At the professional level, much of the popularity of women’s sports, Ashman says, is tied primarily to the success of a player or a team, like Serena Williams or American women’s soccer. But where and when games or matches are televised is also important. “You’re not going to drive demand if you keep burying women’s sport in all of your programming,” he adds. “If more pressure [were] put on networks like ESPN to give women’s sports better time slots and more coverage, you could increase demand, although demand for women’s sports is unlikely to reach comparable levels of demand for most male sports.
At least for now, female professional athletes in sports other than football might have to look elsewhere. Of the nine players on Eckerd’s women’s basketball team, seven are international students. Although a career in the WNBA is unlikely for most of them, they have an option in the European women’s leagues. “Players are paid more in Europe,” says Ashman, “because there is more interest in Europe.”
And a chance to extend a basketball career. Nicole Scales, a junior international business student from Park Ridge, Ill., and guard for the Eckerd College women’s basketball team, said she was considering playing overseas. “It’s something I think about because there are a ton of leagues out there and a lot more opportunities,” she said. “A big part of me wants to spend time abroad just to get that experience.”
At least part of the path to a fairer level playing field, says Nicole, involves perception. “I think there’s a movement going on now, and a lot of people are speaking out. We are big defenders of the men’s team here. It’s not an Eckerd problem. This is a national and global problem: the perception that women’s sports are less entertaining. When people come to an Eckerd women’s game, they always say how fun it is to watch and how hard we play and how much fun we have doing it.
“It’s not just who can do this or that. There is more than that. It’s the camaraderie that women bring, and just the fun. Once people come to the games, they understand.