When it was enacted on June 23, 1972, Title IX was the greatest thing ever to happen to girls’ and women’s sports in America.
The law, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance, was meant to ensure that American girls would enjoy the same opportunities in school sports as boys. Even though it was inconsistently applied and many have pointed out racial disparities in its enforcement, by several measures, it worked: It transformed the United States into an unrivaled incubator of female athletic talent. At the Olympics, American women now consistently claim enough medals on their own to top most nations. The law has also been life-changing for generations of American women even off the sports field. One survey found that more than nine in 10 female C-suite executives were athletes in school.
But in some ways, Title IX was a Pyrrhic victory. For all its successes, the groundbreaking legislation has failed to allow girls and women to excel on terms independent of boys and men. Like so much in our culture, sports are still based on a male model — a man’s body, a man’s interests. Current models of success in mainstream sport leave women competing on standards that exclude us, where in most cases we are not set up to thrive.
Fifty years after Title IX’s enactment, we have an opportunity to reimagine women’s sports altogether. If we accept that women’s bodies are not holistically inferior to men’s but rather fundamentally different, we have to value female athletes and women’s sports on their own terms.
What would this look like? I propose a New Deal for women’s sports — with a women-first approach. This must go beyond creating entitlements and enforcing parity, as Title IX does. We must dismantle the grandfathered-in systemic advantages that male athletes and male-dominated sports infrastructures continue to enjoy. We must cultivate tastes for other sports, the ones that women excel in and even dominate. And we must broaden our definition of what athletic prowess looks like.
A New Deal for women’s sports would bring more women into leadership roles — in coaching, management and media. It would expand investment in women’s sports categorically. It would increase athletic and other brand endorsement opportunities. It would transform the broadcasting and coverage of women’s sports, elevating female sports journalists and improving the quantity and quality of reporting on women’s sports. Women’s sports would be built for women, with athletic feats that suit our bodies.
Men’s bodies are different from women’s; men are generally bigger, faster and stronger. And currently, the sports that make the most money and see the largest audiences in the United States are suited to a male body’s physical strengths: football tackles, basketball dunks. Sports built for women’s bodies would be different. Compared with men, women have superior flexibility and resilience. Women excel at enduring.
So let’s start with a paradigm shift. The reason a slam dunk is better than a triple axel or a home run is more thrilling than a sprint at the end of a mile comes down to one thing: Our culture has told us so. Women’s sports have only a fraction of the overall viewership and revenue of men’s sports, but men’s sports are not inherently more exciting or fun to watch than women’s are. The joy or beauty of one sport or another is subjective, not an objective truth.
In 2017 more than a third of Americans said football was their favorite sport to watch, for example, and each fall, Americans glue themselves to their screens to watch it. But is the male-dominated sport of football really that much more compelling than the less gendered game of soccer? That’s a sport the rest of the world seems to enjoy much more than Americans do, and it’s one in which American professional women’s teams win more on the international stage than our men’s teams.
Part of the problem is the way we think about sports is a vestige of our fixation on nationalism and military strength — spheres that men also have dominated. Traditional American public school physical education, with the pull-ups and push-ups of the Presidential Fitness Test, began amid Cold War fears that we were not producing enough combat-ready American men. The sports events we stage today continue to pantomime militarism and war — complete with societally enforced adherence to prescribed behavior during the national anthem. Our sports showcase our strength, and Americans generally see strength as a male trait.
The few women who do penetrate bastions of male athletic power are lavishly praised. The college football and soccer player Sarah Fuller, for example, gained far more attention by kicking for Vanderbilt’s winless men’s team and becoming the first woman to play and score in a Power 5 football game than she did for being a goalie on Vanderbilt’s conference-winning women’s soccer team. I worry that these purported success stories are really distractions. The reason these women capture our attention is that they are exceptions, not scalable models.
When Fuller took to the field to kick for the football team, her helmet was triumphantly inscribed, “Play like a girl.” It was an inspiring moment, but it didn’t last long. She was invited to play because the team was out of options: The school doesn’t have a Division I men’s soccer team to draw from, and coronavirus restrictions had left the football team without a man to do the job. After two games with Fuller, it was back to normal.
