Gender breaker King, others take steps here to lift women's sports |

Gender breaker King, others take steps here to lift women’s sports

Patrick Finley: ‘We’ve got so far to go’

Ask Billie Jean King about growing women’s sports to where she thinks they should be – equal to the size, relevance and financial oomph of male sports – and she turns a three-syllable word into one with 12.

“Expooooooooooosure,” the tennis great said Tuesday, hustling down the halls of the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain. “It’s exposure. It’s exposure, exposure, exposure – and having a story to tell.”

Two hundred and fifty of the most powerful women in sports gathered here from Monday to Wednesday for the ESPNW Women and Sports Summit, with the sponsor, ESPN’s female-focused website, offering a key to the exposure and financial hurdles.

The summit combined business, sports, social and cultural commentary.

Female Olympians, world record-holders, sports executives, agents, media personalities and star athletes were in attendance. Laura Gentile, ESPNW’s vice president, said securing a star roster “helps when you’re ESPN,” of course.

“We’ve gotta be in their face,” said King, who won 39 Grand Slam titles, a Presidential Medal of Freedom Award and the Battle of the Sexes tennis match, in 1973, against Bobby Riggs. “You know how you hear about men’s sports every day? That’s what you need with the women.

“You know more male athletes’ names. You know more about them. You know about their families, where they went to school. Human things that get us very connected to somebody.

“Every person has a story, and our stories really aren’t told as well.”

Asked how many current female athletes have backgrounds known to the average fan, King paused.

“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug.

A few stalked the halls of the Ritz: Michelle Kwan, the two-time Olympic figure skating medalist; Julie Foudy, the Women’s World Cup star turned ESPN broadcaster; and Olympic softball standout Jessica Mendoza, who now announces the Women’s College World Series.

Lisa Leslie, one of the greatest women’s basketball players ever, was there.

Members of this summer’s U.S. Women’s World Cup team flew in Wednesday.

There were panel discussions, such as “The Marketing and Promotion of Female Athletes: Does Sex Sell?” and “Making Women’s Sports Relevant” and “Mentorship: How Women Inspire Each Other to Greatness,” among others.

But casual meetings might have been even more memorable.

Tuesday, after a jog, Mendoza was introduced to George Bodenheimer, the president of ESPN and ABC Sports, while waiting in line for a breakfast buffet.

She planned to go mountain-biking later with Gatorade bigwigs.

It’s networking, sure.

But there’s also a sense of purpose.

Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, said growing women’s sports is socially responsible.

“Women make up half the world,” he said. “If we can’t support their desires – to compete, to play, to have healthy lifestyles, to do all the things sport does to people – then we as a human race are missing a big part of what we can do.”

Mendoza grew up idolizing Brett Butler, a former big-league outfielder, but said girls today have idols who look like them.

Women have “our World Cup moments,” Mendoza said, one-off events like the Olympics, and regional success stories like the Arizona Wildcats softball team.

But growing women’s sports nationally takes more from business.

“We’re a greedy country; people want that bottom line now,” Mendoza said. “Women’s sports will not work with those kinds of people.”

King, 67, has seen a lifetime’s worth of growth since turning pro 43 years ago.

She wants more.

“We want to close the gap with the guys,” King said. “We want to have the same opportunities. We don’t.

“We’ve got so far to go, it’s a joke.”

Finding solutions, at events like this week’s, is one step forward.

“This is just the beginning of something,” she said. “I probably won’t be on earth still, but I think it’ll be of seismic proportions in the next 40 years.

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Posted on: September 29, 2011