Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
When you’re a fan of women’s sports, it’s very hard not to take every news item about new investments and TV deals for start-up men’s leagues as a personal affront.
The state of the WNBA’s finances are basically the first thing the general public (thinks it) knows about it; historically, the reluctance to put money into women’s professional sports has doomed them. More broadly, the idea that women athletes have significant earning potential, and that their leagues might be a worthwhile investment on purely practical terms and not just vaguely righteous ones, is only accepted by those on the outskirts of the sports zeitgeist. That idea is only sporadically received even as valid; more often, it is understood as a militant confrontation of the sports market’s status quo — one that provokes instant defensiveness and a litany of poor counterarguments.
In that light, it is hard not to feel militant as a women’s sports fan when you hear news about the USFL and XFL — two leagues that already failed once to compete with the omnipotent NFL — receiving boatloads of cash and airtime, or about the millions and millions of dollars being poured into a new domestic cricket league.
A “new” idea for a men’s professional league (or just another opportunity for them to play football) is developed, and the big wallets fly open; giant checks are written before the end of the pitch. Genuinely unprecedented opportunities for women to play sports professionally are proposed and it’s an uphill battle every step of the way. Rich people and companies hem and haw about returns on investment and visibility and all the potential challenges while doling out money to leagues that not only are not profitable, but have literally already failed. That is how tilted the scales are, and it is infuriating.
For me, the area in which this is most frustrating is softball — a sport that has perpetually struggled to gain a foothold at the professional level (although thankfully Athletes Unlimited is working to change that), and is still more or less ignored (by media) at the college level in spite of an objectively substantial and consistent fanbase. I went to the Women’s College World Series last year, and the crowd was absurd. The lines at every vendor were dozens of people long, and it was almost impossible to navigate — never mind that most tickets were already hundreds of dollars even a couple months out.
It has outgrown its origins, and that’s awesome — a signal that ESPN and its advertisers might heed. Considering the almost complete lack of promotion, and the fact that regular season softball games are almost never on ESPN, the ratings are impressive. 620,000 people watched the most popular regular season game of the season this year, between UCLA and Florida State (it says something, too, that the most watched game didn’t even include Oklahoma). Last year’s Women’s College World Series was the most-watched ever, averaging over a million viewers through 17(!) games.
I cannot stress this enough: this is with almost no promotion. The vast majority of softball coverage comes from a couple great independent entities that, nevertheless, serve a mostly softball-specific community. Imagine what the sport could look like with a modicum of effort, or even some kind of professional scheme partnering with minor league baseball teams — the infrastructure and the fans are already there. Americans already know how softball works, and they already like going to baseball/softball games and having a beer. All it would take is someone with a little bit of power to observe the obvious.
You can start to have the feeling of a street-corner evangelizer when you really believe in women’s sports. “They are fantastic to watch — impressive, fun, dynamic, and exciting,” you find yourself shouting over and over to anyone who will listen. None of the people with money and power ever seem to, which is of course also true in many realms more important than sports. But I watch softball, and I talk to other people who watch softball, and I keep shouting.