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Wednesday, February 27, 2013
What to make of recent women's sports milestones

By Johnette Howard

At first glance, the following female athletes wouldn't seem to have a whole lot in common beyond the on-field milestones they've recently set. But if you look a little closer, what they've all done is provide glimpses -- however long or dramatic or brief -- into just how women's sports might finally reach its most stubbornly unconquered frontier.

Lydia Ko, now 15, is the youngest golfer to win an LPGA event. Six-foot-8 Baylor center Brittney Griner made dunking routine on her way to ranking third on the NCAA's all-time scoring list. Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer on Tuesday became only the seventh basketball coach, male or female, to reach 900 wins. Danica Patrick is a death-defying race car driver and rare woman who gets to compete against, and beat, men head-to-head, even at places like Daytona and Indy. Ronda Rousey is an MMA prizefighter who breezily discussed what she'd say if Playboy came calling after her groundbreaking debut Saturday in the first female UFC fight.

Rousey laughed at the idea that she needed Playboy.

"No one should be able to see my cash and prizes for $5, OK?" Rousey joked to HBO's "Real Sports" before making the breakthrough UFC president Dana White once predicted would never happen.

The report on Rousey aired five days before she and Liz Carmouche's headlining fight on the UFC 157 card drew a live gate of $1.4 million in Anaheim, Calif., and a pay-per-view haul expected to perhaps double that. It aired six days before Patrick became the first woman to start on the pole at the Daytona 500 this past Sunday and went down to the dramatic last lap with a chance to win (she finished eighth, the highest ever by a woman).

After just seven professional bouts -- all of them first-round wins -- Rousey has the chance to become the sort of crossover sensation Patrick has become, but with an even better likelihood of dominating her sport.

Like Ko, Griner and Stringer, Rousey and Patrick are groundbreakers. But what makes Rousey and Patrick even more different is the marketing power they are flexing, and their ability to draw hard-core male sports fans in exponentially bigger, more lucrative numbers than female athletes have done before.

Monetizing female athletes' careers is the next frontier for women's sports, and it has been for a while. The business of women's sports remains the most stubborn problem to crack and is the last great hurdle facing women's sports.

After all, there's been no lack of mind-bending athletic achievements by women before Rousey and Patrick came along. Nonetheless, there is a fear women's pro soccer will never make a go of it in this country, and that the WNBA will always remain a summer stock fill-in that exists at the whim and wish of departing NBA commissioner David Stern. There is concern the LPGA will continue to contract, although perhaps Ko's rise would help. As someone born in South Korea but raised in New Zealand, she could be perfectly situated to become the next bilingual breakout star for an LPGA Tour that is drifting away from the United States and leaning more and more on golf-mad Asia to thrive.

Today, women's sports isn't primarily about carving out opportunities to compete anymore, although protecting them is as important as it was when Stringer, who is 64, began a career that also set this benchmark: She is reportedly the highest-paid state employee in New Jersey at $1.035 million this year.

Ronda Rousey
Ronda Rousey was part of the headlining match at UFC 157. She beat Liz Carmouche to stay undefeated.

The debate about whether female athletes can do extraordinary things that only men did before is a settled question, too. Of course they can. It's not a question of "if," but "when" and "where." The Olympics were once so backward they didn't let women run the marathon until 1984; now the Games feature women's weightlifting, blood sports such as boxing and ice hockey, daredevil X Games events and -- coming next year -- ski jumping for women. The jumpers didn't give up until they crowbarred their way in, too.

There was a lot of "first woman ever" talk swirling around Patrick last week, as well. But if you noticed, little of it was coming from Patrick herself. Why? Too limiting. Because this has been the ethic among women groundbreakers for a while: "I'm on the quest to be the best driver, run up front, get to Victory Lane," Patrick explained. "These things [like being the first woman to win the pole] happen, and I'm proud, but they're not the ultimate goal."

The biggest milestones still out there are no longer what happens if women are allowed to play; it's how to make it pay so you survive and thrive.

It will be highly ironic (not to mention funny as hell) if it turns out the women who lead the next wave are the likes of Rousey and Patrick, especially after all the dull-witted or obstructionist things female athletes have had thrown in their way over the years, and the overheated and often uninvited attempts to "protect" their "femininity." ("But … I mean … we already are women," a puzzled Manon Rheaume said to a male reporter who asked about that when women's ice hockey debuted at the 1998 Winter Olympics.)

Could the next big things in sports really be a female MMA fighter with blood streaming from her nose or a 5-foot-2, 110-pound race car driver who has taken off down pit road looking to punch a rival a few times for things the other driver had just done on the track, rather than the usual suspects in the nice-clothes sports such as tennis and golf, or an Olympic standby such as gymnastics or ice skating, or World Cup soccer?

How about women who can light up pay-per-view buys all by themselves?

That would be groundbreaking, all right.

Other than the Williams sisters, it's hard to think of two prominent, modern female athletes who have operated so free of the old "movement" or identity politics as Patrick or Rousey, brief as Rousey's MMA career has been since she won a judo bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Too often, appreciation of women athletes has been an inconsistent thing that has coincided only with whenever a milestone is set, such as Danica at Daytona or the first Women's World Cup extravaganza in the U.S. And such interest has almost always been linked to the female athletes' perceived sex symbol quotient.

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick won the Daytona 500 pole and finished eighth in the race.

But now look: Rousey and Patrick find themselves embedded in two of the more remarkable sports marketing machines and hard-core male fan bases ever, other than the NFL. They're pretty clear about how they want to control their destiny, which includes how they use their sex appeal to their advantage. To them, the old pressures from within women's sports to discourage or refuse to capitalize on their looks are just another settled question -- even if it's not everybody's gig, women's sports has not ground to a halt because some women are OK with being sex symbols.

Rousey has said she had issues about her attractiveness as a child, and she has called the buzz she created by posing for the cover for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue an affirming experience.

Patrick has been vamping it up in six-inch heels and playing a smoking-hot temptress in "Go Daddy" TV commercials for a while -- to the point that it's hard to tell whether she really has just fallen in line or is lampooning how much sex sells. After all, Patrick is not the sort of woman who backs down. She's so competitive that some of her foot-stomping tantrums after she has gotten knocked out of races have been laugh-out-loud funny. And did you happen to overhear during Sunday's race when Patrick called rival driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. "an a------" during radio communication with her spotter when he said she was frustrating Earnhardt by blocking him from passing her early in the race? Patrick snapped back that it's called protecting her racing line.

There's no denying the hotness factor played a significant part in elevating the marketability of Rousey and Patrick. But the stir about them is also this:

"She's a racer," said Dale Jr., who finally did edge Patrick in the wild finish.

"This was a big night for women's sports," Dana White told Yahoo! Sports on Saturday after Rousey and Carmouche's scintillating back-and-forth bout. White said his fears that the women's fight would be treated like "a freak show" rather than a serious skill competition between insanely fit athletes never materialized.

Way, way back in the day, the architects of the women's sports movement knew it would leap ahead only when women proved their competence at things men valued highly. They also knew they needed to draw men willing to pay to see women's sports, same as UFC itself relies on an audience that White says is 46 percent women.

The fact the male and female audience traffic is now flowing both ways is important. It means the definition of what a female groundbreaker is in sports is changing, all right. The women have grown more marketing muscle. They've moved into the last frontier.

Women athletes still set milestones in competition, same as they always have. But more than ever, they're moving the needle off the field in seismic ways.