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Volume 23 No. 8
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New ‘campuses’ would prioritize female athletes

If you look at athletic schedules, you’ll probably see a pattern: Boys’ and men’s teams get the most popular time slots. Meanwhile, girls’ and women’s teams often practice and play at earlier, less desirable hours. One more thing you might notice: At the college level, it’s not uncommon for women’s teams to play and practice in smaller, older facilities. Meanwhile, the men get bigger, newer, better equipped facilities. At the pro level, women’s teams often struggle to find homes that fit their fan bases and their budgets.

“In most contexts, whether it’s high school, college or professional, girls and women are typically perceived as second-class citizens,” said Nicole LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

When men’s sports are the priority, it sends a damaging message. And that message perpetuates the culture, system and larger narrative around women’s sports: They’re less important, less worthy of your time and investment. All of this is familiar territory. It happens with the many inequalities in women’s sports, whether you’re talking pay or broadcast schedules or game times or facilities.

What can be done about it? Similar to activist investors, can activist women’s sports fans come together and create change? There’s a group in Greater Boston that thinks so. They may be on to something. 

The group is called Sports for Women. The group’s goal is ambitious: Create a national network of sports campuses purposely built for women’s teams and players. The state-of-the-art facilities will make female athletes the priority. The athletic facilities will be available to athletes of all levels from recreational to high school to college to pro. The planned centerpiece of each campus is a stadium designed to best accommodate women’s pro sports teams.

The idea for Sports for Women was inspired by the downfall of the Boston Breakers. The women’s pro soccer team folded in early 2018, in part because it struggled to find a stadium that was the right size and the right price. Kate Painter, the founder and CEO of Sports for Women, was a Breakers fan. Frustrated by what happened with the team, she wanted to do more than mourn its disappearance.

Painter has created a small leadership group and an advisory board that includes business and sports executives. The group has lined up supporters, too, ranging from women’s pro leagues to a Boston-area car service. The leaders are looking for 100 or more acres of land where they can build the New England campus. They see the multipurpose campuses generating revenue by charging teams to play, practice and take classes there. 

“What we see with this campus is an opportunity to potentially build something that derives revenue and creates a sports economy for women,” Painter said. “The whole point is to take that revenue and put it back into women’s sports directly, rather than filter it through someone else who’s driving the bus. We’ve got to drive our own bus. We need to build a different sports economic model for women.”

Sports for Women is ambitious. It’s also very early in the concept building process, never mind the actual building process. It’s too early to judge the group’s business plan. But what about the potential impact of its big idea and its big-swing approach?

Facility-related issues in women’s sports are symptoms of a larger cultural and systemic problem. Can you change the system by going after the symptoms and chipping away? LaVoi understandably voiced caution about the plans on those grounds.

“The real root of the problem is that sport has been constructed for men, by men, and run by men,” LaVoi said. “Until we address that systemic problem, we could have a lot of great ideas, but they’re not going to get any traction because the system is set up for us to fail.”

That’s frustratingly true. But it shouldn’t stop groups from trying different cures. If Sports for Women or any other organization wants to try, then more power to them. Raising awareness, finding a platform, bringing more people into the conversation and creating women-first optics are always important steps toward change. Potentially, Sports for Women can do all that. 

There are some good examples where symptom-based strategies make an impression, if not a small impact on the larger culture. Think about athletic apparel companies focused exclusively on female athletes (Oiselle) or organizations that work for more fan support of women’s teams (SheIS) or sports organizations that equally promote women’s teams under the same ownership (Portland Thorns). 

Imagine, maybe a decade from now, a dozen campuses dedicated to women’s sports with a variety of fields and state-of-the-art equipment. The optics alone would be powerful. Then, there’s the potential impact on the field and on revenue. It’s a simple equation: More and better facilities for female athletes lead to more and better training opportunities lead to better athletes lead to better competition lead to a bigger draw for teams and fans lead to more revenue generated.

Shorter term, it’s important to recognize the driving force behind Sports for Women. The activist fan, not just the activist athlete, may be the way of the future. Sure, not every fan has the time and resources to start an organization. But the more people coming up with different ideas, trying different tacks, the better.

That’s particularly true when it comes to loyal women’s sports fans who are as much on the front lines as the athletes. Or, at least, they should be.

Shira Springer (saspring@bu.edu) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com