Women's Sports: Beyond A League Of Their Own

It's a critical moment in the "battle of the sexes." When Annika Sorenstam tees off at the Colonial in Ft. Worth, Texas, she'll become the first woman to challenge the male elite at a PGA Tour event since 1945. But her crossover challenge is not universally hailed, even by boosters of the ladies' game. "It's too much pressure when one woman is seen as representing all of women's sports," says Amy Love, founder of Real Sports, a magazine and marketing firm for women's sports. "I keep worrying, 'What if she bombs?' I just don't see a winner here." A flop would produce the inevitable chorus of ridicule from men. The greater fear, though, is that Sorenstam's effort lends credence to the notion that male standards should be the ultimate measure of the women's game. The last thing the already shaky women's pro-sports empire needs is any diminution in its perceived value. "Given the media blackout and resistance among corporate sponsors, women's sports is always fighting uphill to crawl out of a hole," says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for research on girls and women in sports at the University of Minnesota.

That hole's much deeper than was anticipated in the late '90s, after Title IX babies came of age and produced a string of stirring Olympic and World Cup triumphs. "There was so much enthusiasm, and there seemed to be so much fat in the system to spread around," says soccer star Julie Foudy, a past president of the Women's Sports Foundation. But now women's pro sports are on a crash diet. Though Michelle Kwan can still pack a house, two women's leagues have folded and the survivors, the WNBA and WUSA (Women's United Soccer Association), are scaling back their ambitions. Their marketers have discovered that being an athlete isn't the same thing as being a fan. "There's been a fundamental shift in our society in terms of people believing that women's sports are good for girls," says Michael Messner, a professor of gender studies at the University of Southern California. "But it takes a long time for changes in values and practices at the grass roots to bubble up into the market and become profitable."