Breaking Through The Grass Ceiling: Oprah, Meet The WPS!

John HowellAnalyst IMay 6, 2009

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 24:  Nikki Krzysik (L) and Carli Lloyd unveil the Chicago Red Stripes  team uniforms during a fashion show to unveil the new uniforms for the Women's Professional Soccer League February 24, 2009 in New York City, New York.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

It is America's best kept secret. Women's Professional Soccer has launched. Undoubtedly this league provides the highest level of professional competition and athleticism for women in the world. It is also the most accessible.

Fans can get close to players, interact with players at games and events, and can get great seats at game venues for less than half the cost of a ticket in any other major league sport, including men's soccer. Yet, the league's best attendance to date, is 8,000.

In Chicago, where soccer, and the Women's National Team have had a good fan base for years, the best attendance to date is a little less than 6,000. True, the weather hasn't helped, but how many empty seats do you find at Wrigley Field when the weather is bad, or at Soldier Field, even in a snowstorm, even when the Bears aren't winning?

So is the difference that soccer fans are less loyal, or is it that even the Bears, Bulls, Cubs and Blackhawks would not draw as well if the media ignored them? Bingo.

I blame the traditional media. There is seldom a mention of WPS action on local TV sportscasts, nor even on ESPN. Local print media may or may not show league standings and may or may not cover a game or even show a score. Why?

Not because of a lack of newsworthiness. It is big news that a professional league has formed for world class female athletes. It is big news that seven U.S. cities are the crucibles in which the new league is being developed. Why isn't it covered as news?

Would the media moguls excuse their neglect because not enough people care? Or is it that not enough people care because the media hasn't reported legitimate news.

True, it is the responsibility of the league and its franchises to do their own public relations and advertising, but that only works to a point. After that point, the general population tends to depend on the media to legitimate a sport or a league by covering it.

It is perplexing that as obsessed as the media is with women breaking traditional barriers in politics, they are conspicuously silent about women breaking through the grass ceiling on the athletic field. The latter is as newsworthy as the former, maybe more so, when you think about it.

So why the double standard between women in politics and women in sports? That is the subject of someone's sociology dissertation. I'd rather focus on how to change it.

It may take the leadership of women in high places and companies that cater to women to help the WPS gain more mainstream media traction.

So, I'll throw out a challenge to the biggest female media mogul of them all. Oprah, pay attention! Women are going to the next level right under your Chicago nose and you haven't noticed. You can feature a full schedule of games on Oxygen. You can invite the likes of Kelly Smith, Megan Rapinoe and Marta to the sofa at Harpo Studios. You can buy a skybox.

And what about Dove products, as just one example? They have the "campaign for real beauty." Their website has a feature on "real girls and real pressure." Why aren't they a major WPS sponsor? Why aren't they approaching the major sports media and offering to sponsor primetime national TV coverage?

If Oprah started featuring the WPS and its key players, their scores would be reported on every newscast. Their games would be available on a variety of broadcast and cable channels.

If Dove and other companies that cater to women and girls were to sponsor the WPS at the same level beer companies sponsor the major male sports leagues, it wouldn't be long before seats would be full and the question of which comes first: media coverage or fan support? would not be an issue.