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U.S.: Business Discovers Women's Team Sports

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Wash; 24 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - A social revolution has been quietly transforming the face of sport in the United States.

This revolution began 25 years ago with passage of an amendment to the nation's civil-rights law barring discrimination by sex in any program that receives funds from the federal government.

This ban against "gender discrimination" had its first major impact on public schools. While publicly financed schools are, in the United States, controlled by locally elected school boards and largely financed by local taxpayers, most also receive national funding for certain educational programs. While scholastic athletic programs were not necessarily federally funded, the "equal opportunity" thrust of the new amendment applied to them if the school received federal educational aid. Almost immediately, the sports horizon of school girls began widening.

Two years before passage of the amendment, in 1970, a total of 27 girls played on a secondary-school sports teams. A generation later, according to the Women's Sports Federation, every third school-girl plays a competitive team sport. This includes such previously "male" games as volley ball and basketball and also ice hockey, and football, or soccer as it is called in the United States.

Attendance at women's collegiate team sports has nearly quadrupled in less than 15 years -- from a little over a million people in 1982 to more than 4 million last year.

But that was only team sports for fun -- with female athletes playing the game as unpaid amateurs. Few people, it was thought, would pay to watch a women's sports team play. Three failed attempts at forming professional women's basketball leagues seemed to prove that.

Then came last year's Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The Atlanta Olympics cast American women's team sports in an entirely new light. The U.S. teams captured the enthusiasm of American sports fans who watched, fascinated, the women's hard-fought, gold-medal action in Olympic basketball and volleyball.

Concludes a suvey by Manhattan-based "Business Week": "Expanded collegiate sports programs for women have helped create a pumped-up new generation of athletes -- and fans. And with the stunning success of American women athletes at last year's Summer Olympics, the outlook for commercial success in women's team sports has never been brighter."

Since then, four new women's professional leagues have formed, including two in basketball. This time the leagues have corporate financial support behind them, from such major companies as Nike (the Oregon-based sport-shoe leader), Anheuser-Busch (the nation's largest brewer), AT&T (the telecommunications giant) and McDonald's. These corporate sponsors have pledged millions of dollars to help start the new leagues. And they have done so because they believe their sponsorship will eventually make them money.

The sponsors reason that the increased participation of women in team sports translates into a big new market, not only for sports equipment and sports-related products aimed at women, but also for the goods and services provided by the companies that show their support for the new leagues.

And what of the future?

Women's ice hockey has already become, says "Business Week," one of the fastest growing sports in North America (including Canada). USA Hockey, the sport's governing body in the United States, says the number of female players registered with it has grown from fewer than 6,000 five years ago to nearly 21,000 today. And another 25,000 women are playing on teams across Canada.

Women's ice hockey will make its debut as an Olympic sport at next year's Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Says a member of the U.S. team, Cammi Granato: "We're introducing a sport to people who don't know it exists. We have a chance to show them a pure form of ice hockey without all the blood" of the men's version. And, Granato adds, "seeing us will teach little girls not to accept other people's limits."

Therein lies the spirit and the real significance of the social revolution unleashed by that 1972 amendment to the nation's civil-rights law.