Women’s sports shouldn’t have to fight for at­ten­tion

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - FOL­LOW COLUM­NIST HOWARD MEGDAL Howard Megdal Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY Sports @howard­meg­dal for in­sight and anal­y­sis on sports.

The death of Pat Sum­mitt last week at 64 took some­one who had ev­ery right to leave coach­ing on her own terms and spend decades rev­el­ing in the glory of her eight na­tional ti­tles and scores of women she taught and men­tored. A contempora­ry of Geno Auriemma’s — and a ri­val non­pareil of his, too — won’t live to see the con­clu­sion of Auriemma’s ca­reer.

That el­e­ment of the mourn­ing was present in the re­flec­tions of those who knew her well: her fam­ily, her for­mer players, those whom she be­friended in the coach­ing world and vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one who knew her.

But the sad­ness could be found in the writ­ing of many who didn’t know Sum­mitt who were as­tounded by the sto­ries they heard about her in the fi­nal hours of her life and just after it ended, those of a woman who went into la­bor on a re­cruit­ing trip, who re­sponded to an of­fer from Uni­ver­sity of Ten­nessee to coach the men’s team by say­ing, “Why is that con­sid­ered a step up?”

And so when con­sid­er­ing the legacy of Sum­mitt, what she meant and how to honor it, the ques­tion of pre­cisely what path to take is as sim­ple as you’d imag­ine it to be.

Pre­tend­ing that Sum­mitt is some kind of sin­gu­lar fig­ure in the his­tory of women’s sports, some­one whose in­ten­sity is some kind of out­lier, whose frank­ness will never be re­peated, al­lows for the same cy­cle to re­peat.

There are too many women in the world of sports who shouldn’t be ig­nored for that. Just as Sum­mitt was, they are un­der-cov­ered by the me­dia. They are ply­ing their trade while their sto­ries are get­ting told by few and seen on tele­vi­sion less and there­fore lead­ing to smaller crowds to see them.

The com­mon re­frain for why the stan­dard is higher for a women’s sports story to be told is that there’s a big­ger au­di­ence for men’s sports. Never mind that when a women’s sport­ing event is prop­erly mar­keted, like the World Cup fi­nal against Ja­pan in 2015, more watched it than any soc­cer game, men’s or women’s, in U.S. his­tory. Never mind that it is me­dia cov­er­age that dic­tates at­ten­tion, free me­dia women’s sports sim­ply can­not buy in the same kind of bulk as men’s leagues, more es­tab­lished and with deeper pock­ets, can af­ford.

Each wave of ex­tra at­ten­tion pro­vides more of that rev­enue to men’s sports and starves women’s sports of it, mak­ing the rich richer. And even when women’s sports man­ages to over­come such a lack of at­ten­tion, the dou­ble stan­dard per­sists.

I have many apps on my phone to check scores and sto­ries in the world of sports. Even if we work with the prob­lem­atic as­sump­tion that au­di­ence dic­tates cov­er­age, which ab­di­cates en­tirely both me­dia’s role in de­ter­min­ing what is news­wor­thy and re­lies on past pref­er­ences to dic­tate fu­ture de­ci­sions ad in­fini­tum, still, some num­bers are inar­guable.

Ten­nessee, which built a wom- en’s bas­ket­ball pro­gram that earned the re­spect of the world, is cov­ered like the ma­jor story it is by the lo­cal me­dia and has con­tin­ued to draw more than 10,000 fans per game. That oc­curred even last year, dur­ing a very dis­ap­point­ing sea­son, sev­eral years after Sum­mitt re­lin­quished the reins..

Mean­while, South­ern Illi­nois drew an av­er­age of 5,277 fans to their men’s games. I’m choos­ing South­ern Illi­nois, but there are many such ex­am­ples of teams in the men’s game who draw a frac­tion of the Ten­nessee au­di­ence. South­ern Illi­nois was 100th in the coun­try in men’s at­ten­dance this sea­son.

Yet on ev­ery one of my apps, I am able to get South­ern Illi­nois scores and stats, even alerts on scores and im­por­tant news.

Not one of the apps of­fers the same op­tions for Ten­nessee women’s bas­ket­ball. Or Con­necti­cut, which went out and won its fourth na­tional cham­pi­onship in four years while dom­i­nat­ing like few other sports teams ever have. Or South Carolina women, who drew more than 14,000 fans per game this past sea­son.

So it’s not about suc­cess. It’s not about au­di­ence. The­o­ret­i­cally, it should be just as im­por­tant, sto­ry­wise, to cover col­le­giate sports for women as it is for men.

So then there’s that Pat Sum­mitt ques­tion again: “Why is that con­sid­ered a step up?”

I would urge ev­ery­one in the sports me­dia to ask that ques­tion when eval­u­at­ing which sto­ries to cover or give the most at­ten­tion. If you al­ways put the men’s scores first in a roundup, ask your­self why. If you can write about an epic story in women’s bas­ket­ball or the sev­enth man on the men’s team, ex­actly what is keep­ing you from that women’s story?

Con­sider what Tamika Catch­ings, a Sum­mitt dis­ci­ple who is on a legacy tour she’s now named after Sum­mitt dur­ing her fi­nal WNBA sea­son, had to say about her for­mer coach.

“Ev­ery­thing I do now, I learned from Pat,” Catch­ings said in a con­fer­ence call last week. “I think the thing for me is to have in­tegrity in ev­ery­thing that I do, but also to fin­ish strong.”

Those who missed Sum­mitt can go watch the phys­i­cal em­bod­i­ment of Sum­mitt’s ethos when­ever the In­di­ana Fever come to town. I watched Catch­ings lift her Fever team­mates, al­most mys­ti­cally, to a vic­tory against the New York Lib­erty in a de­cid­ing game of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals, a game no one thought the Fever had any busi­ness win­ning.

Those who want to spend time with a ground­break­ing women’s coach whose sharp wit and tac­ti­cal ge­nius lead to cham­pi­onships need to go no fur­ther than Min­neapo­lis, where Ch­eryl Reeve’s Min­nesota Lynx have won three cham­pi­onships in five years. Reeve will give you as much time as you need and fill your note­book with pithy, in­sight­ful quotes. Some day, those who knew and cov­ered her will be say­ing the things about her that they’re say­ing about Sum­mitt right now.

These are two of so, so many. The re­mark­able thing about Sum­mitt isn’t that she was un­like any other, though to a de­gree she was. In­stead, she’s one of the first who bounded through the door opened by Ti­tle IX and got the chance, more than those who came be­fore her, to show just what women can do in sports if they make their life’s work about help­ing women.

When she was in­ducted into the Bas­ket­ball Hall of Fame, she said: “I think God’s plan for Pat was some­how I needed to make a dif­fer­ence for young women, and my av­enue — and hope­fully it was the right av­enue — was through the game of bas­ket­ball.”

The beauty of cov­er­ing women’s sports is that it gives ev­ery­one the op­por­tu­nity to honor Sum­mitt’s legacy and to ad­dress mas­sive in­equal­i­ties that ex­ist in our me­dia for no good rea­son.

It also gives you the rare abil­ity to ex­pe­ri­ence the Pat Sum­mitts who are push­ing the world for­ward right now.

2008 PHOTO BY H. DARR BEISER, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Pat Sum­mitt’s legacy in­cludes 1,098 wins and eight na­tional ti­tles at the Uni­ver­sity of Ten­nessee.

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