Sam Donnellon | Women are competing, not channel surfing

Posted: June 25, 2007

GOT AN E-MAIL the other day that announced the formation of yet another professional football league. This one is called the All American Football League, and the hook is that it will be played in the spring by college rules in college towns and populated by former college football players who presumably are a notch or two below professional level players.

So you ask: Don't those players already have a home in the Canadian Football League, NFL Europa and Arena Football? And the answer is obviously yes. Can't you find all three on your television set somewhere? Again, yes. But the organizers, who include former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey and former Notre Dame athletic

director Gene Corrigan, believe there is still more room in our sports-following, clicker-controlled hearts. Especially in towns built around major universities, where springtime is often a choice between watching minor league baseball or watching their favorite college football team practice.

"We have signed stadium agreements in several big college towns and will play our first game in Spring of 2008," Corrigan wrote in an e-mail over the weekend. "Over 1,000 former college football players have written to us about playing in the new league. Some from the Philadelphia area."

Corrigan's e-mail comes amid 35th anniversary celebrations of Title IX, and some pointed scrutiny of some of the reverse injustices it has caused. It comes in an age - as we say in pro football - of further review, the pluses of artificially propping up low-involvement and even lower-interest women's college sports argued against the injustices inflicted upon longer-standing and higher-interest men's sports.

Schools across the nation - Rutgers, James Madison, Ohio University are recent examples - have slashed varsity men's sports to reach or approach compliance with Title IX's directives. Participation of women in collegiate sports has expanded from 32,000 at the onset to 160,000 today, and participation of girls in high school sports has increased tenfold, to around 3 million. It has created marketable sports stars such soccer-playing Mia Hamm, created at least a passing interest in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, and given some deserving 15 minutes of fame for Olympic participants like softball pitcher Dot Richardson.

Today you can even regularly find a women's college basketball game on television, and the NCAA women's softball World Series was aired on ESPN just this month.

The conundrum though is this: Despite the surge of women's sports and women's teams, women by and large don't watch them. The Media Research Institute estimates that ESPN viewership is 75 percent to 80 percent male. Attendance for even the higher-profile women's sports pales in comparison to the men's version in most places.

There are so many potential reasons for this, and some seem obvious. Start with interest: A Brown University study found that 50 percent of incoming freshman males expressed interest in joining a sports team as compared to 30 percent women. The vast majority of walk-on athletes in college are male, according to the NCAA.

The very image of a "passionate fan," particularly in these parts, conjures up blood-boiled, somewhat irrational, adult male.

Can Title IX change that? I suppose. Will it? By the evidence already in hand, it seems doubtful. The WNBA, currently the only feasible team sports opportunity for women, still garners marginal interest. There is a pro softball league out there now, with a Philadelphia team playing in Allentown, I think, but I can't for the life of me foresee that 75 to 80 percent viewership taking much interest now, or in the distant future.

But a pro football league in the spring played with college rules and ex-college players? That'll work. Especially if Mr. Corrigan and Mr. Dempsey follow this little piece of advice:

Include a Philadelphia franchise in your league and load it up with the best players and the best coaches and the most stable owner or ownership group you can find. Spend 90 percent of your league's operating budget on this franchise, advise your officials to lean heavily in their favor, give all kinds of discounts on ticket prices and - this is really important - allow the fans to bring sandwiches and drinks to the games, even if there are caps on some or all of the drinks.

We're a thirsty bunch, Mr. Corrigan. If you've done your research, you know we are a sports insatiable town that will do just about anything if we were to win a pro male sports championship of almost any kind, short of running down Broad Street naked and on fire.

And maybe that, too.


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