It has come to this: Tickets to the Final Four of next year's NCAA Women's Basketball Championships will be available only through a lottery. Once considered the poor relation to the men's game, from high school to the pros, women's basketball has grown dramatically.
In the 25 years since the passage of Title
IX, the law that prohibits gender discrimination in school sports, women's basketball has made huge strides in the quality of play and the attention given it by administrators, fans and the media.
"In general, what you've seen is the inevitable," said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation.
"If you give girls a chance to play, with the same access to basketball courts and weight rooms and coaching and instruction, eventually they become as good as boys."
Women's successes soar
Once there was Old Dominion and well, you'd be hard-pressed to name another college where the women's basketball team outshone the men's. Not so today. At Stanford, Connecticut, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, the programs exceed the men's.
"I can tell you unequivocally speaking that I never, ever have a customer that asks for men's basketball attire," said Ken McMillin, owner of McMillin Clothing Co. in Knoxville, Tenn., "and I major in Lady Vols.
"We do mail-order business; we've got brochures. We have a mailing list of 4,000-5,000 people. Football season's our biggest, of course, but I do not have one dollar's worth of men's basketball attire. None. Not for years. Nobody wants it."
Here is how much women's basketball, from the kids to the pros, has taken off: Nike and Reebok, the athletic-wear giants, have jumped in with both sneakers.
+ Each is a principal sponsor of a pro league. Nike has the Women's National Basketball Association; Reebok has the American Basketball League. Each company outfits players in both leagues.
+ Each outfits women's college teams and has endorsement contracts with their coaches. Reebok has Connecticut, Florida and George Washington; Nike's associations include Stanford, Florida State and Georgia.
+ Each is funding grass-roots programs. Nike is the supplier for the Lady Foot Locker Three-For-All skills competition for girls; the Reebok Sport Challenges include high school competitions at which coaches can rate potential scholarship candidates.
"We're very committed to the growth of women's sports, and basketball is the sport that has really taken the lead," said Kathy O'Connell, Reebok's director of women's sports marketing. "The reason is the game itself. The players' skills have improved dramatically, the game is fun to watch and has captured a lot of fans, and a lot of personalities are being created for the public to grab onto."
Early support at Stanford
Stanford's men's team won the 1942 NCAA Championship _ when it was an eight-team tournament. This year it made it to the regional semifinals for the first time (and got no farther). "Hopefully," point guard Brevin Knight said, "people will think of us as being close to as good as our women's team."
Not likely. This season's women's team went farther; it reached the regional semis for the 10th year in succession, and sailed through them into the Final Four for the third year in a row.
"The success of our women's program," Stanford associate athletic director Cheryl Levick said, "starts with (former athletic director) Andy Geiger. He combined a fund-raising unit for men's and women's sports on an equal basis. While everyone could have been doing that, and should have been doing that because Title
IX was in effect, Andy took the initiative."
A three-year plan was begun. Scholarships and more money were allocated to women's sports; three new sports were added (water polo, lacrosse and synchronized swimming). For nearly two decades men's and women's sports have received the same level of support _ academic support, locker rooms, strength and training rooms everything.
"We gave women the equal opportunity to come in and blossom and they took it and ran with it," Levick said.
Opposition to the plan was negligible, she said, because it never became an issue of men vs. women; funding wasn't subtracted from men's sports and added to women's. "When we went out and looked (for additional financial aid)," Levick said, "we found people and companies willing to continue their level of support on the men's side and add more to the women's."
Great gains in high school
Susan True, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said the NFSHSA began collecting the number of girls participating in high school sports in 1972-73, the first year of Title IX.
"That year," she said, "there were 132,299 girls. But because some junior-high statistics were collected, and some from schools in Canada, the number is probably vastly inflated. Last year the number was 445,869 _ but we know that private schools are not members of their state federations, so we know this number is a very conservative one."
There likely are few U.S. cities as wrapped up in their girls high school team as Oregon City, Ore. Not without good reason; the Pioneers, 28-0 this season, are four-time defending state champion, three-time defending national champions and ended the season on a 68-game winning streak spanning three seasons. (The boys were 6-16 this season, sixth in the Three Rivers League.) The boys might envy their counterparts, girls coach Brad Smith said, "but there's no jealousy, no trash-talking."
Since the teams' inception 21 years ago, Smith said, "everything has been split equally. Coaches' pay, gym usage _ the girls early one night, the boys early the next. It started that way because Oregon is pretty much this way; it's the nature of the people who live out here."
Average attendance at a girls game is about 1,500, five or six times that of the boys, and the locker room is open to anyone, everyone, both before the game and at halftime. "There are more pictures of the girls team around town (population: 20,000), and more schedules in the store windows," Smith said. "But winning does bring in the people and I'm sure if the boys were doing as well the people would be there for them, too."
Ralph Groener, a state lobbyist and longtime Pioneers fan, told Sports Illustrated: "This team is what people talk about at the barbershop, at the grocery store, at the paper mill. Girls basketball has kept us together." And Mayor Dan Fowler, reflecting on a flood last year that did $15-million damage to the downtown area, noted: "When you have a team and excitement like this, you tend to forget your problems."
Just the tip of the iceberg
The ABL just concluded its first season; the WNBA is about to play its first. Each is paying salaries over $100,000.
And the checks don't bounce, as they did with the seven-team Women's Basketball League (1978-81) and the six-team Women's American Basketball Association that folded after two months in 1984.
Those failures were due to investors and promoters competing directly against major competition, and the lack of professional-quality players.
"The college kids were better than the post-collegians then," Lopiano said. "Today you're seeing the first generation of female athletes who have received 10-15 years of not only good coaching and access to weight rooms and so on, but have gotten the opportunity to play internationally as professionals and in the Olympic Games. This is the Title IX baby-boomer tip of the iceberg."
On June 23, 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments was signed into law. It states:
"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."
In this 25th anniversary year of Title IX, we offer a monthly series of stories on women breaking barriers in sports.