Prime-Time Players: Women Are Competing as Hard as Men, but Are They Hard-Time Consumers?

By Kaufman, Leslie; Gegax, T. Trent | Newsweek, February 10, 1997 | Go to article overview

Prime-Time Players: Women Are Competing as Hard as Men, but Are They Hard-Time Consumers?


Kaufman, Leslie, Gegax, T. Trent, Newsweek


Women are competing as hard as men, but are they hard-core consumers?

WITH BARELY FIVE MINUTES left in the game and her team trailing by 14 points, Columbus Quest guard Shannon (Pee Wee) Johnson rebounds, shoots in midair, scores and is knocked to the hardwood by an Atlanta Glory defender. The 2,400 fans at Battelle Hall in downtown Columbus, Ohio, go wild-and then howl in disgust when the referee fails to call a foul. The Quest will go on to lose 99-77, but the mostly femme crowd-many wearing Quest jerseys-is still exhilarated by the estrogen-charged atmosphere of the new women's American Basketball League. Here there are ban girls, a female ref and announcer, and players who chest-butt each other after the great plays. When a Glory player fouls out toward the end of the game, the PA system booms: "Oh, see ya." The fans scream in glee: "Bye-bye?

From basketball and biking to snowboarding and fast-pitch softball, women are playing and watching sports as never before. They are a vast new market in the sports-crazy United States, and in the coming months corporate America win mount an unprecedented effort to tap them. But how do you reach women jocks? Just because a woman goes mountain biking on weekends, does that mean she wants to read athlete profiles in one of the slew of new sports magazines soon to be published? Or will females be interested in watching sister athletes' techniques being dissected on dozens of new TV sports programs devoted to them? Because little girls are sporting the telltale cornrows of NCAA basketball star Rebecca Lobo, will they be faithful enough fans to support one of the two new women's professional leagues? All these ventures are huge gambles (another athletic tradition). "Is there a body of women interested enough in sports to support an this?" asks Donald Elliman, president of Sports Illustrated, which will also be wooing female consumers. "No one knows."

The backers of these businesses have one thing right: for the first time in American history there is a critical mass of sports-minded women. When Congress passed Title IX of the Civil Rights Act in 1972, prohibiting schools from discriminating by gender in sports, money for scholarships, coaching and equipment began flowing toward women's athletics. The effect has been stunning: the ratio of high-school girls on teams has risen from 1 in 27 then to 1 in $ today. The first wave of "Title IX babies" demonstrated their might during the 1996 Summer Olympics. And women didn't just deliver gold on the field; a 40 percent increase in female viewers age 18-34 powered NBC to record ratings.

But fans who tune in for just the big events won't be enough to keep these ventures afloat; women will have to eat, drink and breathe sports like, well, men. Consider that four different attempts to found a women's basketball league have been made in the last two decades-and failed. True, the WNBA, which will debut this June, already boasts television contracts with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime. …

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