Editor’s Note: Skye Merida is a recent graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, where he was a sports reporter, a radio host and a producer. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an avid fan of sports: football, soccer, hockey and especially basketball. So, you can imagine how excited I was when I recently found myself face-to-face with a league MVP at an ESPN event in Los Angeles.
The top-tier athlete whose hand I was thrilled to shake was Breanna Stewart, the Seattle Storm forward whose uniquely skilled combination of scoring and rebounding earned her the WNBA’s top individual honor.
I know I’m not typical. Few of the male basketball fans I know would be as excited to meet Stewie as they would be to shake hands with LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Of course, female athletes and fans are more than capable of making their own case for women’s sports. But as a passionate young male sports fan, I believe women’s athletics deserves to be taken more seriously, especially by men.
At 23, I’m the rare black man (in my experience) who avidly watches women’s soccer, softball and basketball on TV. Too often, I find myself hyping the performance of a female athlete or team on the all-male sports texting thread I belong to and suddenly realize that most guys in this group of highly opinionated sports junkies just aren’t responding.
I can’t really say I’m surprised. I, too, used to be disengaged when it came to women’s athletics. Before my freshman year in high school in 2010, I had no idea how riveting women’s sports could be. But I was excited that both my school’s men’s and women’s soccer teams were competing in the conference semifinals. The girls’ game was first. I was immediately impressed by the fast-paced action and players’ skill and intensity. The game was tied when my friend Mari blocked a perfectly placed shot that kept her team’s season alive. I was hooked.
I think the main reason I’m a fan of women’s athletics is simple: I love sports so much that I don’t really care who’s playing – as long as they’re playing well. In basketball, screens, cuts and bounce passes are more exact and fluid overall in the women’s game than they are in the NBA; you’ll routinely see much better ball movement in the women’s game than you will in the men’s.
Too many men dismiss women’s sports by saying they aren’t as “athletic” as men’s. If Candace Parker can’t dunk like LeBron, why watch? If Alex Morgan can’t dash across the field as fast as Messi, why bother? But sports is so much more than just athleticism. It’s also skill, finesse, will, IQ, intensity, competitiveness, determination and sportsmanship – all of which female athletes possess at least as much as male players.
If you doubt that the “athleticism is everything” thinking is limited and uninformed, don’t take my word for it. Ask the male professional athletes who regularly watch and cheer for their female counterparts. In the NBA, major stars like LeBron, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, Devin Booker and others make a point to follow and praise WNBA players.
Frankly, a lot of people don’t know what they’re missing: unforgettable moments, like Arike Ogunbowale hitting back-to-back game-winners in the Final Four to win the National Championship for Notre Dame, 15-year-old Coco Gauff knocking out Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Speaking of missing out, media outlets may be losing potential viewers by ignoring women’s sports. According to Nielsen research cited by the LPGA in the Sports Business Journal, nearly 85% of general sports fans in their largest sports markets say they’re interested in women’s sports – yet only 4% of sports media coverage reportedly is about women’s sports. Also, it’s extremely difficult for female athletes to get the salaries they deserve without being given the platform and opportunity to bring in more revenue.
Remembering how electrifying that high school soccer game was, I asked Mari how she thinks female athletes are perceived. She came back with FIFA’s “incredibly patronizing” motto for the Women’s World Cup – “Dare To Shine.”
“Becky Sauerbrunn split her head open when she collided with a Dutch player for a header,” Mari explained. Sauerbrunn wiped the blood off her face and ran back on the field. “That’s not ‘shining,’” Mari said. “It’s ferocity and determination.”
My former classmate is especially insulted by the fact that female athletes and teams whose achievements exceed their male counterparts’ are paid far less. While initially their response to the women’s efforts for pay equity was essentially “no comment,” it seems the US men now agree with my friend. This week, the men’s side released a statement saying that they “stand with the members of the world champion Women’s National Team in their pursuit of fair compensation for their work” and “were not impressed” with a letter from the US Soccer Federation president about the issue.
When it comes to appreciation of women’s sports, the landscape among fans may also be shifting, thanks to the impact of the US women’s soccer team’s historic win.
During this year’s World Cup run, I noticed feedback and commentary from friends who usually are silent about women’s sports. During the final game, my entire all-male sports thread was tuned in, along with nearly 16 million viewers who watched US national coverage. It’s no surprise that team captain Megan Rapinoe just signed to write two semi-autobiographical books, one for adults and one for youngsters. Her team’s popularity is having a hugely positive effect on the National Women’s Soccer League this season. The Chicago Red Stars, currently ranked third in the league, had an astonishing 17,388 people at one of their recent games. This is seismic, as the team averaged just 4,368 people per game last season. Other female soccer teams are experiencing similar spikes in attendance, and it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence.
While I can only hope that this newfound appreciation will spread to other women’s sports, I’m convinced that it proves my point.
So, if you’re one of those guys who hasn’t been interested in women’s athletics, it’s time to reconsider.