Downstairs, hanging in our family rec room alongside team pennants, soccer scarves, pictures of Todd Helton and Peyton Manning, is a framed set of pictures signed by Mikaela Shiffrin. She autographed them for me before her first gold medal and before she became a global icon.
Last week, Shiffrin broke Lindsey Vonn’s record 82 wins for most career World Cup victories by a woman. Now at 84 total, she is only three away from breaking an all-time mark for any gender. It has stood since almost a decade before Shiffrin was born.
Shiffrin is emblematic of the rise of women’s sports in our collective attention. It is a trend that is long overdue.
For our collective history, sport and its audiences have been focused on men. In this country, watching football or baseball or hockey or basketball almost invariably means watching the men who comprise the players (and most staff) in the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA.
Those leagues have made a nod to inclusion by highlighting female referees and executives, but the disparity is still dramatic. Several teams have female coaches on staff, but only once has a woman served as the head coach — Becky Hammon took over the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs after Gregg Popovich was ejected in a game on Dec. 30, 2020.
Hammon subsequently left the Spurs to take over head coach duties for the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces. They won the first title in franchise history in her first year. Like Shiffrin, Hammon highlighted the growing interest in women who actually play the sports we watch.
While the WNBA does not have the viewership or revenue of the NBA yet, it has seen a steady climb in attention. For example, basketball columnist and author of the New York Times bestseller “Basketball (And Other Things)” Shea Serrano is a die-hard Aces fan and regularly uses his social media presence to highlight them. Maybe his next title should be “Aces (And Other Things)” to bring more people into the fold?
Despite growing interest, the league is not remotely in parity with the NBA in terms of salaries. The top players in the WNBA make a little over $200,000 a year; a good salary in relative terms, but a pittance compared to the tens of millions NBA elite take home. That is why superstar Brittney Griner was playing in Russia during the offseason: to supplement her income. LeBron James never had to risk detention and arrest to secure his post-playing career financial future.
Which brings us to my favorite sport, soccer.
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The United States Women’s National Team made headlines when members sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination. Despite substantially outperforming the men’s team — the USWNT has won four World Cups and are ranked first in the world; the USMNT has not made a World Cup semifinal since 1930 and is currently ranked 13th in the world — the women were paid millions less. The lawsuit settled about a year ago. As usual, the USWNT won.
USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe, whose picture also adorns my wall, characterized it as “a monumental win for women’s sports … for the players for the next generation.” She also promised it is “the first step, not the last step.”
She is not wrong. For my part, I belong to a local Chelsea supporters club that makes a conscious effort to increase support for the women’s team. We sing songs for them, members travel to Europe to watch them play and we show up at 5:30 a.m. in the bitter cold to watch them at the British Bulldog.
Shiffrin may be breaking records, but more importantly she is helping break barriers and glass ceilings. She is helping to show us that women in sport are every bit as interesting — and often far more entertaining — than their male counterparts.
That is the real record Shiffrin is helping to break.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.
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