What Women Want…To Play

The numbers are in on last Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final: the game drew 26.7 million viewers, making it the most watched soccer game in U.S. history, according to an article from Variety. That same item notes that the game’s audience was “larger than that for every NBA Finals basketball game since 2010 and every World Series baseball game since 2004.”

So the jury is in: soccer is the sport of the future, and certainly the present, as far as women’s sports goes. Right? Well, not so fast…

The DFR: BaseballUndoubtedly, soccer has a strong leg up when it comes to women’s sports in the U.S.A. Girls’ participation in youth soccer is a matter of course these days, and has been for a while–a fact that had its payoff in Sunday’s win. And if those ratings are any indication, soccer is the sport of choice when it comes to watching the games, if not actually playing them.

Except those ratings aren’t quite the indication they may seem. As noted by Dave Feit, my colleague at No Coast Bias, there’s a quantitative difference between a World Series or NBA Finals game, and a world championship final featuring our country’s national team. Of course the latter will draw higher numbers of viewers; the interested audience is the entire country, not simply the fans of the two teams playing in the game (plus those who are simply diehard fans of the sport).

If Mayeux or some other girl eventually makes it to the majors, or even the high minors, generations of girls to come might start looking at America’s playing fields in a whole new light.

It’s worth noting that, if you scan that Variety article–particularly the ratings charts at the bottom of the page–you will see nothing about another women’s sport that is also playing currently–the WNBA. Ladies’ hoops started up right after the men’s game wound down, but those matches are being beaten in the ratings by (among other shows) WWE Raw and Discovery’s Shark Trek (whatever the hell that is).

Why is that worth noting? According to one participation survey, more girls play basketball in high school than soccer. The deciding game of last year’s WNBA Western Conference Finals drew 828,000 viewers (presumably, the WNBA’s biggest audience; sources on that matter are unclear). In other words, the Women’s World Cup Final drew 32 times more viewers than the pinnacle of women’s basketball. Remember, more girls play basketball than soccer. Oh, yeah–and a lot of those soccer viewers were men, not women.

So viewership does not necessarily translate into participation, nor vice versa. Indeed, one article notes that women watch our traditional major sports–that is, men’s sports–in abundance. Women are, if anything, almost as crazy for football as men–and you are unlikely to see a woman in the NFL anytime soon.

The question is, does that dissonance between participation and viewership apply universally? Is there a sport out there where girls and women can be inspired to both watch and participate in the game? I suspect the answer is yes; I also suspect that the answer refers to baseball.

Currently, for the most part, girls do not play baseball. According to the same participation survey cited above, barely more than one thousand high school girls play baseball. However, lots of girls play fast-pitch softball, in numbers that nearly match their participation in soccer (364K to 374K, respectively). That fact probably doesn’t translate into any major boost to women’s involvement in sports, as participants or spectators; except for the yearly appearance of the Women’s College World Series on ESPN, softball doesn’t get much in the way of media coverage.

But what if something happened that drew more women’s attention to actual baseball? Like, for instance, a woman playing the game professionally, and perhaps even making it to the major leagues.

That may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Melissa Mayeux, the French 16-year-old who recently participated in a baseball camp in Germany, has gotten some fairly high-profile coverage–without the idea of her playing pro baseball being dismissed out of hand. Her placement on MLB’s international registration list makes her eligible to be signed by a team. That doesn’t mean she will be signed; but the door has opened a crack, both to Mayeux and any other girls who might wish to follow her.

Could a woman play in the majors? Probably. While some WNBA hoopsters have been known to go one-on-one with their male counterparts, the idea of Elena Delle Donne or Brittney Griner having a real impact in the NBA is at odds with reality, at best. Some U.S. and Canadian hockey players from the women’s national teams might be able to skate with NHL players, but hockey can be brutal and the challenge would be physically daunting. The question of whether or not a woman could play in MLS–despite the success of the USWNT at the World Cup, we have had only failed women’s pro soccer in this country–remains open; but chances are even Carli Lloyd or Abby Wambach would not be able to compete at that level. And only an insane woman would want to try playing in the NFL, the ugliest and most brutal sport this side of that game they play in Afghanistan with a decapitated goat.

Of all major American sports, baseball is the game where players rely the least upon strength and athleticism to make their marks. Excepting the steroid freaks, baseball players have never needed to be giants; if 5’6″, 165 pound Jose Altuve can be an All-Star at second base for the Astros, there’s little reason to believe that an exceptionally athletic woman couldn’t be a major league player. Few female baseball players would be home run hitters, but they could most certainly hit for average. Fielding a position might be a challenge, but only in terms of arm strength; catching the ball requires good fundamentals and hand-eye coordination, and little else. (Plenty of weak-armed men have played in the outfield for major league teams.) If a woman proves her ability by working her way up through the minors, then there’s no reason to believe she could not have a respectable career on a major league roster.

And what effect might that occurrence have on the world of women’s sports, both from a participation and appreciation point of view? As we’ve seen, early participation does not necessarily translate to later viewership habits; the “see yourself in those shoes” factor has not really applied with soccer and basketball.

But couldn’t baseball be different? Basketball will always be viewed as the province of the physically gifted, no matter what lengths the NBA goes to prop up its distaff spinoff. Soccer, as noted, has tried to start pro women’s leagues and failed.

But neither of those sports are ingrained in the American sporting consciousness like Major League Baseball. And MLB already exists; there’s no need to create a league infrastructure out of nothing the way soccer and basketball have tried to do. A woman who steps out onto the diamond at Wrigley Field, wearing a Cubs uniform, will receive an entirely different level of attention than even the World Cup heroines have received. Such an thing might revolutionize the way American women participate in sports. And drawing in the curious, new audience of fans that the first woman player would surely bring with her might be just the thing that baseball needs to stave off the charges that the game is out of date, out of touch, and of the past and not the future.

If Mayeux or some other girl eventually makes it to the majors, or even the high minors, generations of girls to come might start looking at America’s playing fields in a whole new light. And we all might look back on the days when soccer was seen as the pinnacle of women’s sports as an odd and quaint time before the revolution arrived.


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