Mystique of women's sports draws its share of fans

Success of women's basketball league and big crowds for the Women's

Katie Goodall has just finished watching one of the most exciting basketball games of her admittedly brief life. Along with 10,160 other fans in Houston's Compaq Center, she has yelled herself hoarse. And she has also gotten an autograph from her new hero, Houston Comets star Cynthia Cooper.

For years, she watched the San Antonio Spurs, who are currently in the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals. But now, she'll be focusing on the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA).

"Women play much better than men," says the fifth-grader from San Antonio, who has just finished a three-week basketball camp. Katie, who is tall for her age, plays center. "They pass a lot more, and they play a cleaner game. If you want to see good basketball, watch the women."

This may sound like "grrrl-power" bravado, but it hints at something much bigger than gender-based bragging rights. At its source, say many coaches and fans, is a fundamental change in how girls - and all Americans - view women's role in modern professional sports.

The evidence is impressive. Earlier this month, the WNBA - which has averaged more than 10,000 fans a game in its first two seasons - began its third campaign. And this Saturday, the Women's World Cup of soccer kicked off in front of the largest crowd ever to see a women's sporting event, with 78,972 spectators in attendance at Giants Stadium near New York.

Whether women athletes can carve out a permanent niche in a sports-saturated nation remains to be seen. Regardless, many sports experts say these achievements are no anomaly; they are the result of a decades-long struggle for equality - from middle-school gymnasiums to college soccer fields. Consequently, they say, the way women's sports are perceived and marketed will never be the same.

"We're looking at a pendulum swinging for equality between men and women in society, and in this case, sports," says Joel Kirsch, director of the American Sports Institute in Mill Valley, Calif. "This didn't happen overnight."

Title IX's impact

One of the driving factors in this female sports boom is the slow-but-growing effect of federal Title IX regulations, says Mr. Kirsch. Written decades ago to promote equal opportunity in education, including sports scholarship, Title IX has been credited with encouraging more girls to consider sports as an entryway into college, and now perhaps, a viable career.

"With Title IX, you're seeing girls who played sports in elementary school staying on to play sports in college and beyond," says Kirsch. "They're watching their role models on TV in the WNBA and the World Cup, and they're taking scholarships. Now all of a sudden, they're seeing a career in sports. That's exciting."

But while federal rules may have provided new opportunities for female athletes, the clear turning point in women's team sports came with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Both the US women's basketball team and the US women's soccer team won gold medals, bringing their sports to the attention of a whole new generation of fans. Immediately after the Olympics, interest in girls' soccer and basketball soared, and two new professional basketball leagues, the American Basketball League and the WNBA, were formed. While the ABL folded, the WNBA has been going strong, and gaining fans.

"For the beauty and the finesse of the game, women play better than the men," says John Wooden, a former men's basketball coach at the University of California at Los Angeles, who led the Bruins to 10 titles in 12 years. "They play below the rim. They pass better than men. They shoot free throws better than men. I'd rather see a good women's basketball team play than see these prima donnas all the time."

Egos aside, perhaps the biggest difference between an NBA and an WNBA game is the noise level of the fans. Unlike NBA games, where major corporations buy blocks of tickets to entertain and cut deals with customers, WNBA games are often family affairs. Mothers take daughters. Fathers take sons. Young women take (willing) dates. The crowds may be smaller, but they roar at every lay up and three-pointer. In addition, the language is much cleaner, on and off the court.

For their part, the women of the WNBA have all sorts of theories on why fans turn out for games, and why this league could be here to stay.

"This league has gotten better marketing, better support, better financial backing than past efforts," says Sheryl Swoopes, starting forward for the Comets. (The Nike shoe company liked her name - and her skills - so much, it created her own line of shoes: Air Swoopes.) "It's things like that, along with the fans, that will make this league work."

The feminine athlete

Cynthia Cooper, the Comets' top scorer, says there have been major social changes as well. "Before, society saw female athletes as masculine," says Cooper, walking rapidly from her locker room to the parking lot. "But now, you can retain your femininity. You can be an athlete on the court, and a lady off the court."

Tina Thompson, starting forward for the Comets, says that the WNBA can only encourage more young women to consider a career in sports. "I've seen little girls crying because Cynthia, Sheryl, or myself walked by them," says the first-ever draft pick for the WNBA. "It's great, because a lot of us had to identify with male athletes growing up. Now these little girls have us."

And it's not just girls.

Take Jarrett Crockett, a sixth-grader from Houston. His favorite Comets are Kim Perrot, who is on injured reserve, and Cooper, "because she scores." But why does he like the Comets? "Because we're going to win," he says with a grin.

More typical is Hannah Duisinger, a third-grader who is attending the game with her father. Hannah's favorite player is Rebecca Lobo, who actually plays for the New York Liberty, but here in Houston, she likes Cooper, because "she's fast." Would Hannah like to play for the Comets someday? Silence, followed by a smile. "I guess, maybe," she says.

For parents, affordability of tickets tends to be a major draw. (Cheap seats go for $8 apiece, comparable to a night at the movies.) But Kerry Goodall, mother of Katie, says the main attraction is the clean family atmosphere.

The WNBA "has brought a lot more attention to cleaner sports," she says. And while she and her daughters are usually fans of the San Antonio Spurs, she was shocked by how often she had to turn down the volume during the most recent playoff series. "We saw a lot of physical stuff out there, and some of the foul language was broadcast on TV."

But for Katie's older sister, Bonnie, a seventh-grader, the best thing about the WNBA is the fundamentals.

"It's how they play the game," says Bonnie, who lists her favorite players as Swoopes, Thompson, and, um, Dennis Rodman. "He's a good rebounder," Bonnie says with a shrug.

Perhaps. But not in this league.

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