Part 2: Baseball skirts and Centrefolds
Commercially speaking, women’s sports are largely about men’s sexual fantasies. While men watch a lot more sports than women in general, there is data to suggest that women are more likely than men to attend a WNBA game, and also that television viewership for ‘the’ pro women’s league is close to 50/50. For most sports the viewership ratio is more like 67/33. The WNBA consistently loses money, and has to be supported by the male league, despite the fact that the highest salary in the WNBA is 1/255th that of the equivalent male hoops star salary (in other words ‘league costs’ are lower).
What does make money, and sometimes can relate to women in sports, is sex. The names of the highest grossing female athletes can be rolled off the tongue of the average ESPN clicker, including Anna Kournikova, who’s 3.6 million in career winnings contribute to her 50 million net worth, but not Stefi Graf, who’s 21.9 million in WTA earnings represent most of her 30 million net worth. In case the point is not clear: you can buy a swimsuit calendar of one but not the other. The ranks of the richest include a lot of people like Kournikova, Katarinna Wit, and Danica Patrick. To sum up; the best women athletes only make it into the ranks of the best paid if they have appeared in ‘suggestive’ ads or playboy.
In hockey their are two examples of female professionals: Manon Rheume and Haley Wickenheiser. The former went the route of sensation, but avoided overt sexualization, while the latter played in one of the most competitive leagues in the world and at least in some sense seemed to fit in. Manon Rheume was generally acknowledged not to be a big league prospect in any sense while she was playing in a couple of exhibition games for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team then as now in financial disarray. Mrs. Rheume now runs a foundation named after herself supporting girl’s sporting ambitions. There are a couple of relatively racy pictures of her on the internet, but relative to the big earners of women’s sport, the hockey pros come across as quite modest.
Baseball’s foray into female professionalism began during WWII, and lasted a decade. Women dressed in skirts played for money and played to an average of almost 1700 paying fans, just like the Marlins. The AAGL played modified softball to begin with, and then shifted the ball and other rules towards baseball gradually. It folded in 1954 after several years of declining revenues in a different social environment post-war. The extent to which this league generated interest in ball amongst women and girls is difficult to assess, but as of 2004, fast-pitch softball was less popular by participation amongst high-school women than basketball, track and field, and volleyball. We will return in the final installment to check in on the non-professional development of women’s soft and hardball.
For our present purposes the above survey is sufficient. Women’s sport primarily makes money as a platform from which to use sex to advertise. Would Kournikova have made 350 million in total if she had the same tournament earnings as Graf? Of course not, the tennis has almost nothing to do with it. None of this is should be shocking or even particularly new to sports fans, but the conclusions I would draw from it are probably new to many.
Because women’s team sports do not occasion sex symbols, they do not generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining. Therefore they should not exist as a commercial product. Because the profit from women’s participation in individual sports is so heavily tied to sex, promoting those sports promotes sexual objectification and inequality. Those who support women in sport, therefore, should discourage and ignore women’s pro sports, in general, if not altogether.
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