spaces for kids to play on safe grounds with adequate and up to date equipment.
  • Get over the idea that a game between East Deer Breath State’s men’s team and the Wolverines of Western Boonie U. will automatically be more interesting than a match between the University of Connecticut and the University of Notre Dame’s women’s basketball teams.  Or, South Carolina? Or, Tennessee? Or, Stanford? Or, UCLA? Or LSU?
  • See some heavy-duty marketing campaigns establishing a positive brand for women’s teams in local and regional areas.
  • Develop some patience – no league (or any other enterprise) will yield immediate returns.

Finally, it will be a fine day when we stop perceiving children as an “expense,” and start visualizing them as “investments.” Every after school activity, every sports team, every youth league, every school extracurricular activity, every neighborhood playground, every city park, every local library is an investment in healthier more productive future citizens.  Yes, kids are expensive – but they’re well worth it.  We have proof of that in the eloquent words of one Venus Williams on June 26, 2006:

“I believe that athletes — especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women — should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message: 128 men and 128 women compete in the singles main draw at Wimbledon; the All England Club is saying that the accomplishments of the 128 women are worth less than those of the 128 men. It diminishes the stature and credibility of such a great event in the eyes of all women.” [Williams]

We can add some stature and credibility to our interest in athletics by adding a few more blows to that glass ceiling, and allowing more youngsters to dream of playing at Wimbledon, at Maples Pavilion, at BC Place, or Madison Square Garden….

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