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In a pivotal scene from the film, The Sandlot, “Ham” Porter gives the final chilling insult to the boys from the fancy baseball team: “You play ball like a GIRL!”

Doing sport history, reading books, articles, and talking to people about women in sport, I keep hearing the same thing, namely, that people aren’t really interested in women’s sports, which is why women’s sports do not make much money. But I have not found that to be true, from attending girls and women’s sports myself, or studying the popularity of women’s sports in the past. Women’s sports are having a moment. Alex Kirshner, in The Atlantic, wrote an article entitled “Caitlin Clark is Just the Beginning. After decades of treatment as second-class citizens, female college athletes are surpassing men in popularity, interest, and financial potential.” A bold headline that contradicts this commonly held idea that people are not interested in women’s sports.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment it became a trending topic, but it might have been around the time that global pop star Taylor Swift began dating Travis Kelce, of the Kansas City Chiefs football team. Suddenly, ticket sales exploded and Kelce jerseys began flying off the shelves. Some laughed at the materialistic nature of American popular culture, but it seemed to me that the Swift/Kelce event signaled an enormous market of primarily female fans that were not, in fact, interested in the NFL, but interested in an NFL player dating their beloved pop star. There’s a large untapped market of people, including women, that are not particularly interested in men’s sports. But might they be interested in women’s sports? And does that matter?

Kirshner’s article in The Atlantic makes the case that a large shift is happening in college sports, directly connected to college athletes being able to monetize themselves and build their own brands. According to Kirshner, Caitlin Clark is “easily the most famous player in college basketball, if not all of college sports.” But more than Clark’s astonishing skills, is her legacy “proving that there’s no ceiling on how popular women’s sports can be.” Sports’ “power brokers” have recently realized that fans enjoy watching women’s sports. So why haven’t they invested in women’s sports? Kirshner points to the NCAA 2021 decision to allow athletes to be paid for use of their name, likeness, and image. This allows for financial incentives for college athletes to build their own brands on social media and leverage those brands into endorsement deals, thus proving their market value. “This freshly monetized start power is combining with the broader recognition of how fun the games are to generate an overall boom for the sport itself.” The University of Iowa’s Clark, UConn’s Paige Bueckers, LSU’s Angel Reese and Hailey Van Lith, USC’s JuJu Watkins and Stanford’s Cameron Brink all have significant social media followings and therefore proven not only their star power, but also that people do enjoy watching women’s sports and following their favorite female athletes on social media.

Clark is amazing and inspiring to watch. People who love sport, love to see an amazing athlete excel. When I was a kid in the 1990s, with only network television access, I barely saw any televised women’s sports, aside from the Olympics, the euphoric 1999 Women’s World Cup, and tennis. And yet my high school games for girls’ sports were packed just as much as the boys’ games, if not more. As a teen, I didn’t understand what happened to sports after high school. The NCAA historically treated women’s sports as a box to be checked under Title IX compliance instead of investing in women’s sports as well as men’s sports. Sedona Prince, a basketball player for the University of Oregon, highlighted the blatant disparities in her TikToks comparing the women’s weightroom to the men’s weightroom. But in light of this apparent upsurge in popularity due to Clark and the other big names in women’s basketball, sponsors are taking notice.

In 1891, James Naismith created the game of basketball. The first game was a success. As word spread around the campus of Springfield College (formerly called the YMCA School for Christian Workers), spectators began to show up. A group of women asked Naismith if they could play too. Naismith didn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. Naismith later remarked, decades later, “in my estimation, girls have made far greater strides in physical education in the past twenty-five years than boys.”

I wonder what Naismith would think about basketball today?

Photo by Alex Perez on Unsplash
Alex Kirshner, “Caitlin Clark is Just the Beginning,” The Atlantic, March 19, 2024.
Randall Balmer, Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 99-100.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


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