Women succeed at sports -- does anybody notice?

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(CSTV U-WIRE) BOULDER, Colo. -- The University of Colorado's women's tennis team received its second-ever bid to the NCAA women's tennis championships on Tuesday. Yet, most people on campus don't know where the team plays its home games. (CU-South and the Millennium Harvest House)

The lack of fans at the matches may have something to do with a general disinterest in tennis, but women's sports, in general, have problems attracting spectators. At CU, even during the worst men's basketball season in more than a decade, the team attracted more than 3,000 fans a game -- while not even half that amount attended women's basketball games.

The women's soccer team had trouble attracting even 1,000 fans, even though the Buffs women made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

Women's sports have gained much greater equality over the last three decades, but they still have a long way to go.

Ceal Barry, the former CU women's basketball coach for 22 years, says Boulder's lackluster interest in CU's women's sports can be blamed, in part, on the diversity of the city.

"People in Boulder have their own interests. They bike, they hike and there's always interesting things to do and see here," she said. "If you go to a women's game in Manhattan, Kan., there's a much bigger turnout for the games."

This may provide a reason for the disinterest in CU sports in general, which can only afford to have 16 teams -- the least in the Big 12 conference -- but it does not explain the disparity in attendance between men's and women's sports. Barry places part of the blame on the media.

She said that although she is an avid fan of women's sports, she is more informed about men's sports because the media don't cover women's sports with the frequency that they do men's.

In the March 31, 2007 issue of The Denver Post, for example, a two-page spread was devoted to the men's NCAA basketball tournament. That story began on the front page of the sports section. Yet, even though the women's NCAA basketball tournament was occurring at the same time, only one story appeared about it. That story was buried in the back and was less than a full column in length.

But, as Barry asks, "What came first, the chicken or the egg?"

For the mainstream media to cover more women's sports, people must be interested in them. And as attendance figures show, fans are generally not interested.

So, why spend money on women's Division-I collegiate sports instead of putting that money into something else?

One reason, of course, is Title IX, the 1972 law that is supposed to ensure gender equality in sports. Another reason, as Barry points out, is that sports teach young girls to push themselves and to be disciplined. If women's Division-I athletics did not exist, young girls may not have as much to strive for.

"If you take your daughter to a men's basketball game or a football game she might only identify with the cheerleaders," Barry said. "With women's collegiate sports, girls get to see [the games] and think: 'Maybe that could be me some day.'"

Although collegiate-level female athletes may be a good motivator for young girls, they were not always as abundant as they are now, especially not at CU.

When Barry first arrived at CU in 1983, the women's basketball team had only been around for nine years and women's volleyball, golf and soccer did not yet exist. The Buffs' women's volleyball team was created in 1988, golf began in 1993 and soccer began in 1996 in efforts to conform to the regulations of Title IX.

With the growth of the number of women's sports teams at CU came more equal treatment of women's athletics. In the recent past, women could not get into the weight room without going through the football locker room. Barry said that all of the workout facilities were built for football and the Coors Event Center was built for men's basketball.

Now with the construction of the Dal Ward Athletic Center in 1990, men and women work out side by side in the same facility.

But just because most things have improved, does not mean that everything is perfectly equal.

"The women still have a lot of needs," Barry said. "The locker rooms could be better and the facilities could be better."

According to Mike Bohn, CU's athletic director, improvement for both men's and women's sports begins with men's sports, mainly football.

While football has by far the highest budget of any CU sport at more than $8 million annually, it is also the only sport that is operating at a financial gain, even during last season's 2-10 disappointment. The money that football earns supports other sports.

Bohn said he expects new basketball and football facilities to bring in better recruits and therefore better teams that will generate more money.

Last year the budget was so bad ($8 million in debt) that Bohn had to cancel the men's tennis program. This year, however, he projects a balanced budget. Donations are up 78 percent from last year which should positively affect all sports.

"Football is the springboard to greatness," Bohn said.

And Barry doesn't disagree.

"If football sells out games, [women's sports] will get better facilities," she said.

According to Bohn, although football is the only sport at CU that generates a profit, the fact that women's teams are doing so well still positively affects the budget.

"Any time a team does well it's a positive," Bohn said. "A women's team doing well brings renewed energy which can bring more donations and more scholarships."

And CU women's teams are doing well. The women's tennis team is ranked No. 37 in the country and the women's soccer team made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever.

Women's volleyball attendance has reached a record-setting level this season, suggesting that interest in women's sports continues to grow.

Brad Cohen

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