Angela Ruggiero is a four-time Olympic ice hockey medalist (gold, silver, bronze, silver), member of both the International Olympic Committee and Hockey Hall of Fame, and CEO of the Sports Innovation Lab. She is also past-president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and the former Chief Strategy Officer for Los Angeles Olympic Bid Committee. And yet that illustrious résumé almost never got written because her father never intended to enroll her in the local league.
“When a family has one dollar to spend, it typically goes to the boy not the girl,” Angela says. And so it was with the Ruggieros, as dad only signed up her younger brother to play ice hockey. Fortunately, the league, which was in Southern California, was desperate for skaters and offered discounts to Angela and her older sister. The rest is sports history, including this winter’s touching moment of Angela distributing gold medals to the U.S. women’s hockey team 20 years after she received her own.
Clearly, there is great societal value — and joy — in encouraging female involvement in sports. But for youth leagues, it’s also good business. “You’re crazy to ignore half of the population if you’re trying to grow the bottom line through participation,” Angela says. Especially since there are concerns about overall participation in youth sports and female players represent a growing market.
But successful organizations don’t just make space for girls on the field. They also know how to keep them there. (By age 14, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys.) To continue the momentum, we asked Angela and Risa Isard, a program manager for the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, to identify what gets in the way of female participation, and what to do to overcome them.
The barrier: Resources — of families and organizations both — incline towards boys’ athletics.
The breakthrough: Discounts and other pricing models that benefit girls and siblings and a deeper consideration of who is being targeted by league marketing efforts. Hint: Websites and brochures that feature images of male athletes won’t draw many females.
The barrier: Parents who see sports as a means to an end (e.g., college scholarships, pro contracts) because the perception is it’s more likely to pay off for boys.
The breakthrough: A shift in the conversation from such rarified and unrealistic goals — the odds of landing a D1 scholarship are long, the odds of making it to the pros are vanishingly small — towards more universal rewards. “Sports is a means for education,” Angela says. “It teaches teamwork, goal-setting and other life skills that contribute to later success.”
The barrier: Too few role models and mentors. “We know female coaches keep girls engaged,” Risa says, but only 27% of youth coaches are women.
The breakthrough: Active recruitment of female coaches. “Don’t just ask for volunteers,” Angela says. “Women need to be invited.” Not just already-busy moms either (though they’re a great source), but child-free millennials and empty nesters too.
The barrier: Scheduling and equipment that favors the boys. Girls who are constantly asked to practice at dawn—and with castoff bats or sticks on subpar fields — are more likely to leave their game behind.
The breakthrough: Alternating prime practice times — “The short-term hiccup is worth the longer-term benefit,” Angela says — and equal access to equipment, fields and tournament travel.
The barrier: A sports culture — and media — that highlights boys. Only 5% of printed sports stories feature female athletes.
The breakthrough: League promotional materials that showcase girls and raises profiles of successful older female players through social media, newsletters and in-person events. “Are girls on campus celebrated for playing sports like male jocks are?” asks Risa. “If you can see it, you can be it,” Angela seconds.
The barrier: Puberty, when girls’ bodies change in ways that aren’t always athletically advantageous. “Boys hit puberty and all of the sudden are really fast,” Risa says. “Girls might plateau or get slower for a year.”
The breakthrough: Access to sports bras, for starters (in many disadvantaged communities, this is no given), and teaching tools for coaches who need to be able to help girls understand what’s happening to their bodies.
The barrier: The sexualization of female athletes. “Many organizations think glamming-up their female athletes will increase interest,” Risa says. “It doesn’t.”
The breakthrough: Boosting women as athletes first. Similarly, watch for policies that inadvertently send the wrong message: If a girl can’t practice in only a sports bra, why should a boy be able to practice shirtless?
The barrier: Assumptions based on stereotypes (Girls love pink, so pink jerseys for everyone!)
The breakthrough: Seek input from the competitors themselves. Why are they playing? What will they consider success? And yes, what color should the uniforms be?
Having seen the global sports landscape, Angela is hopeful but clear on what is necessary for change: increased awareness and forward-thinking plans. Also, for organizations to realize that change “isn’t going to happen overnight,” she says. Just like in sports (and sports idioms), it will require persistence. And as long as so many leaders in the sports world are men, that means they need to be part of that realization, not to mention part of the solution. “Disrupting the status quo will take men with the courage to do something that won’t be universally liked,” she admits, before striking a more optimistic tone. “Then again, if you build your organization, make it stronger, you will be a hero or, better yet, a champion. In sports, that’s a pretty persuasive goal.”