Muffet McGraw laughs thinking back to what it used to be like getting people interested in women’s sports.
“When I was playing or coaching, they tried to recruit from big families,” said the longtime former Notre Dame women’s coach and now ESPN studio commentator, the fifth oldest of eight children in her family. “That way they could get more people at the games.
“It was pretty empty otherwise, but that was all we knew. We just wondered, why didn’t anybody care?”
They do now. It may have taken more than half a century, but interest in women’s sports: basketball, tennis, soccer, golf, even—you’ve got to be kidding—volleyball, where a record 92,003 packed Nebraska’s stadium for a recent game, has never been higher.
Since the advent of Title IX in 1972, a 37-word federal decree that granted equal opportunity to college students of any gender in terms of sports participation, the tide has been turning. Slowly at first, then gradually picking up momentum over the years as the stigma of girls playing sports has dissipated.
For those who’ve been there from the beginning, overcoming the skepticism and often ridicule, it’s a testament to their perseverance. “I never thought we’d even get started, because the decision-makers were all men,” recalled Theresa Shank-Grentz, star of the Mighty Macs of tiny Immaculata’s 1972-4 championship teams, before beginning a stellar 680-win coaching career at Saint Joseph’s, Rutgers, Illinois and Lafayette. “They’re being told ‘Now you have to allocate dollars for women,’ and they didn’t have the budget for that.
“We’re wondering ‘How’s this going to happen?’ It’s really been a process and it’s taken 50 years. If in 50 years we’re still having this conversation we haven’t done a very good job.
“But when I came out of school you had the choice of being a secretary or teacher, getting married, becoming a nurse, or going to a convent. The idea of coaching and trying to make it a lifetime career was just unheard of.”
The change certainly didn’t happen overnight. In fact, today’s women stars: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who’s scored over 3,000 points… Coco Gauff, who picked up the mantle from the Williams sisters—Venus and Serena—by winning the U.S. Open… Sophia Smith and Rose Lavelle in soccer … weren’t even born until decades after Title IX began to alter the landscape.
But by the time they started playing, attitudes towards girls and women playing sports had shifted. “Women who played sports weren’t feminine enough,” remembered Rosa Gatti, who made history with her appointment as the woman to be named a college Sports Information Director at Villanova in 1974. She then went on to become Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications during a 33-year career at ESPN. “We weren’t supposed to sweat,” she continued.
“That was the thinking at the time, as ridiculous as it sounds.”
There were certainly exceptions, even back then. Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova ruled tennis. Nancy Lopez, Betsy King and Annika Sorenstam were atop the golf world, where women had been making their mark going back to Babe Didrikson Zaharias’ days.
And then you have Olympic sports. In figure skating Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Katerina Witt and Kristi Yamaguchi led the way. When it came to gymnastics Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut and Cathy Rigby stole our hearts, just as Simone Biles has of late.
But those are individual sports. Team sports for women have always been a different story.
That story, however, is finally changing, especially when it comes to basketball. Not only is attendance up, but there’s plenty of TV coverage. Even during prime time.
“I’ve got a couple of thoughts about that,” said Jill Bodensteiner athletic director at Saint Joseph’s since 2018 after serving in the same capacity at Notre Dame for a decade. “First, obviously success matters.
“We (ND) went to six Final Fours in nine years and had a better fan base than the men. It’s fun to watch teams playing good ball against top-level competition.
“No. 2 is the accessibility of female athletes. Third is NIL’s (name, image and likeness), third parties paying athletes. Women are crushing it because they’re interesting and have great personalities.
“They’re willing to work at it and interact with their fans. You see men with their headphones on all the time. Women are totally engaged.”
It took a while getting here, though, even after Title IX opened the door. Not soon afterward, Pennington, New Jersey native Val Ackerman headed off to play at Virginia, where women weren’t even admitted as regular students until 1970. After graduating and playing overseas in France she went on to get her law degree and work in the NBA alongside Commissioner David Stern.
