Here’s one measure of how far women’s sports have come: When Sports Illustrated football writer Andy Benoit suggested during the recent World Cup that women’s sports weren’t worth watching, he was almost universally scolded and mocked, with his boss Peter King writing this week, “I disagree with Andy. Fervently.”
And here’s one measure of the challenges that remain: When I told some sports-fan pals that I recently spent a Sunday evening as a paying customer at a Mystics game, the reactions ranged from smirking amusement to silence.
Or look at it this way: The tsunami of adoration for the championship-winning U.S. team included a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, more than two dozen Sports Illustrated covers, an on-stage appearance with pop star Taylor Swift, and at least one ‘Today’ show segment, during which an emotional Abby Wambach informed gullible children that America’s victory proved that any dream can come true.
Now spend a moment with Kara Lawson, the veteran WNBA guard (and broadcaster), and ask about the reaction she typically gets from strangers.
“I love you on ESPN — that’s first,” she said this week. “Second is I loved watching you play at Tennessee. Third is, do you still play? And then fourth is the Mystics.”
Washington’s certified Internet cool kids wouldn’t dream of mocking the Women’s World Cup — or of missing a crucial U.S. match. Parents and children were crowded around the TV at the beach barbecue I attended during the Final; after U.S. goals, you could easily hear the happy howls from the backyard. (I was making s’mores, and attempting not to watch sports during my vacation.)
But that gauzy geyser of mainstream acceptance hasn’t seemed to arrive at the women’s pro level. The Mystics play in front of modest crowds at Verizon Center. The Washington Spirit play in the NWSL — the third different women’s pro soccer league D.C. has seen in 16 years. Care to guess the six most-read WNBA stories on The Post’s Web site since Jan. 1? Five were about Brittney Griner’s combustible relationship with Glory Johnson, and the sixth was about Isiah Thomas’s aborted attempt to join New York’s ownership group.
“It sucks that we don’t get the fans that the NBA does, or the recognition,” said Mystics center Stefanie Dolson, who learned plenty about championship parades and fervent support at U-Conn. “We’ve just got to keep pushing to try to get fans to come and support us by supporting other female athletes.”
Which brings us to the team’s newest initiative. Remember this April and May, when Washington’s men’s teams created their own city-wide pep club, attending each other’s games and posting frequent online messages of support? The Mystics are giving it a go themselves.
Saturday they plan to attend the Spirit’s home game at Maryland SoccerPlex. Later this month, they’ll go to a Kastles match. They’re also inviting both teams to Verizon Center for a return engagement, under the theory that fans will take their cues from athletes.
“I think women athletes should support each other — and bring visibility to each other,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said Monday. “In men’s sports, shoot, I watch baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, football. It doesn’t matter to me; I watch all of it. But there are a lot of people who either watch women’s basketball, or watch women’s soccer, or women’s tennis … but there isn’t that thought, ‘I can support a couple different teams.’ ”
So Thibault brought his plan to his team. And just like Paul Pierce and Bryce Harper before them, the Mystics — who don’t have SI covers, but do have a stable league approaching its 20th anniversary — have become evangelists for this cross-sport camaraderie.
“You’ve got to support each other,” Dolson said. “It’ll maybe bring some of their fans to our games, our fans to their games, and just kind of share the support that we have in this region. And if you do that everywhere…”
“We’re going to try to do a couple things to help promote them — cross-promotion with women’s sports and fans — just to let our fans know, ‘Hey, these guys are out here, go support them,'” Lawson added. “Besides world championships, World Cups and Olympic games, female sports really is out of the picture, except for the WNBA. So for me, I’m happy. I’m happy that they’re getting some attention, and I’m hopeful that [the World Cup win] is maybe able to grow their domestic league.”
As you’ve no doubt been thinking, the WNBA has little to do with the Women’s World Cup other than gender. The soccer tournament happens every four years, and features national pride and transcendent moments in a game that pretty closely resembles its male counterpart.
But there is at least some sense that putting star female athletes on floats and magazine covers can continue to nudge things toward a place where mainstream conversations would deal not just with off-court scandals and questions of viability, but also with the games themselves. WNBA Commissioner Laurel Richie told me during the World Cup that while she wishes international women’s basketball could get the sort of coverage given to soccer, she was happy to see the women’s tournament capturing mainstream attention.
“I am thrilled when the country is captivated by Serena Williams,” she went on. “I think the growth of women’s sports overall depends on more and more people watching, attending and appreciating women athletes at the professional level. So I celebrate their success, just as I know they celebrate ours.”
Mystics owner Ted Leonsis, too, used the Women’s World Cup to encourage Washingtonians to get into the WNBA — and to urge media members to help shape the agenda.
“Good and smart programmers will broaden their reach and audience by respecting and catering to the largest, and most diverse audience possible,” he wrote on his blog, after the Final shattered TV records. “Talk about the WNBA today, thank you.”
But advising people what sports they should talk about is something like advising Donald Trump what he should say on the stump: It probably won’t work, and it’ll leave everyone with a headache. Watching the Women’s World Cup felt hip and vital. That’s what the WNBA, or any women’s league, needs to aspire to.
In the meantime, some fans go to sporting events mainly to gaze around at the spectacle, to distract themselves from the finite span of human existence, and to drink socially acceptable afternoon Bud Lights. As a card-carrying member of that group, I can report one important finding: The beer at WNBA games is every bit as cold as it would be at Nats Park or Camden Yards.