Sometimes, I think: How many years has the sports industry wasted trying to cram women’s sports into a formula made by men, for men?
Ten years ago, it was so common to see articles on sports sites like “Girls Who Look Good While Playing.” Women’s basketball players were receiving memos that forced them to wear short shorts and stopped them from cutting their hair short. And within the industry, you kept hearing it: “To grow the audience for women’s basketball, you need to sexualize the athletes. That’s just how it works, that’s the price to pay if you want to grow the game.”
The landscape has changed—thank goodness—to favor coverage that highlights women’s skills, competitions that don’t make impositions on players’ looks, and athletes being marketed for the incredible abilities they worked to develop.
But more than that, more people are questioning “the price to pay,” those compromises we were made to swallow—whether they even helped at all.
If sexualizing women’s basketball was the “correct” way to gain market share among male fans, why did the 2017 PBA Women’s 3x3 billed as “Baller Hotties” (actual tagline!) fail to gain enough of a foothold to warrant a second season? If focusing media coverage on “pretty girls” was the only way to get sports fans interested, why are the UAAP and NCAA basketball players from the mid-2010s not household names today?
Compare that to the recent strides in women’s basketball: Manila Hustle 3x3 and its high level of competition attracted fans in droves. The all-women 3x3 competition hosted by Nike last October had so many girls apply that they had to open up more slots. TITAN recently held a dinner for leaders and top athletes in the women’s basketball community. and if you were there, you’d see the real diversity of our community. Including lots of girls with short hair, baggy shorts, low voices.
These women were always part of our community. They were always there. In fact, a masculine-presenting woman, Allana Lim, was playing as an import across Asia a decade before the influx of male Pinoy players in Japan and Korea. But Allana did not get the spotlight she deserved, because this important segment of women simply wasn’t served, or included. Because someone (*cough* the patriarchy *cough*) decided that wasn’t what women should look like, and that wasn’t what people will respond to. Spoiler alert: they were wrong.
And the so-called pretty girls? They’re so much more than that, and the industry also did them a disservice for many years by overlooking that. The top athletes have so much more to offer—insights on how to run grassroots programs, opinions on policies, and valuable experience that was unheard for many years.
The difference now is that more and more initiatives are either led by women, or created through close coordination and consultation with women’s groups, whether it’s Girls Got Game working with Nike, or Uratex Dream managing director Peachy Medina spearheading Manila Hustle 3x3. Puso Pilipinas’ engaging content? Brought to you by female content creators. And TITAN’s co-ed basketball camp, women’s invitational, and recent dinner for the women’s basketball community have all been organized by a team that has women in key positions.
When initiatives come from within the women’s community, they are more likely to be inclusive of different athletes, more accepting of different sexual orientations and gender expressions, and—crucially—more likely to be embraced and accepted by the athletes, advocates, and fans themselves.
Sometimes, I think: How many years has the sports industry wasted trying to cram women’s sports into a formula made by men, for men? How much progress would we now be enjoying if only people started listening to women sooner? And how many amazing Filipina athletes have fallen through the cracks before the industry figured this out?
We can’t change the past. But we can build a better future for women’s basketball.
If we want better sports programs for women, we cannot go back. Listen to women, include us in your process, and together we can chart a new path.