There had been short-lived women’s leagues before, including the Philadelphia Fox of the Women’s Basketball League, which folded just 10 games into the 1979 season after the owner couldn’t meet payroll. But Stern believed those leagues were onto something.
It was his brainchild, then, to pick up where they’d left off by creating the WNBA in 1997, installing Ackerman as its first Commissioner. “David really had a vision connecting women to pro basketball,” said Ackerman, now Commissioner of the Big East, where she oversees 22 men’s and women’s sports. “When we got it launched, he was a proud Papa.
“We played in the summer because we thought there’d be better television and came out of the box with great numbers. NBC and ESPN had a network game in prime time and David got us a deal with Lifetime Television for women.
“We averaged almost 10,000 a game the first year and went up the second year. Then we started to tail off as the novelty wore off. The numbers flattened and it was stagnant for years.”
Not anymore, to her delight. “It’s really exciting to see the league getting the attention and support it deserves,” said Ackerman, who says the next step will be getting more women in leadership positions like hers. “That wasn’t happening for a while.
“What’s gotten it to that point is the quality of play, the appeal of the players – particularly star players – the beginnings of rivalries. And I think societal currents have helped.
“It’s just a more accepting environment now a generation later. Just a different view about the role of women in society and as athletes.
“And other sports are helping each other. The rising tide is helping everybody It’s a different time; a far cry from when I was growing up.”
So, what turned the tide? While the NFL, NBA and baseball have thrived for generations to various degrees, why have women’s hoops, soccer, softball, etc. become such hot commodities?
“A woman I worked with would say to me, ‘Rosa the change will happen when fathers are in the stands of their daughters’ games and want the same opportunities for them as their sons,’” Gatti explained. “For girls to get scholarships.
“Many colleges were slow to adapt to Title IX. I guess they figured we’d go away. However, there was a misconception on the part of some executives at ESPN who thought women would automatically watch women’s sports.
“That’s not the case.”
Especially when Tennessee and UConn so dominated the scene it became predictable, and interest began to decline. Now, though, there’s more parity which leads to more interest.
Which means—of course—more money. According to Deloitte, women’s sports are expected to generate $1.3 billion in the near future, with nearly half of that coming from soccer. “That’s evolving,” noted Ackerman, elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2021. “We’re starting to see NILs create opportunity for women athletes, which helps elevate their profiles.
“At the end of the day, though, the key for me is fan support, the kinds of interest level you saw lift men’s sports that results in commercials. If you’re watching on TV it drives up rating points and revenue streams.
“I saw the growth in the NBA. Arena prices went up. Rights fees went up and players started participating in the rewards. That’s what has to happen.
“I think that’s part of the next phase of the journey.”
To some, that journey seems to have taken forever. Now that it may finally be here, they want to make sure it continues. “Players like Caitlin Clark have changed the game,” said Muffet McGraw, a Hall of Fame coach with 936 wins and two National championships on her resume. “Last year’s Final Four proved people are excited about the game.
“The game is at a great place. People who never watched women’s basketball are talking about it in the office. People want to see fun and great players.
“Now look at women’s soccer. They’re fighting for equal pay. It’s paving the way for other sports. So the interest is there.
“The question is, can we market it and showcase our product?”
The early indicators are promising. “Who’d have ever thought there would be NILs?” wondered Shank-Grentz, who, like McGraw and Ackerman, is a Hall of Famer. “If I were a player today and had NIL, I’d have never coached because I’d have made enough money I to be set.
“Who in their right mind would ever think you could get paid to play in college?”
Probably not even the foremost media proponent of the sport. “You could not have seen this world back then,” conceded Mel Greenberg, who began his poll ranking women’s teams back in the late 70’s, which started bringing them legitimacy. “You could see a better world.
“But you couldn’t see from there to here.”
No, it’s not perfect. But at least now, Muffet, they don’t have to come from large families anymore to get the chance.