EAST LANSING, MI: On a snowy Sunday in mid-Michigan, 9,000 people came out to watch the Michigan State women’s basketball team play Big Ten rival Penn State. Admittedly, the crowd was somewhat swollen by 2,000 free tickets handed out to local Girl Scouts. But typically over 6,000 spectators show up for each of the 15 or so home games that the MSU women play from November to March.
Amazingly, the extraordinary nationwide boom in female athletics is the result of a landmark 1972 law that banned federal money from institutions failing to promote gender equity. Prior to passage of Title IX of the Equal Opportunity in Education Act, a mere 310,000 girls played high school or inter-collegiate sports. Today that number has exploded by 1,000% to 3.4 million.
College sport is big business and men’s football and basketball are the money-spinners. At many universities, profits from basketball and football finance non-revenue sports like rowing, wrestling, tennis, and track. Michigan State fields 25 sporting teams, slightly more for women than men.
With a university budget that exceeds $1 billion, MSU derives about $90 million from ticket sales and broadcasting. That’s about $2 million more than it spends on athletics. Experts say overall women’s sport is a long way from being profitable. Only 43 of 340 women’s basketball programs break even. And of those profits don’t exceed $500,000. While only four women’s basketball programs generated income of $4 million in 2011, 86 men’s basketball teams did.
But profitability was never the goal of Title IX. Its real benefit is widening athletic excellence and opening opportunity to girls. A ticket taker at the MSU Penn State game recalls the sorry days of the late 1970s when only a few hundred attended women’s basketball even though the price of admission was only $2 or less. “The caliber of play was pretty bad,” he says, adding “but look at it now. It’s come way, way up.”
And with every improvement in quality, attendance has grown. While significantly trailing the men’s game in attendance, MSU women’s basketball is broadcast live to an expanding audience.
Of course attendance is linked to winning. On this wintery Sunday Michigan State came up short, losing the game 66 to 54. Disappointing yes, but the fans didn’t seem too worried. Many will be back next week, helping MSU maintain its position in the top ten nationally for attendance in women’s basketball.