Quit the LPGA for the sake of gender equality (and uber-compelling sports)

Nelson Mandela once said that sports “laughs in the face of all forms of discrimination.”  And he’s absolutely right.  Sports is an incredibly democratizing force that has the power to break down bigoted barriers.

Jesse Owens showed black men were just as good as any man.  In 1936 he outran Adolf Hilter’s eugenics athletes at the Berlin Olympics.  Greg Louganis showed that gay men could compete and win in athletics just as well as straight men.  In the 1984 and 1988 Olympics be dominated the diving competitions, bringing home 4 gold medals.  In 1954 the boy’s basketball team from Milan High, the team on which the movie Hoosiers was based, showed that a bunch of farm boys from a tiny speck of a town could outplay any other team in the state of Indiana.

 

We’ve come a long way, but not that far for women

Women’s sports have made tremendous strides in the past several decades.  The US Women’s soccer team captivated the nation over the summer, bringing home their third championship.  The WNBA will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.  Women’s tennis is as popular as ever, and Serena Williams won “Athlete of the Year”.  Title IX, passed in 1972, has expanded female collegiate athletics by orders of magnitude.

Yet for all that progress, women’s sports as a spectator sport has lagged woefully behind their male counterparts.  Sure there are some bright spots like tennis and soccer and more recently MMA thanks to Ronda Rousey, but when evaluated by virtually any metric of popularity, women’s sports is SUBSTANTIALLY behind men’s.  There are fewer women professional athletes, their games/tournaments/matches draw much smaller crowds, people aren’t willing to pay as much to see them, they have lower television ratings, they get less ESPN coverage, they have much lower name recognition which leads to much smaller endorsement deals, and because of all of this they earn much, much less money.

I don’t believe these issues are related in any way to concerns about equal pay for women in the broader economy (actually I think that $0.79 study has serious flaws in it, but that’s for another day).  Sports is probably the most capitalistic industry.  Athletes get paid what they are worth or, thanks to free agency, they play for someone else.  Fans watch sporting events that are exciting to them, and they don’t watch those that aren’t.

So why aren’t women’s sports more popular?  Because it’s an inferior product.  Women’s sports just aren’t as good as men’s.  I’m not trying to be sexist, although I can certainly understand why it might come across that way at first, but please read on and you’ll see my logic.  Some may argue that they’re different and you can’t really compare them, like apples and oranges.  And there’s some truth to that.  But fans vote with their feet and their wallet, and they are voting that men’s sports are better.

 

Exclusionary sports = less entertaining sports

On the surface it’s easy to look at this and blame misogyny.  After all, most sports fans are men, although it’s not skewed nearly as much as you’d think.  For example attendance at NFL games is about 56% men, 44% women.

The answer lies in the exclusionary nature of women’s sports.  By definition, women’s sports only allow women to compete, excluding men.  Men’s sports on the other hand aren’t really men’s sports as much as anyone who can compete.  To play in the WNBA you have to be really good at basketball AND have XX chromosomes.  To compete in the NBA you have to be really good at basketball, and that’s it (you’ll notice there is no “M” in the NBA).  As I once explained to my wife in an extremely crude manner, “it doesn’t matter if you have one dick, two dicks, or no dick.”

Which league has the better, more entertaining, more popular product?  Obviously the NBA.  And it’s because most of the best basketball players in the world are men; the NBA allows those players to compete in their league while the WNBA does not.

And this isn’t just a woman thing.  Compare the Olympics to its cousins who exclude competitors based on some criteria.  The Olympics is far more popular than the Special Olympics (excludes competitors without disabilities), the Gay Games (excludes heterosexual competitors), the Senior Olympics (excludes younger competitors), the Junior Olympics (excludes older competitors), and any other that I may have missed.  It’s not even close.

