A recent article by NPR’s Frank Deford has gotten a lot of response from the female athletic community. The article talks about why female team sports leagues are failing and what needs to be done in order to save them. He talks about how female fans need to fill the seats, and to that point, he is right – sort of.
Any increase in fans will help any sport (male or female) gain support. When you however type cast that “women need to be the biggest fans of female sports” is a narrow view of what really needs to be done. If a man and a woman can both enjoy a sport, then it benefits immensely.
The biggest example is MMA’s InvictaFC. It’s an all-female fight organization and has become one of the most successful female sports leagues on the planet. It’s not because they only cater to women, but they cater to fight fans. The audience has more of an even female/male ratio than what you would see in a WNBA or Women’s soccer game.
My response to Mr. DeFord is that it’s about the way the certain female sports are marketed. DeFord mentions that there are certain stars that carry some of the weight in team sports and individual sports such as figure skating and tennis. The same could be said about the rise of Ronda Rousey in MMA. However, a sport can’t bank on only one or two stars.
The leagues themselves need to take a hint from InvictaFC in terms how stars are marketed and how their players are represented. They need to market their players to be athletes first and foremost, versus a women who happens to be an athlete. I was skeptical when InvictaFC was announced last year, as I thought that the media would liken it as a “lesser product” like it does the WNBA. (Not that I felt that these athletes weren’t great – because I knew they were.) Unlike the WNBA and Women’s Pro Soccer, who have taken cues from their male counter parts as an extension of the sport, InvictaFC president Shannon Knapp made the promotion its own entity, not trying to be an off shoot of the UFC. The women aren’t a “special, rare treat” in MMA anymore. They are skilled and talented in their own right, and need no comparison to their male counterparts. This is a radical concept and it works.
Simply put, heads of female sports league need to stop marketing it as a “female extention” of the sport and simply say it’s “a new sports league with exciting athletes.”
Courtesy Ester Lin
These athletes also need to do their part in front of the camera and behind the scenes to inform the media, sponsors, and those in power at the TV networks about their sport. Pro boxer Ana Julaton has been doing so. In a recent interview I conducted with her on JanetTV.com, she stated that major networks are interested in women’s boxing, but they need to be educated in terms on who’s who and the potential star power. The biggest thing an athlete can do for their sport is put their name out there, even if it’s for their local paper or news station. The worst you can hear is no. If so, find another outlet and try them again later.
Most important thing female athletes need to remember is that they are all in this together. MMA is a prime example of this as women, as much as they are competitors inside the cage, are united in making the sport successful. From helping other fighters train to helping and encouraging the next generation of fighters, they are ensuring the sport is strong for now and the future.
In terms of how they are marketed, it’s can’t be all about sex. However, to deny the use of it in women’s sport would be foolish. There needs to be a delicate balance between being perceived as an athlete and a sex symbol. Rousey is doing a great job of balancing both, being able to indulge the male audience while not alienating the female fans. Plus she is a world class athlete, so her talent could easily stand on its own. Female athletes need to be reminded that skill has to be number one on the list and you can’t coast on looks. See tennis player Anna Kournikova and Olympian Leryn Franco.
With women’s participation in sports increasing, there will be inherent growth in support the women’s sport all around. To gain main stream acceptance, female sports leagues and athletes need to change their mindsets.