Despite Progress, Sports are Still Failing Girls

Check out CHJS's first thought piece of 2024

April 2024 – As we eagerly await the 2024 Women’s NCAA Final Four and Championship, we’re seeing staggering numbers supporting the success of the women’s basketball game. According to Togethxr, last week’s LSU vs Iowa contest secured an average of 12.3 million viewers. In the opening rounds? 292,456 fans attended, the most in tournament history. Want a last minute ticket? If you’ve over $1,100 in your pocket, you can hurry and buy one. Or skip to the men’s side, where the average ticket is about $636 per ticket.

Everyone is watching women’s sports—but is everyone ready to ensure the benefits of this watershed moment reach the millions of girls in communities who can benefit the most from a positive sports experience?

While researchers, practitioners, and policymakers have made commendable progress over the past few decades, the grim reality persists: sports are still failing girls. The rise of women’s professional and collegiate sports notwithstanding, the systemic barriers girls face demand a renewed sense of urgency and commitment. If we are seriously interested in protecting girls, sports must be more inclusive. More representative. More healing.

Without real effort and intention, the exponential growth of women’s sports in culture, media, and the market will simply lead to greater inequities and perpetuate the very barriers the movement claims to be working to remove.

Promise of Equity Still Unmet

The enactment of Title IX has brought significant strides for women in sports though as female athletes steadily gain more recognition, the sports system continues to let down girls at troubling rates. This truth underlies the narrative of advancement and progress. Here are some examples:

Simply put, girls of color, immigrant and newcomer girls, trans girls, and girls in poor or low-income communities are likely not playing sports without additional intervention or assistance. While we celebrate the emergence of women into the mainstream of sports culture, so long as this inequity exists, the work is not done.

Real Progress, Real Opportunity

The benefits of sports participation in girls have been widely reported, mostly notably by the Tucker Center and Women’s Sports Foundation. In short, girls who participate in positive physical activity, play, and sports have better physical health, mental health, and professional and career outcomes. If “girls who play become women who lead,” our universities, companies, and overall society are worse off because the sports system is excluding large swaths of girls who are excluded from those benefits.

For decades, practitioners, community members, and policymakers have raised the alarm about the need for increased access and improved quality for girls’ sports. As a result of the lifelong but often unrecognized efforts of women and allies over multiple decades, today, we can make some claims that show a shift in culture around girls and women in sport. Certainly, the rise of women’s professional sports over the last five years is one indicator that there is slow but steady progress.

And the payout from these efforts are worth it.

Sarah Spain, columnist, shares, “The trickle-down effect of major professional leagues and opportunities for women in sport is that girls see a future for themselves in college and the pros. Parents see role models and representatives that influence their spending and support their daughter’s desire to play. Schools are pressured to provide resources, fields, and access to girls on a level that is equal to that of boys.”

The Future of Women’s Sports: Equitable and High-Quality Girls Sports Programming

A thriving, competitive, representative, and marketable women’s sports industry depends on a diverse base of millions of girls playing and staying in sports.

For those who want a future for women’s sports that continues to grow and thrive, we must commit that as investment increases, we ensure real dollars reach local, community-based, and accessible girl’s sports programming. We must not repeat the failures of the existing sport system where there are countless examples, including AAU, of how increased investment can be used to create deeper divides between the “haves” and “have-nots” and gate-keep participation at the youth level. Is this the system we seek to emulate as women’s sports grow in market value?

To make sure girls benefit as women’s sports popularity increases, we at CHJS believe we must:

  • Focus on local, school-based, and community-based recreational opportunities for girls. Girls need a range of opportunities, not just highly competitive travel teams (that most girls can’t access anyway). The competitive-to-professional pipeline is vital to maintain but isn’t currently at risk. Girls who can pay to participate or who are typically in the 1% of skill/ability can find their way. What about the other millions of girls who we know can and should benefit from a positive youth sports experience? Invest equally in recreational and competitive programs for girls so that the vast majority of girls (who won’t go pro) get to play.

  • Train all youth sports coaches specifically on how to coach girls. This includes (and might be even more critical for) male coaches. There needs to be more coaching standards, expectations, and offerings specifically for how to coach girls. All coaches should understand what typically motivates girls to get into and stay in sports and be able to differentiate their instruction appropriately. We know why girls are leaving sports; coaches can be a catalyst for change to create more positive experiences.

  • Create accountability to ensure equity means ALL girls. We must ensure that girls who have been disenfranchised, pushed out of, and historically not included in youth sports are invited to the playing field. In Katie Barnes’ book Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debate, they state, “After nearly a decade of moving towards inclusion, federations and national governing bodies have reserved course. Instead, each new regulation coming from top governing bodies is more restrictive than the last, with some inching closer to outright bans for trans women in women’s competition, specifically. If recent history is to be our judge, these policies will trickle down to affect youth.” We need better coaching (see above), more intentional program development, and real dollars invested in creating quality girls’ sports programming for ALL athletes.

  • Create and support opportunities for women in coaching and leadership at all levels. As the popularity of women’s sports grows, the number of women coaching has actually decreased. This is precisely the kind of trend that indicates that increased investment in women’s sports isn’t automatically being reinvested into women and girls. Professional teams, businesses, and media must ensure there are real pathways for women to lead, be visible, and step into increasingly powerful and lucrative leadership roles.

CHJS founder Megan Bartlett – “There are many things that we actually don’t want to replicate about the existing system. We want the rise of women’s sport to usher in a new ethos of sport – one where the power of sport is used as a force for good for all girls, not just those who are following an elite path. When we invest in access and equity, we create a generation of athletes and fans who love sport not only because of their connection to their favorite team, but also because they were able to reap the physical, social, and emotional benefits of being a part of a team, of living a life in sport.”

Everybody’s watching, but that won’t matter unless everybody gets to play.

This thought piece was written by the team at the Center for Healing and Justice through Sport (CHJS). For further inquiries, email CHJS director of external affairs, Pharlone Toussaint Pharlone Toussaint,

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