Of course that’s not to say that women’s sport or those other exclusionary sports aren’t worthwhile.  THEY ABSOLUTELY ARE.  If women had to compete against men, most probably couldn’t, so I’m glad there are women’s (and more importantly girl’s) leagues.  Blind people or those with Down’s syndrome or paraplegics couldn’t compete against non-handicapped people in most sports, so I’m glad there is the Special Olympics.  The Gay Games seems as much a get together for like-minded people as it is a sporting competition so I’m glad it can serve that purpose.

But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to vote for them with my feet or wallet.  I’m a huge sports fan and I watch the sports that are entertaining and compelling.  Sometimes it’s women’s ice skating or gymnastics during the Olympics, last summer it was Serena’s run for the Grand Slam, and of course I watched the Americans win the women’s World Cup.  But mostly (roughly in order of importance to me) it’s men’s basketball, football, baseball, and soccer.  And I’m not alone.  All those metrics I mentioned earlier show that most men AND MOST WOMEN agree with me.

There’s a simple formula here.  If you want to produce the best, most popular sports product, you have the best athletes.  Not the best female athletes or the best male athletes.  Not the best old athletes or the best young athletes.  Not the best black athletes or white athletes.  THE BEST ATHLETES.

 

Playing with the boys

Quick, name the most famous race car driver you can.  Maybe you said Jeff Gordon.  He’s pretty good.  He won the NASCAR championship four times and 93 races over his career.  Maybe you’re old school and you said Dale Earnhart (won 7 season championships, 76 races) or Richard Petty (7 season championships, 200 races).  Maybe you’re new school and you said Jimmy Johnson (6 season championships, 75 races).

You know who a lot of people say: Danica Patrick.  She’s probably one of the most popular racers out there.  Is it because she’s won so much?  No, she hasn’t won a single NASCAR race.  Is it because she’s pretty?  Maybe, but there are a lot of pretty women out there, many much prettier than Danica.

She’s so popular because she is a woman competing against men.  If she was racing in a female only circuit, no one would care.  She wouldn’t do GoDaddy and Secret commercials, for which she makes about $10 million per year, among the highest of any NASCAR driver.  But she refuses to race against inferior competition because of her gender, and the public loves her for it.

Remember Tom Watson’s second place finish in the 2009 US Open?  There has been a lot of guys who finished second place in golf tournaments, but why do we remember this one with Tom?  Because he was a 59 year old guy competing against golfers in their 20s and 30s, and he nearly beat them.  Sure, there’s a golf tour for old guys, it’s called the Senior PGA and its ratings suck.    Watson could have dominated that the Senior PGA, but he decided to compete against the best without any qualification and the golfing community loved him for it.

Does the name Jim Abbott ring a bell?  He was a major league pitcher who had a record of 87-108.  That’s not really all that good, but why do we remember Jim?  He did that with one freaking hand; he was born without a right hand.  Sure he could have been the all-time greatest pitcher at the Special Olympics, probably pitching perfect games every time, striking out every batter he faced.  But no, he decided to compete against the best baseball players in the world, and he won.  Opposing teams even tried to bunt against him, figuring he couldn’t field the balls because of his missing hand.  He took on that challenge too, having a fielding percentage commensurate with his fellow pitchers, all of whom had two hands.

Here are examples of athletes who could have competed against inferior competition because of their gender or age or disability.  But all of them refused to be held back, and they competed against the best athletes in the world at the highest level.  And for that the sporting public loved them more, gave them more money and more ESPN coverage, and came out to see them in greater numbers than their performance alone probably merited.

 

Women’s sports are holding female athletes back

So let’s bring this full circle.  Women’s athletics.  Physiologically, men are stronger and faster than women.  Because of that it would be nearly impossible for even the most gifted female athlete to compete against men in sports like basketball or baseball or MMA or swimming or track and field.  Even the all-time great Serena Williams would probably lose in the first round of the men’s bracket (although it would be entertaining as hell to see—more on this in a second).  The US women’s soccer team would almost certainly lose three games in a row, probably not even scoring a goal, if they competed in the World Cup.

