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This article about the relatively low profile of women's sports described an article in the New York Times on a record-breaking win by the University of Connecticut women's basketball team as getting "inside-the-section play." The article appeared on the first page of the sports section, which is contained inside the paper's metro section.

Whither the female sports fan?

Connecticut forward Maya Moore celebrates with teammates after Connecticut beat Florida State 93-62 in an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. Connecticut set an NCAA record with 89 consecutive wins. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut forward Maya Moore celebrates with teammates after Connecticut beat Florida State 93-62 in an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. Connecticut set an NCAA record with 89 consecutive wins. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) (Jessica Hill - AP)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 12:00 AM

It was a major milestone for college sports, and a special triumph for women's basketball. With its victory over Florida State on Tuesday, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team won its 89th straight game, breaking one of the most hallowed records in intercollegiate sports, the UCLA men's streak of 88 straight victories from 1971 to 1974 under legendary coach John Wooden.

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The nation's sports media all but yawned at the news.

The record-breaking game was relegated to ESPN2, clearing the flagship ESPN channel to carry something called the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. The UConn news rated a wire-service story in The Washington Post's Sports section and inside-the-section play in the New York Times. Sports talk radio stations barely touched it.

Women and girls are playing sports in vast numbers, propelled onto the court and into the field by Title IX, the 1972 law that effectively outlawed discrimination in funding for public-school sports programs. Between the law's enactment and 2008, the number of girls playing high school sports grew tenfold, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.

Fans are a different story. One reason is that men - generally the most passionate and loyal sports fans - aren't keen on watching women's sports. But if anything, women show even less interest in the games women play. Women haven't grown into the sorts of sports fans that can sustain professional leagues or boost a women's game into the national spotlight.

Women's games don't draw the crowds, the money or the media attention that even "minor" sports played by men attract. Only a few women's sports - golf and tennis, primarily - have strong enough followings for lengthy regular seasons. Others, such as gymnastics and figure skating, surge in popularity in Olympic years largely on the strength of female viewers but slide back into relative obscurity in off years.

As a result, attempts to market women's sports have floundered. A women's pro softball league lasted four years before folding in 2001, and a women's pro soccer league made it three years before collapsing in 2003 (both have since been revived, though greatly scaled back). Several women's professional volleyball leagues have failed, with another planned.

The Women's National Basketball Association, meanwhile, has grasped for survival. In 14 seasons, only one franchise, the Connecticut Sun, has ever reported an annual profit, despite the WNBA's limited summer schedule, strict pay cap (maximum player salary this year: $101,500) and early support from the NBA. Washington's team, the Mystics, recently dismissed its coach and general manager in an effort to save money.

Kathryn Olson surveys this dismal landscape with some regret. As chief executive of the Women's Sports Foundation, her mission is to promote greater participation and opportunities for women and girls. But it's one thing for girls to play, she says; they also need support - from family, friends and the culture at large.

"Girls see the difference at a young age," Olson says. "There are more people watching her brother when he plays than when she does. . . . We're still at the point where spectatorship is not there. I don't know what the right timeline is, but you always wish it would be faster. It's been a slow ramp-up. I'm hopeful that it won't continue at this pace."

In part, Olson says, the media are to blame for not giving female athletes a higher profile. "When people get to know the athletes, it builds interest in them," she says. "Right now, [coverage of women] is right up there on the sports pages with horses, dogs and fishing."

It's true that women's sports get far less ink and airtime than men's. ESPN's "SportsCenter," for example, devoted just 1.4 percent of its coverage to female athletes or games in 2009, according to a study by the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California. The figure for sports reports on TV stations in the Los Angeles area wasn't much better: a mere 1.6 percent.


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