For women in sports, the time is now

An advertising executive I admire once said, “There comes a time when it’s time.” I suppose when you are an athlete, you believe that any time you hear the whistle blow, the gun fire or the national anthem sung, it is your time.

For girls in my era, just to get the time of day would have been an accomplishment, with resources slim and respect scarce. Even with the passing of Title IX spurring opportunities and growth in girls’ high school sports participation, we still didn’t feel that time was on our side. The final score was just one indicia of success, as we were on the continuous search for the basics, like fields to play on, court time and, most importantly, respect.

And then the clock struck 2015 and there was ticker tape, women coaching men in the NBA, and Serena, who made us all stand taller. With the preponderance of game-changing events, perhaps we are seeing a return on the investment of so many who for so long have been on the front lines of championing the values and value of women in sports.

Billie Jean King will forever be the lead in the story of championing women and creating a legacy of equality. We can gratefully feel her early influence in every step that has been and will be taken. Much as we do with Lesley Visser, the only female broadcaster in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, whose talents and skills — not to mention her commitment to mentoring the many women who want to be her — paved the way for the acceptance and appreciation for women as respected sports reporters and broadcasters.

San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon watches during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

And then there is Gregg Popovich. In a world where achieving gender equity holds the promise of global productivity growth, educational gains, economic improvement and the changing of people’s lives and communities, the key to success is definitely a “we” strategy. Pop quietly taps a new assistant coach that echoes like a Darryl Dawkins dunk: loudly and with glass spraying everywhere. He wisely selected Becky Hammon, a WNBA all-star guard whose leadership, winning style and magic with the ball contributed to 16 successful years in a league that welcomes better talent every year. She was all about determination and grit both on and off the court, and a perennial fan favorite, my sons included.

That young women and young men around the world can now see elite and revered male superstars intently listening to one of their coaches who happens to be a woman is such a powerful image and message. In the balancing of roles, there is a demonstrated advantage to having a diversity of voices and authority that is not gender specific. The NBA players clearly understand as they hired Michele Roberts to be the executive director of their union, the first female to lead a major professional sports union in the U.S. This is good for ALL of us, and we should take stock that this is in sharp contrast to the half-clothed gyrating women who are sent to entertain the crowds at timeouts. Not that I don’t appreciate their dedication and commitment to their work, but which is the one you want your kids to take note of?

And as women start to see opportunities on the sidelines, it is also between the lines that this year has been so heady. The Women’s World Cup once again captured our imaginations, so much so that the television audience exceeded in numbers those who watched Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Twenty-five million viewers! Then lead a major professional sports union in the U.S. This is good for ALL of us, and we should take stock that this is in sharp contrast to the half-clothed gyrating women who are sent to entertain the crowds at timeouts. Not that I don’t appreciate their dedication and commitment to their work, but which is the one you want your kids to take note of?

SI writer Andy Benoit tweeted that women’s sports were not worth watching. Really? I gleefully viewed Amy Poehler and Seth Myers rise to the defense with a brilliant piece of social media.

Does the U.S. women’s team’s success ensure the growth of the NWSL? We certainly hope so. What we know is that positive answers were provided to back up the media executives who took the risks and that there are real numbers and charismatic stars to underpin advertising investments.

The WNBA is completing its 19th season, and critics said it wouldn’t last. Its talent pool continues to take the game to new heights, and this year it appears that the Chicago Sky’s Elena Delle Donne is proving to be a breakout star. She led the league in scoring with 23 points per game, and her 95 percent free-throw shooting set the standard for both the NBA and WNBA. On TV, the All-Star Game broadcast this year drew double-digit growth.

What a thrill it was to play in June with the leading player in the world, Lydia Ko, at Westchester County Club in the newly launched KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. It is a bold and important effort that has world-class support, as the PGA of America took the lead in partnering with the LPGA for an annual major golf championship that features a sizable purse, national television coverage on NBC, and a women’s leadership summit and an ongoing effort to inspire and develop female leaders. The leadership from KPMG speaks loudly and acts impressively to underscore its belief that women are great for business.

From the green fairways to the blue-green rolling waves of thunder that remarkable female athletes tame, riding boards of plexiglass with bare feet and steely nerves: It is a site to behold as the World Surf League can boast of being the only league that offers equal prize money per event for both the men and the women. With better venues and opportunities, women surfers are elevating, and we can all digitally tune in to epic performances and history in the making as Courtney Conlogue, the first surfer from Southern California to be ranked No. 1 in 25 years, vies to become the world champion. (Full disclosure: I am on the league’s board, and to see ownership and management recognize the value that they have and the values that they can deliver in their embrace of both the top men and women surfers is a major business and social statement.)

And then there are the supernovas of Ronda Rousey and Serena Williams. They are both fighters, both champions. Serena is like no other in terms of her accomplishments and her legacy. And in her inimitable way, she made it possible for Rousey to fight her way into the consciousness of sports fans and made it acceptable for strong women to fight their way into the ring of champions.

It’s taken strong women to provide leadership in the executive suites as well. Superstars like Christine Driessen, the CFO of ESPN, is one of those formidable business leaders who takes the time to mentor young talent. At a time when women are increasingly driving the fan-base growth in sports, it is incumbent upon companies to have an employee base that more resembles their consumer base. Not to mention, never leave the best talent on your team on the sidelines.

It is easy to draw the line from greater participation by young girls in sports, to growing the fan base for all sports, to developing business leaders who provide leadership in business and industry, to supplying our society with a wealth of storylines that teach both what to do and what not to do.

That women continue — although not at the pace that is to our collective benefit — to make those headlines is progress. The earnest desire to see the sports industry more proactively engaged in truly embracing the ethos of team sports, where team is about finding and deploying the best talent for success, remains ever-present.

That time is NOW!

by Donna Orender

Originally published in SportsBusiness Journal