RONDA ROUSEY AND THE SUMMER OF LOVE FOR WOMEN’S SPORTS!

By Barbara Harrison

Summer has gone by so quickly that it seems like only yesterday we were luxuriating in the Mother’s Day glow of the sun and the anticipation of a season we all love.

And as we take stock of this season — that’s what we all do at FASTPHILLYSPORTS.COM and elsewhere — it is hard to argue with the Wall Street Journal:

When Serena Williams starts to play in the U.S. Open tennis tournament that begins on Monday, it will mark the finale of a summer of love for women’s sports.

It took off in July, when the U.S. women’s national soccer team routed Japan in the World Cup final. The game drew 25 million TV viewers in the U.S., making it the country’s most-watched soccer broadcast ever—more people than saw last year’s Major League Baseball World Series Game 7. A July 10 New York ticker-tape parade was the first for a women’s team, breaking a streak that began with the 1886 celebration for the Statue of Liberty.

In early August, mixed-martial-arts fighter Ronda Rousey knocked out her female opponent in an Ultimate Fighting Championship main event. It was the top-selling pay-per-view fight so far this year in the mostly male sport, which has replaced boxing in many Americans’ consciousness. UFC President Dana White, who declared that women would never fight in the league four years ago, now calls Rousey its biggest star.

Williams won Wimbledon in July to set up a spectacle next week in New York City. If she wins the U.S. Open, she will become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to secure all four major tennis titles in a calendar year—and stake a claim to being the most dominant female athlete of all time.

Women’s sports still command a fraction of the media coverage, earnings and audiences of men’s contests. But this summer illustrates the public appetite for amazing performances. It also shows the gains that professional female athletes have made over the past 40 years.

A few years after Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, Richard Williams was watching a tournament on TV. He was so impressed when a Romanian woman won, earning her $40,000, that he vowed to train his as-yet-unborn daughters in tennis. Serena and her older sister Venus became two of the winningest players in history.

In 1984, Rousey’s mother, AnnMaria De Mars, won a world judo championship—just the third world championship held for women. Rousey followed her and won a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Olympics, spurring her to aim for the UFC.

Many of the women on the current U.S. national soccer team were impressionable young players when the first Women’s World Cup was held in 1991. The U.S. won it. Since then, the number of girls playing high-school soccer has more than tripled, from almost 122,000 in 1990 to more than 375,000 in 2014, outpacing other popular sports, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Despite this summer’s triumphs, women’s team sports are still rebounding from a stunted history. Women began playing basketball shortly after James Naismith invented the game in 1891, and female high-school and college teams proliferated.

But many basketball and other school teams for young women were wiped out by the 1930s after a campaign by the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. The group, led by female educators and other prominent women, deemed public competitions for girls unhealthy and exploitative. It took an act of Congress, the antidiscrimination Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, to drive growth in female teams again.

Since then, girls’ sports participation has skyrocketed. More than 42% of high-school athletes were female in 2014-15, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations—an all-time high.

The current running boom is female-driven. Women and girls made up 57% of the nearly 19 million road-race finishers last year, according to industry tracker Running USA. Images of women conquering muddy obstacle-course races, crossing marathon finish lines and doing pull-ups in fitness competitions have become commonplace—just check your Facebook page.

Still, for top-level female athletes, forging a career remains a challenge. Women’s pro leagues in soccer and softball have struggled to gain audiences, and the Women’s National Basketball Association, in its 19th season, is still trying to catch on with casual sports fans. All are competing in a sports and entertainment landscape far more crowded than the one their male counterparts faced nearly a century ago.

“It’s been a huge summer for women’s sports,” says Elena Delle Donne, the breakout star guard-forward for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, whose productivity this summer has been compared with Michael Jordan’s. “Visibility has always been so crucial, and we’re finally getting that.”

What might next year hold? Women won 56% of Team USA’s medals at the 2012 Olympics in London and are poised for an even stronger showing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Against this increasingly athletic backdrop, two women recently became the first to graduate from the U.S. Army’s grueling 61-day Ranger school. It should be no surprise that one was a high-school soccer star and the other a long-distance runner.

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