Play Like a Girl: How can we help women’s contact sports reach their full potential?

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What you need to know

Why women’s sports are less popular than men’s

Throughout history, female athletes have been thought of as butch or manly. Even today, there is a common belief that female athletes have more manly body types and masculine behaviors. The stereotypical body of a female athlete has never been the same as society’s ideal body type. Additionally, female athletes’ aggressiveness and competitiveness are thought of as masculine behaviors. These stereotypes have discouraged women from participating in contact sports throughout history and in some cases, still do so today. For example, in 1921, the FA (Football Association) banned women’s soccer for 50 years becausethe game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged” (FA). Soccer was deemed “unsuitable for females” because the FA was afraid that women would develop traditional male demeanors. The stereotypes surrounding women’s sports were what led to the sexist ban on women’s soccer. Today, there are 250 million soccer players globally (FIFA), yet only 30 million of those are women (Newsham). The aftermath of this decision left a large difference between the number of soccer players in both genders that is prevalent today.



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What efforts have been made to solve this problem?

Title IX

Title IX of the Educational Amendments which was added to the Constitution in 1972 is a law that “gives women athletes the right to equal opportunity in sports in educational institutions that receive federal funds, from elementary schools to colleges and universities” (Women’s Sports Foundation). This was a monumental advance for collegiate and high school women’s sports. Subsequently, the number of women collegiate athletes rose all the way to roughly 70,000 in the late 1970’s and early 80’s (Heys).


Despite much progress being made in women’s basketball through the WNBA, it is still not close to reaching its full potential. A recent study shows that only 22%  of Americans are fans of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), while 50% of Americans are fans of the National Basketball Association (NBA) (Gough). Why is it that the WNBA has less than half of the amount of fans than the NBA? As a society we have the mindset that men are better than women at physical activities. Subconsciously, we have instilled this idea into the minds of girls starting at a young age. In one study, high-school women’s basketball players were asked why they prefer to watch the NBA over the WNBA. One girl responded, “girls aren’t as skilled as boys”, and another said, “because women are not as strong and as  dominant as men are” (Carlton & Blau). These girls believe that women are biologically worse athletes than men and therefore are less entertaining to watch play. Skill–which stems from hours of practice–is what makes a good athlete into a great player. Talent is not genetic nor is it gender-based. Unfortunately, the mindset that many people have is the same as these girls’. This leads to less viewership for the WNBA and a smaller fanbase, and ultimately (much) smaller paychecks for the average WNBA player. Without a larger fanbase, the WNBA is unable to expand, keeping the league at its current 12 teams versus the 30 NBA teams. From an economic standpoint, the WNBA generates less revenue, so their players are paid less — makes sense right? But as previously stated, the reason the WNBA is not making as much money is that sexist misconceptions keep people from watching women’s basketball. Therefore, the widely held mentality that women are biologically worse players than men continues to hold the WNBA from reaching its full financial potential. 


For Now

Micro Individual Solutions

We all have a part to play to help women’s sports progress. Watching a WNBA game is an easy place to start. The vast majority of sports writers will tell you that the women’s games are designed around finesse instead of power, creating more strategy and a great viewing for spectators. A larger viewership will ultimately increase the revenue for women’s leagues. Of course, another way to help the plight of women in sports is to encourage participation even at a young age. If you have a younger sister, cousin, neighbor or friend, encourage them to try different sports and maybe even kick or shoot the ball around. 

Macro Solutions

On a larger scale, our country as a whole can do more to address sexism in sports. For example, just as the women’s leagues have a “W” indicating that it is, in fact, a Women’s League, the men’s league could do the same. We would then be watching the MNBA All-Star Game and the MNBA Finals. In this way, the women’s league is not diminished, seemingly a knock-off of the original version. Although it may seem small, little shifts in our word choice such as this can actually have a large impact on society’s overall outlook on women’s sports. 

The WNBA has 12 teams and thus 12 head coaches. Only four of the 12 head coaches are female and the other 8 male. On the other hand, there has never been a female head coach in the NBA. We should strive for more female head coaches in the WNBA, but also transition several of these to the (M)NBA as well.  At the end of the day, basketball is one ungendered sport. Women’s basketball and men’s basketball are treated as though they are different sports, and that is the ultimate issue. 

Click here to view my full Problem/Solutions essay!

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Call to action!

I now urge you to grab a basketball, baseball, or any other sports equipment and play with your neighbor, sister, or anyone else. Even little things you do to help has a ripple effect. By encouraging young girls to participate in sports, they are more likely to continue that sport into high school and maybe even beyond that! I will do my part — watching the WNBA games, encouraging neighborhood girls to take up basketball by hosting summer camps in my driveway each year, and (hopefully) recruiting enough players to have a high school basketball team this year. Comment any ideas you have on ways we can advance women’s sports and break down sexist stigma. I would greatly appreciate any and all feedback that you may have!



  1. Hi Nicole,
    I love the idea for your project and the execution of it was amazing! I myself play volleyball and I definitely see a different in the turn out between women and men’s sports which is really frustrating. I think that the solutions you came up with will definitely help and hopefully will start to solve this issue.
    Nice work!

  2. Hi Nicole – I really enjoyed reading your project! This is such an important topic – so many people belittle women’s sports based on sexist misconceptions… the WNBA deserves so much more recognition. It’s really saddening to see that many young girls believe in these misconceptions themselves. Female athletes are on the rise though – and as athletes ourselves we can strive to be role models too.

  3. Hey Nicole! I really liked watching and reading your project. This topic is a very interesting to me as I have played male contact sports pretty much my whole life and have never really understood why female sports aren’t as popular. this project was very educational for me and I learned a lot about the sexism placed into sports that can sometimes be hard to catch. These female sports teams deserve so much more than they gate as they put in the same amount of effort to not be able to reach the same level of fame.

  4. Hi Nicole! I was excited to read this article as a female soccer player, and fan of the US Women’s national team. I know a decent amount about this topic just from following the lawsuit that many of the players on the USWNT filed for equal pay, but I still learned so much from your presentation! For instance, I didn’t know there was an official ban on women’s soccer in 1920s in Europe, I always just assumed early on it was looked down upon. I also thought it was really interesting, that some girls and women just believe watching men’s sports is “better” just because that is what they have been told. Finally, I totally agree with your actions, especially that women should be given an equal chance at being a head coach because they are greatly underrepresented as coaches. Overall great job!

  5. Hey Nicole! This is absolutely amazing! I am so happy that the inequality between female and male sports is finally getting the attention that it needs. I have played soccer for almost 14 years and will be playing at the collegiate level and I cannot tell you enough how important it is that Womens soccer, and female sports in general, start getting the accolades they should. I also loved your macro/micro solutions which provided a great way to look at the big/small picture. Fantastic job!

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