Playing for Keeps

Women Step It Up At the Pro Level

Southwest Missouri State superstar Jackie Stiles expressed one teary-eyed request after being shut down by Purdue in the NCAA Final Four last month: "Please, someone in the WNBA take me, so this doesn't have to be my last game." The 5-8, all-time scoring leader in women's college basketball needn't worry, of course. She's sure to be whisked right into the league during Friday's draft. But her remark speaks volumes about the sea change that has taken place in pro women's sports in just a few years.

Stiles is from the first generation of athletes who hit the courts in their freshman year of college with the full knowledge that a professional women's league stood ready to welcome them on the other side of graduation. True, Stiles also said that she couldn't imagine actually being paid to play basketball, and the dream-come-true sentiments of practically any player on a WNBA roster remains the most palpable feeling around the league. Still, as the WNBA gets ready for its fifth-year tip-off, the Women's Professional Softball League (WPSL) launches a barnstorming tour to rev up fan support, and the WUSA debuts to more than 34,000 fans with a hyped-up matchup between Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, there's no question that women's team sports have claimed their rightful place in the pro landscape.

Indeed, except among reactionary groups that seek to overturn Title IX, the idea that women have as much right to athletic opportunity as men has become as mainstream as SUVs, superstores, and soccer moms. Trouble is, in a culture that has less and less regard for anything that doesn't make plenty of profit—witness the obliteration of arts budgets, nonprofit health care systems, and even college sports that don't bring in revenue—recognizing a right hardly translates into delivering on it. As the great media critic A.J. Liebling once remarked, a free press belongs to those who can afford to own one. Several decades later, during which we've turned more and more into a dictatorship of the mass market, his comment applies to practically every area of American life. The right of female athletes to pursue the same sorts of opportunities men have long enjoyed belongs to those who can leverage big financing, mega-marketing, and fat television contracts.

That's hardly to say that there aren't other paradigms out there that have been providing a handsome living to athletes in a range of pro and semipro sports. Elite beach-volleyball players garner plenty of sponsorships and compete for sizable purses—the top players make more than $100,000 a year in prize money alone. Ditto for bowlers. And high-ranking surfers, billiard players, and extreme sports competitors, among athletes in a dozen other sports, don't need day jobs either. Meanwhile, the pioneers of women's pro athletics, the Ladies Professional Golf Association and the Women's Tennis Association, have produced increasingly lucrative earnings for their players (even if they typically trail those of their male counterparts). The WTA, for instance, is a nonprofit organization, explains Chief Operating Officer Josh Ripple, co-owned by a group of constituents: players, individual tournament producers, and the International Tennis Federation. The system allows each tournament to operate without assuming any of the risk of the overall tour, says Ripple, while also giving players significant representation in decisions about operations and purse sizes.

But team sports, unlike individual sports, require that each team be grounded in a particular community, and that alone raises the costs, and the stakes, league operators say. Both are so high that the possibility of some kind of mid-range, mom-and-pop-style league has about as much chance of making it amid the glut of perpetually advertised entertainments as the old corner coffee shop has of surviving the onslaught of Starbucks.

That's one reason that plans for pro women's ice hockey remain stalled. (And it's one of a thousand reasons that the three under-capitalized, inchoate women's pro football leagues continue to founder.) "It's an all-or-nothing sort of situation," bemoans Olympic gold medalist Sue Merz, 29, who played on boys' teams growing up in Connecticut and just helped carry the U.S. to a second-place finish in the Women's World Hockey Championship last week. "If I were a guy, I'd be making a million bucks right now. But I'm not gonna bang my head against the wall about it," she says, noting that the fan base just isn't there for women's hockey yet. "The regular average Joe doesn't get it. He likes to see the hitting and fighting in hockey, or to watch basketball players slam dunk all day. He's less interested in the passing, the defense, and the other intricacies of the sport."

Indeed, while the WNBA started out expecting a large portion of its customers to come from NBA season-ticket holders, they have found, instead, that some 70 percent of the fans are family units who don't travel to the arenas in the winter, while only 10 percent of the NBA regulars stay on during the summer. "We need to focus this year on going out to the grassroots and appealing to our core audience, which is families," says WNBA chief operating officer Paula Hanson, explaining how the league will make up last year's dip in attendance of around 10 percent (a phenomenon that is even worse in men's sports these days—note the abysmal turnouts around the country for baseball's opening week).

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