In any Division 1 athletic powerhouse, like the University of Michigan, there are 3 sports that are predominantly popular: football, basketball, and hockey. These sports are considered “revenue sports” because the funds generated from them are greater than the cost of operating their athletic program. It’s great that there is so much enthusiasm at the collegiate level surrounding these 3 sports, but what happens to the others? There doesn’t seem to be much fervor surrounding the less popular sports, such as rowing, soccer, tennis, wrestling, golf, track and field, etc. When I hear about all of these neglected sports, I feel bad because most of these athletes’ hard work and success goes unnoticed to the student population. Ironically, I never made an effort to go support these athletes either because I didn’t have much interest in their sports. I have always been used to spectating the most popular games. However, I recently took a trip to East Lansing to support my sister and the Michigan women’s novice rowing team as they scrimmaged against Michigan State University. This experience really demonstrated to me the enormous gap in popularity between the revenue sports and the rest of the University of Michigan athletic program and reminded me of the disparity between men and women’s sports that Mika LaVaque-Manty discusses in Being a Woman and Other Disabilities.
Upon arriving at Michigan State’s campus to support our women’s rowing team, the relatively low popularity of the sport was readily apparent. There were few spectators at the event and most of them were family members of the athletes who seemed like they, too, had never been to a rowing event before. Even though the absence of spectators can be attributed to the fact that the event was a scrimmage on a Sunday morning, it’s unlikely that the race would have attracted many more fans if it were scheduled at a different time. Tickets were not necessary, and there was no fee to attend the event. At the beginning, spectators walked up and down the shore, unsure of the best spot to cheer on their team until they eventually congregated on top of a hill overseeing the river. One thing about the event that stood out to me was when the staff running the event instructed the spectators to cheer at a specific time during the race. It was as if they sensed that nobody was familiar with the sport, so they felt like they needed to tell us when to cheer on the athletes. Because this was a novice race (for new and inexperienced rowers), the result of the scrimmage didn’t matter as much as the rowers gaining experience.
My experience spectating rowing differs greatly from my experience attending Michigan basketball games. In contrast to the low turnout at a typical collegiate rowing event, there are routinely thousands of fans at each men’s basketball game. At Michigan’s first basketball game of the season against Hillsdale, many dedicated fans showed up before the game to congratulate the team on their deep run in March Madness (they made it to the Elite Eight last year) and being named the outright Big 10 Champions last season. The crowd roared in appreciation as the Big 10 championship banner was raised, and each fan received a free miniature replica banner. Throughout the game, the student section, known as the Maize Rage, motivated the team through their constant cheering and support. Because Michigan’s basketball team is one of the best in the country, the team cruised to a 92-68 win.
The drastic differences in popularity between women’s rowing and men’s basketball can be attributed to the combination of the popularity of the two sports and the athletes’ gender. Because rowing isn’t as popular as basketball, it is expected to have fewer fans at a race. However, another important explanation for this discrepancy is gender. Many fans believe that female athletes lack the skill, speed, and strength that male athletes possess. Because of this perceived lack in athletic ability, fans generally view men’s sports as more entertaining and physically demanding than women’s sports. This general belief results in massive attendance at men’s sporting events in order to see the most talented athletes, causing certain male sports to become revenue sports. Women’s sports, on the other hand, are essentially neglected.
LaVaque-Manty discusses this disparity between men’s and women’s sports in Chapter 5 Being a Woman and Other Disabilities of The Playing Fields of Eton. In his analysis, he explains the difference in popularity between genders in athletics through society’s view of excellence. Because of society’s male-centered view of athletic excellence, He argues that value barriers (discrimination based on culture) and institutional barriers (discrimination by law) are used to prevent women from competing with men and protect male sports from mediocrity.
It’s uncertain whether a women’s sport will ever be considered a revenue sport. This progress will be particularly difficult to accomplish because it largely depends on the restructuring of society’s beliefs as a whole. In order for women’s sports to become even remotely as popular as men’s sports, society’s view of female athletics needs to change drastically. If this change is going to happen, it will likely result from an athletic event where both men and women receive an equal amount of attention, such as the Olympics. Because Olympic sports like gymnastics, swimming, and ice-skating are popular regardless of the athletes’ gender, it creates a great opportunity for women to showcase their talents and correct society’s perception of their athletic inferiority to men. Women will need to find a way to build on their popularity in the Olympics and spread it to other sports in order to become revenue sports.