WOMEN’S SPORT: CHALLENGES OF ’98

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Generating more corporate support, additional media coverage and heavier promotion of women’s sports are some of the primary challenges industry executives expect to face in 1998.
That was the word from a cross section of athletes, executives and other industry supporters at the 18th annual Women’s Sports Foundation awards dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria here Monday.
The event — sponsored by Reebok, Ocean Spray, General Motors and Merrill Lynch — attracted 1,300 guests and raised $700,000 for women’s sports programs. There were 110 female athletes in attendance, representing 40 sports.
Here’s what they had to say about what’s in store for women’s sports next year.
Donna de Varona, chair of the WSF and Olympic gold medalist for swimming:
“We need to think with business minds and professional minds. This year was testing time for the Women’s National Basketball Association to see if it would be successful. Now its success should encourage other sports to get involved with leagues.
“A lot of companies are trying to find ways to advance women’s sports — not just sports companies. To be competitive today, they know they need to cater to female athletes. They think they want to get in the game, but they don’t know how. We need to provide the vehicles that allow them to do it in a comfortable way.”
George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Active Apparel Group, maker of Everlast, Converse and MTV’s The Grind activewear:
“Everyone knows women’s sports is important and is coming of age. It’s getting more of the media coverage it deserves. Our challenge is to see the industry grow at the same rate as women’s sports.
“Our industry is seeing minimal growth compared to the whole category. Maybe that’s due to a limited product development and retailers are not giving it the dedicated space and attention it deserves. In a retail environment that is not booming, it’s an opportunity.”
Billie Jean King, founder of the WSF and professional tennis legend:
“We need to make sure the Women’s Global Challenge [an inaugural all-women’s sports competition scheduled for 1999] gets going to raise money for girls’ sports. People always say they have to wait until this or that to get involved, but athletes can’t wait.
“We also have to make sure Title IX is enforced.” (Title IX is federal legislation that prohibits gender discriminatin in any federally funded educational program or activity.)
Liz Dolan, independent consultant and member of Nike advisory council:
“There are all these businesses that have been looking for signs that there’s big money in women’s sports. Now that women have really broken into sports, it will be time to cash in for a lot of people. We should see more companies getting involved.
“There’s been so much hype — people want to see it start paying off. Sports leagues, manufacturers and magazines are involved, but it still remains an unformed market.
“Despite the interest, consumers still don’t have great places to buy these products. There needs to be more retail channels. I would hate to see companies lose heart because the market is underserved.”
Nadia Comaneci, Danskin endorsee and Olympic gold medal gymnast:
“There have been so many successes in 1997, and that’s going to continue to grow. I work with Danskin, and I know they’re looking for a lot of athletes from different sports to be involved with Team Danskin. A lot of companies will be taking a more visible role.
“The women’s sports magazines are fantastic. That should make interest in the category grow immensely.”
Alpha Alexander, 1997 recipient of the Billie Jean King Contribution Award and director of health promotion and sports for the YWCA:
“Corporate sponsors of women’s sports need to show greater diversity in gender and race in their marketing. Diversity will soon be the majority, not the minority. Companies need to trade in their old ways of marketing.”
Mia Hamm, 1997 recipient of the Team Sportswoman of the Year award and Olympic gold medal winner for soccer:
“People need to realize the talent and support women’s sports any way they can. Sponsorship can’t be a one-time deal. We can’t have sponsors that do it for a couple of years and then say they did their part. All sponsors have to do it because it is the right thing to do.”
Mike Richter, New York Rangers goalie:
“Coverage of women’s sports is evolving. It’s better than it’s ever been. There needs to be more diversity on any channel in general to see all types of athletes compete.
“All sports in the U.S. have to compete with the top four sports on TV. People have the mistaken notion that if a sport is not on prime time, it’s not a legitimate sport. That created a vicious cycle where there’s more money in [men’s] pro sports, they’re put on TV more and there’s more space granted to them in the papers. But the drama of competition in women’s events such as volleyball and tennis is often better than men’s.”
Teresa Edwards, Converse endorsee, American Basketball League player and three-time Olympic basketball gold medalist:
“The growth in women’s sports marketing is going to be tremendous at many different levels, including administrative and executive roles. Women’s sports has taken off, and that opens so many doors for women.
“As athletes, it’s given us a great opportunity to give back. Now we can explore what’s best for women instead of having men explore what they think is best for women.”
Evelyn Ashford, 1997 inductee to the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame for the contemporary category, Olympic gold medalist in track:
“We need to keep the momentum going. We’ve come so far in such a short time. We’ve become commercially viable. People who count will see that, and other sports will benefit from it.”
Silken Laumann, 1997 recipient of the Wilma Rudolph Courage award and Olympic medalist for single sculls:
“In the next few years, it’s really important for women in positions of power to continue to push for equality in women’s sports. The advancements we’ve seen in the U.S. and Canada have yet to be matched in other parts of the world. On the global level, we still have a long way to go.”
Gail Emery, 1997 Coach Inductee to the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, former Olympic synchronized swimming coach:
“We’ve become such a society that thrives on immediate gratification that holding onto young people to pursue one goal or one sport is a real challenge. I’d like to see young people grab onto something — anything — and pursue it with passion. That’s how you learn about life — accountability, adversity and how to pick yourself up and go on.”
Donna Lopiano, founder of the Women’s Global Challenge:
“The biggest challenge is going to be getting to that point in the change process where the fighting stops — where football stops accusing women’s sports of killing the sport.
“Everybody has doubted women’s sports up until now. In 1998, we will celebrate the arrival of women’s sports and acknowledge that it’s here to stay. All the naysayers will be proved wrong — that’s all there is to it. We’ll see the same corporate support, TV coverage and promotions for women’s sports that we see for men’s sports.”
Gail Devers, 1997 Individual Sportswoman of the Year and Olympic gold medalist in track and field:
“The biggest change would be equality. I haven’t counted that out, especially with the strides that the Women’s Sports Foundation is making and will continue to make. It’s just going to take more of them.
“The attitude of female athletes is changing. Women are not accepting what they had in the past because they think they can’t change it. We know if we pull together in numbers, women can make a difference.”
David Dinkins, former mayor of New York:
“There is depth in women’s sports — especially in women’s tennis. That should continue next year. It used to be there were the top players and then quite a falloff.
“When I was in school, I liked to say, ‘Never let your education interfere with recreation.’ That’s what we need to tell the girls.”
Barbara Ann Scott-King, 1997 International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame for the Pioneer Category (prior to 1960) and Olympic gold medalist in figure skating:
“Women will participate in sports for longer periods of time instead of being protected as too frail. Women will prove that they can handle the same distance — in practice and competition — as men.”
John Riddle, president and chief executive officer of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association:
“The biggest thing we need to do is adjust to the success of women’s sports. We need to recognize that women can compete successfully in sports, including sports that were considered men’s sports. It’s a neat thing to get something on a roll, but we need to keep it on a roll.”

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