But there is an extremely popular sport where I think women can compete against men—golf.  Right now there is a tour that features the best golfers in the world, the PGA, and there is a tour that features the best players in the world but excludes men, the LPGA.  As you would imagine, the PGA is much more popular, covered on ESPN much more extensively, pays its winners much larger purses (about twice as much), produces much bigger stars, and on and on.

Every once in a while, a brave female golfer decides not to be held back by her gender and competes in the PGA.  Everyone loves it—Presidents mention it, the media goes bonkers, and that woman golfer starts trending on Twitter in a major way.  Unfortunately, it happens very rarely, about once every few years.  Anika Sorestan did it in 2003 and Michele We did it a few times between 2004 and 2008, and that’s about it.  Sadly, most women compete in the LPGA in anonymity for lower pay with smaller crowds and less coverage.

Why don’t more women compete against the boys?  The common refrain is that women aren’t as strong as men (fact), and can’t hit the ball as far (possibly fact), so they can’t compete (fiction).  So long as female golfers continue to buy into this self-defeating paradigm, they’re missing out on gold and glory the likes of which no female athlete has ever seen.

 

Why women can compete against men in golf

Really the whole thing comes down to drives off the tee.  There’s no real reason women can’t putt as well as men.  That involves the ability to read a green, hand-eye coordination, and a deft touch.  Strength is not a factor.  Women’s abilities there are certainly equal to those of men.

The middle game, between the drive and green, can involve hitting the ball a long way, but club choice can probably address that.  Maybe a stronger, male golfer would use a 7 iron when 170 yards from the pin, so a weaker, female golfer would use a 5 iron.  Problem solved.

So let’s get back to the driver.  As you would expect, male golfers hit the ball longer with a driver than female golfers do.  Dustin Johnson averages the longest drives on the PGA tour at about 319 yards, while Joanna Klatten averages the longest drives on the LPGA tour at about 274 yards.  That’s a difference of about 45 yards.  Interestingly, that 45 yard difference tends to be consistent.  The difference between the average drive length for PGA golfers and LPGA golfers is about 41 yards.  The difference between the best golfers, Jordan Speith for the PGA and Inbee Park for the LPGA, is 43 yards.  The difference between the golfers with the shortest average drives, David Thoms in the PGA and Lisa McCloskey in the LPGA, is 45 yards.  So it seems there’s something to that 45ish yard distance.

Yards PGA LPGA
Longest driver Dustin Johnson—319 Joanna Klatten—274
Average driver 290 249
Shortest driver David Thoms—270 Lisa McCloskey—225
#1 player Jordan Speith—292 (ranked 77th) Inbee Park—249 (ranked 78th)

 

Now an extra 40 yards on each hole is a big deal.  It might seem like a pretty insurmountable advantage for the male golfers, but a closer look shows a few different reasons why maybe it isn’t that big of a deal after all.  First point, golfers don’t use their driver on every hole.  Certainly, they don’t use it on the four par 3s typically found on each course.  Additionally, there are shorter par 4s where the male golfers tee off with a three-wood or an iron, because they don’t need to get maximum distance.  Finally, courses may be designed to limit the advantage of a long drive.  Doglegs are a common feature on holes which force golfers to hit shorter shots off the tee so they can make the turn when the dogleg bends.  Ponds and streams have a similar effect.  All those are examples of how hitting longer balls doesn’t necessarily mean playing better.

Second point, no one knows how far women can drive a golf ball.  Just as noted above, men aren’t always hitting the ball their hardest with their biggest club because of the course features, there’s no reason to think the same doesn’t apply to women.  LPGA courses are set up to be shorter than PGA courses.  If women are teeing off closer to the green than men, it shouldn’t be surprising that they don’t hit the ball as far.  Taking the 2015 US Open and Women’s US Open as examples, the men’s (although it’s not really right to call it “men’s” since women are able to compete in the US Open as well) course at Chambers Bay in Washington was 7384 yards long while the women’s course at Lancaster Country Club in Pennsylvania was 6483 yards.  That’s a difference of 901 yards for 18 holes.  Do some easy math and what is that difference on a per-hole basis?  Wait for it . . . . 50 yards.  Hmmmmm.  Women drive about 45 yards shorter than men do, but they play on courses whose holes are about 50 yards closer.