If the male athletic ecosystem is the only arena that matters, women are all but set up to fail, and their achievements in female-dominated arenas are trivialized. Sports don’t just reflect our culture and its biases; they reaffirm it. Is this really what we want “playing like a girl” to mean?
Meanwhile, many sports in which women excel on their own terms — gymnastics, distance running, skiing — draw large audiences when they are broadcast at international competitions such as the Olympics, but their stars generally lack the opportunities for gigantic league salaries or lucrative brand sponsorships that male athletes have. The tennis star Naomi Osaka is the world’s top-paid female athlete, but she has 18 men ahead of her. Serena Williams comes in at No. 31.
When American women triumph over women from other countries, interestingly, the link between sports and nationalism gives women an edge. News outlets cover them resoundingly as bringers of glory to our country. Women’s soccer accounted for more than a quarter of women’s sports coverage in 2019, the year that the US women’s soccer team won the World Cup, according to one study. Those bursts in coverage historically have not translated to increased coverage of women’s sports overall. It seems women need to be the best in the world to warrant coverage by our national media.
As in the rest of society, women are traditionally valued in sports such as gymnastics and figure skating that often encourage them to make themselves smaller, whereas men are embraced for making themselves bigger to play football or basketball. Athletic girls are still subjected to harmful practices such as enforced weight loss, high-tech body fat scans and regimented diets so inadequate that they can damage girls’ bodies. And even as they empower, girls’ and women’s sports remain rife with abuse. For female athletes, sports can make adolescence less a rite than a gantlet. And the scars are slow to fade.
In a world where women’s sports were valued on their own terms, training would be informed instead by a science-driven understanding of what physical fitness for women really means — with an understanding that healthy women’s bodies naturally retain more fat than men’s and that women’s long-term performance and health is contingent on their doing so. Historically, the study of women’s athleticism has been neglected; it is often tacked onto research that is largely conducted by men and largely concerns men.
Extreme dieting would be actively discouraged in female athletes instead of being praised as hard work, as it still sometimes is. Athletes would value regular menstrual cycles as vital to their physical health and performance. As women age, pregnancy would not be viewed as a career ender but rather as a natural break that, with proper support, enables women to achieve the full arc of their athletic careers, not to mention live full human lives.
But more important than the sports themselves is our willingness to see women’s sports as opportunities for investment in their own right, not simply as derivative activities tacked on for equality’s sake.
That starts with rethinking leadership in sports. Ironically, while Title IX naturally boosted women’s participation as players, it sidelined them as coaches. Before Title IX, women made up more than 90 percent of head coaches on women’s college teams. Afterward, when money was pumped into women’s college sports administration, as required under Title IX rules, men took many of these now high-paying jobs, created under the auspices of a law that was meant to empower women — and by 2019, only 42 percent of Division I head coaches for women’s teams were women. Men also, of course, coach almost all men’s sports teams.
But hiring and retaining female coaches isn’t as easy as recruiting and paying them more (although those things wouldn’t hurt). Currently, the coaching model is not built to accommodate pregnancy, child care or family responsibilities, leading many women to drop out when they want to start a family — at the very point when men are often promoted into higher level coaching positions. As in many workplaces, female coaches also face double standards as leaders; what’s viewed as tough but fair coaching in a man can be viewed as more problematic behavior in a woman.
A women-first approach to coaching and team administration would build in flexibility and benefits for parents and include recruitment of women at every level of the coaching pipeline, from the most junior positions to head coach posts.
One crucial thing that would be totally different in a women-first sports model would be broadcasting and coverage of women’s sports: how much they’re shown on TV, as well as how we talk about female athletes in the media. Currently most sports journalists, team owners and TV industry executives are men; they make lucrative broadcast deals for the sports they enjoy, the athletes they feature and themselves. Much of this has to do with outdated business models, which also overwhelmingly favor men.
Take baseball, a male-dominated sport that, as Matthew Walther wrote recently, for more than a decade has been treading a steady path toward obsolescence. From 1975 to 2021, the World Series audience has decreased by two-thirds, from 36 million viewers per game to 12 million, on average. But cable television has helped to ensure that salaries for many of the men who play in the league remain generous, as the game has been bundled into cable packages among an array of other channels. These deals amount to self-fulfilling prophecies of audience interest — or even, arguably, subsidies. Simply put, we watch this fading sport because it’s what’s on television. No matter how dazzling its players are, a women’s league like the WNBA will never get ahead as long as men have better established airtime deals.
