It’s Saturday night, and the undefeated, second-ranked conference team, Elkhart Central High School, is playing the undefeated, number-one ranked team, Penn High School, at their home gym in downtown Elkhart, Indiana. The Girls Varsity team has been away for the past 5 out of 6 games and I am expecting the gym to be packed against Penn now that they’re back. The night before, my husband and I watched the Girls Varsity team play South Bend Riley High School followed by the Boys Varsity to a sizeable crowd and I expect an even larger crowd for this matchup. We show up early for the JV Girls game and find that fewer bleachers have been set up from yesterday with only one side of the gym populated. The student section is vacant and we sit in its’ first row thinking that the fans will keep rolling in for the varsity game, but maybe half a dozen people join our side as the next game begins. I wonder where everyone is tonight and double-check online to find that the Boys basketball team does not have a game the same day. It seems unusual that there would be such a difference in crowd attendance from one home game to the next on a weekend night.
The girls play with grit, seemingly unaffected by the crowd attendance and generate their own cheer section from the bench. I notice that there are no cheerleaders for either team but I am impressed by the level of energy the players chant for their teammates. Penn is a very good team but Central hangs with them throughout the game until the last buzzer sounds at a 48-50 loss for the Blazers. As the girls clap hands with Penn and circle up together, they jog out to the stands and shout “Thank You!” to the fans while waving good-bye to their supporters. The crowd matters to young athletes.
As a fan, I like getting a good seat, taking photos, and enjoying the social atmosphere with my husband, Derek, who gives me pointers about the game. I feel more connected as a member of my community when I’m cheering on players that I also know off the court who are giving everything they’ve got on game night. As an art teacher at Elkhart Central, I was asked by one of the players for photos that I took from the games this weekend that she could use for the school yearbook. I liked being able to share those with her when she’d otherwise not have action shots from that game. Crowd support fuels momentum, confidence, and pride in representing a home crowd. An energized student section is peer recognition that the Girls Varsity is just as exciting if not more than the boys’ team.
I actually regret not being able to attend as many of the Girls basketball games this season. I’ve wanted to support the students that I know, but many of their games have been away on weekends while I have been able to attend more of the Boys games at home. I still question why there was a gender imbalance in the popularity of a Girls Varsity game when there wasn’t a conflict with a Boys Varsity game that Saturday night. This was a great game to watch and people were really missing out on some good basketball.
The more that I thought about it, I realized how unrepresented women’s sports are in the mainstream media and wondered why women’s sports are less popular than men’s? (The Athletic) I have my theories, but I’m still unsure. In the past couple of years, I have become a big sports fan and love watching basketball, football, hockey, and baseball whereas growing up, I just assumed that I wasn’t as good at sports because I was a girl and didn’t give much attention to it. As an adult athlete, I now find fulfillment in challenging myself to run long-distance races and play competitive pickleball. I was also invited to participate in an NFL fantasy league this year and got hooked on watching professional football for the first time in my life. My husband and I also follow every Michigan State University Men’s basketball and football game and try to make it to at least one live game a season. While we have attended a couple of volleyball games for Michigan State and St. Marys College, I still watch far fewer women’s sports than men’s. The few women’s games that I have attended displayed energetic chemistry and a collective passion for the game.
I have my own female superheroes who I admire for breaking out on their own with mental toughness. I am in awe of Serena Williams‘ ability to challenge the status quo in a particularly critical spotlight with her pure athleticism and emphasis on the game. (CNN) I’m also inspired by the legacy that marathon champion, Tatyana McFadden, paves forward as an advocate for athletes with disabilities. I still wonder where all the other female superstars are? Why does WNBA player, Maya Moore, feel “invisible” at the top of her game when she has worked just as hard as NBA athletes to get where they are today? (The Players Tribune) How do female athletes really feel when they compare themselves to the boys who are so publically recognized for their athletic greatness while the stands linger vacant for girls games?
Less exposure from the top down translates to a lesser-than value for women’s sports. Little girls pick up on that and don’t naturally see themselves as worthy of equal opportunity in the world of sports. Women have hurdles to leap but we’ve always known that. Hope is not lost for the future of female athletes as long as we continue to challenge our assumptions of athletic ability based on gender. Stephen Curry wrote a personal essay for the Player’s Tribune, “This is Personal”, about how his daughters might see themselves as future hoopers like their dad to follow his personal mantra: “Be Yourself. Be good, and try to be great — but always be yourself.” Curry now holds an annual basketball camp for girls-only to actively include young ladies who would otherwise be underrepresented in camps hosted by NBA players.
We can all try to step up for our girls and support their games so that they can be just as well-attended as the boys. I have to question my own biases and make an effort to be in the stands for more local girls sports. These ladies are tough enough to play the game regardless of crowd size, but think about how much more motivating it would be for them to feel the energy of a live crowd who is with them all the way?