Third point, faster, harder swings aren’t the dominant factor in successful drives.  Golf club technology has made amazing strides forward.  Sure you still have to swing the club, but weaker individuals can hit balls further thanks to titanium drivers, carbon-fiber shafts, and all the other stuff in clubs today.  Driving is more a matter of hitting the ball in the sweet spot and with the proper back swing, than it is swinging hard.  If swinging hard was more important you’d see golfers with thick arms and butts who can really generate some serious club speed due to their strength.  As it is, most golfer have thin body frames.

Final point, just because you drive long doesn’t mean you win.  Look at the #1 golfers on the PGA and LPGA tours.  Jordan Speith is the #1 golfer on the PGA, but he has the 77th longest drive on the tour, 27 yards shorter than the longest driver.  Inbee Park is the #1 golfer on the LPGA, but she has the 78th longest drive on tour, 25 yards shorter than the longest driver.  Those numbers are eerily similar.  Of course the reason is that the other components of the game, that have nothing to do with strength, allow these golfers to succeed.  It’s commonly acknowledged that Speith is the best putter on the tour, and he leverages that to win more than anyone else.

 

For gold and glory

Let’s put a bow on this package.  It’s not true in a lot of sports, but in golf women can compete against men and they can win.  THEY CAN WIN.

Why do professional athletes compete?  For fame, for immortality, to beat others, to prove they’re the best, for money?  All those become bigger and better for a female golfer who competes in the PGA.  And not just a little bit better.  Orders of magnitude better.

What’s the most famous tennis match ever?  Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs in 1973.  It was dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”.  It was played in the Houston Astrodome in front of over 30,000 fans (attendance at the US Open championship for tennis is usually about 24,000).  It was carried live television and seen by millions.  And competitively it was a farce.  King won, “proving” a woman could compete and win against a man, buuuuuuut King was in her prime at age 30 (Serena was 34 when she won three grand slams) and Riggs was 55.  King didn’t prove that a woman could beat a man as much as she proved a younger person could beat an older person.  Even so, it was an enormous deal that captivated the nation and which people still talk about nearly 50 years later.

Can you imagine if a cadre of the world’s best women golfers decided to do the same thing?  We’ve seen it already just in small doses, but what if it became a real thing where women seriously competed against men, not just as a one-week lark but as a legitimate member of the tour?  The internet would explode, Twitter would blow up.  Instantly, they would be on every late-night talk show, they would get top-billing on ESPN, they would have more endorsement deals than they would know what to do with, they would get White House invites, they would have throngs of fans at the events.

And if they won?!?!?!  That wouldn’t be the biggest sports story of the year, it would be the biggest story of the year or maybe even the decade (if there wasn’t a major war).  She would instantly win “Athlete of the Year”, a Congressional medal of honor, and probably a Nobel Peace Prize.  Seriously, what event would have a bigger impact on gender equality that a woman showing she could beat the men on the field of play?

It would put a sword through the heart of the argument, currently a very valid one, that women’s sports are inferior to men.  It would inspire millions of girls (and boys too) to take on the biggest challenges and know you can come out the winner if you work hard enough despite your vagina.

It could do all those things and it’s so achievable.  Will it be easy?  No, such things rarely are.  Will it force the best golfers on the LPGA to eat a little humble pie as they go from being dominant among inferior competition to fighting it out against the world’s best?  Yes, absolutely yes.  But if those LPGA golfers are doing it for money or fame or importance, all those things wait for them by taking on the men.  Only that money and fame and importance are hundreds of times bigger than the best they can hope to achieve now.

I don’t know if it will happen, but as a sports fan and as an advocate for gender equality, I sure hope so.

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