In a 2021 paper, researchers reviewed 30 years of sports coverage on televised news and highlights shows and found that 80 percent omitted women’s sports. In 2019, 95 percent of the sports coverage they studied focused on men. In one segment from that year that covered the WNBA, more airtime was given to a hot dog eating contest. “Mainstream sports media works to actively build and maintain audience knowledge, interest and excitement for these men’s sports,” the study authors wrote. One of the authors put it bluntly: “Our analysis shows men’s sports are the appetizer, the main course and the dessert, and if there’s any mention of women’s sports, it comes across as begrudging ‘eat your vegetables’ without the kind of bells and whistles and excitement with which they describe men’s sports and athletes.”
There are bright spots that provide glimpses of what a female-first model of sports promotion could look like — less “eat your vegetables” than a bona fide feast. In what’s been called the Suni Effect, college gymnastics is enjoying a moment of fan appeal, driven by the Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Sunisa Lee, who is a freshman at Auburn University. Her school said it sold out every regular meet this season, and even as online ticket prices increased, more tickets to gymnastics meets were sold on the secondary market than for the university’s men’s basketball games.
This didn’t happen by accident — it took a TV network, in this case, the SEC network, which televised meets — and it took coaches who understood that to build an audience for women’s sports, they needed to rewrite the rules. That meant prioritizing two things: entertainment (gymnastics are a phenomenal show!) and community (it’s not every school that can count an Olympic gold medalist as one of its own). Now at meets, the stands are full of women screaming their heads off, as well as many men.
Women are driving much of this work themselves: In a recent panel discussion, the South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley told me that years ago, after she started coaching college basketball in South Carolina, the school told her they wanted to sell tickets to her games for only a dollar, showing how low its expectations were for turnout and profit. “I said, no, we’re not going to cheapen our product,” she recalled. She realized that cultivating a fan base would be crucial to her team’s success and to proving to her school it was worth investing in.
But she had no structural advantage to rely on; she would have to do it herself. She worked with her team to build direct relationships with fans, through events, meet and greets, social media. In turn, those fans rewarded the team with steadfast loyalty and support. “We are revenue producing,” she said. Now Staley has the largest turnout of any women’s college basketball team in the country — and is the first Black coach, male or female, to be a multiple NCAA champion.
But this success has yet to translate into the money that men’s leagues enjoy, once again at least in part because of bureaucratic legacies in broadcasting rights. That could change: Once current broadcasting deals expire in a few years, the women’s tournament could be worth more than $100 million a year in broadcast rights alone, according to a gender equity review of NCAA basketball last year. This could mark a turning point: investing in women’s sports based on the projected audience and revenue, not simply for the sake of equality.
Even without large marketing budgets, some female athletes are seeing considerable success building their own brands. They are doing this by leveraging the new tools at their disposal, especially social media, to appeal and reach out directly to fans. The new changes to NCAA endorsement rules — which allow athletes to earn money off their name, image and likeness — are a big part of this.
According to the endorsement platform Opendorse, as of the end of May, female student-athletes were making more than a quarter of name, image and likeness compensation. This March Madness, the top two Sweet 16 athletes, in terms of metrics like social media follower counts and engagement, were women.
These women are making money by becoming their own storytellers. But that also means they have to work twice as hard, devoting effort not only to their game but also to marketing it.
Lauren Fleshman, who is writing a book about her experiences as a former professional track athlete, warned against “premature high fives” on the success of Title IX. “We still aren’t done with the primary objective of Title IX: equal opportunities,” she told me. “So many of the experiences of women and girls in sport are taboo, invisible or erased.” She added that we need to identify “the friction points between their bodies and the sports system not built for them.”
When Title IX was passed 50 years ago, just under 300,000 girls nationwide played high school sports every year. Now that’s more than three million. But if Title IX has set those girls up to believe they could be treated as equal to boys on the playing field or off, that delusion dissolves when real money or power is at stake. That’s when the bulk of the athletic resources go to men, leaving the women those girls become to discover where our society’s values really lie.
As we muddle through the great unfinished business of Title IX, sports are teaching girls the truth. We may be allowed to play, but we are still not equal.