How Women’s Sports Can Accelerate the Progress Achieved in 2020

Stef Strack
·6 min read

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Today’s guest columnist is Stef Strack, founder and CEO of Voice in Sport and president of the Voice in Sport Foundation.

One thing the COVID-19 pandemic gave us, for better or for worse, is time. Time to slow down, time to re-evaluate and time to reset. Let’s use this opportunity to create an even more progressive sports industry, where women are in top leadership and coaching positions, where underrepresented voices are heard and where there is increased visibility to female athletes. Together we can change more than just the game.

The year 2020 has seen some amazing firsts for women across industries. The number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 increased to a record 41 when Dick’s Sporting Goods named Lauren Hobart to run the company. In sports, Kim Ng was appointed the first woman GM in Major League Baseball history by the Florida Marlins. The Seattle Storm, with its all-woman ownership group, approached dynasty status with its second WNBA title in three years. And just this week, DC United tabbed Danita Johnson as president of business operations.

Yet there’s still progress to be made. Professional leagues, the NCAA, college athletic departments and the sports industry at large must put a greater emphasis on diversity, inclusion and representation at all levels of sport.

Now is the perfect time to generate a wave of change, diversity and progress. I see three powerful actions we can take.

First, we must generate more opportunities for women in key leadership positions across the sports industry.

In 2020, some organizations took advantage of the opportunity to drive progress: Kim Ng’s hiring came on the heels of WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s second year on the job, in which she guided the league through an innovative season in the “Wubble.” Head coaches at Vanderbilt welcomed Sarah Fuller to the football team, where she became the first woman to play—and score points—in a Power Five college football game. The NFL saw its first black woman full-time assistant coach (Washington’s Jennifer King), its first woman to coach in a Super Bowl (San Francisco’s Katie Sowers) and its first full-time woman referee (Sarah Thomas). But unfortunately, these amazing stories are anomalies, not the norm.

Since Title IX was passed in 1972, the proportion of women coaching women’s sports in the NCAA has plummeted from nearly 90% to 40%. In other athletic roles, the numbers are even more grim: In 2018-19, women represented just 18% of Division I head athletic trainers and only 14% of athletic directors. Throughout all NCAA divisions in 2017, a stark 3% of the head coaches of men’s teams were female.

And while women are breaking glass ceilings in public offices, like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, they have not reached the top leadership positions in roles of key global sport governance such as the IOC and FIFA, or closer to home, the NCAA or any of the major U.S. men’s sports leagues. Women held only 19% of CEO positions and chaired only 7% (five of 70) of international sport federations in 2016.

We need progressive mindsets in order to spark larger change. That change needs to come directly from those at the top; an inclusive culture among executives will generate a chain reaction throughout the industry. And we will get to our equity goal faster with more male allies in the industry, whether that be athletes, coaches, fans and supporters or executives. It is critical that men lead advocacy efforts for women’s sports and representation with an equal fervor as women.

Second, now more than ever we have an opportunity to support grassroots efforts that elevate underrepresented voices.

In 2020, athletes took the lead to fight for social justice and bring more visibility to Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter by amplifying movements like #SayHerName and #TakeAKnee.

At the same time, athletes created movements like Swimmers for Change, More Than a Vote and the Black Women’s Player Collective in an effort to elevate diverse voices and inspire a more inclusive culture. Many of these important movements started with a hashtag and a group of people who felt like their voices weren’t being heard. Meanwhile, the World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s National Team persisted in its fight for equity in soccer through the legal system.

The system wasn’t created to support girls in sport, and we need to empower girls—the next generation—with the tools to advocate for change themselves and encourage them to use their voices. At Voice in Sport, our VIS Advocacy Team of female athletes is a great example of a grassroots movement that represents the female voice.

Third, we must bring more visibility to women’s sports by putting women’s college and professional leagues on mainstream networks in primetime.

Women’s sports consistently only get 4% of media coverage, when they represent over 40% of sport participation. So how do we accelerate change here?

We must stop relegating women’s sports to harder-to-find channels, defaulting to streaming services to “prove our demand” and asking fans to pay more to watch. Stifling the demand for women’s sports will only hurt the next generation; our daughters and our sons want to see athletic role models of all genders.

This year the NWSL appointed Lisa Baird as commissioner, and one of her first moves was securing a mainstream television deal for the Challenge Cup with CBS, whose parent company is chaired by Shari Redstone. The deal resulted in a 493% increase in viewership.

The demand is there—when organizations and corporations have the vision to cultivate it.

These individual moments of increased viewership continue to prove demand for women’s sports, but we must make bolder moves. We need allyship from the top media companies to put women’s sports front and center and invest in women-specific platforms.

While the entire sports industry has slowed down this year as a result of COVID-19, let’s not lose the momentum we’re seeing in women’s sports. Let’s capitalize on this opportunity to accelerate change—together.

Strack, a former Nike executive, founded Voice in Sport with a mission to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. The VIS Foundation aims to supercharge sports science and research on the female athlete body, creating educational resources and funding the gaps girls face in sport at public schools.

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