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Column: COVID gave me the opportunity to finally fully support women’s sports

Carrying a pandemic obsession into the outside world.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Yesterday while I sat at the airport and sensed that things were returning to some sense of normalcy, I came across this tweet:

I am, by nature, a person who thrives on order, so list-making is something I will seize any opportunity to do. I sat at my gate and began to jot down my dueling lists. My lists were finished with plenty of time before my flight, and so, I decided to make a third list: Life habits/practices that were developed during the pandemic that I want to continue.

Most of what I came up with during this list-making exercise was unsurprising. My close friends and I regularly have deep, purposeful conversations about our pre-pandemic and post-pandemic selves, so we’ve discussed many of these line items at length in recent weeks. My list of things I’d like to bring back from pre-pandemic times included my annual trip to Columbus to reunite with college friends for a football game, something we’d slacked on in recent years with fewer and fewer of us calling Columbus home full-time.

But it was something on the third list that jumped out at me the most. You see, during this pandemic, I became a rabid fan of women’s sports at all levels. Don’t get me wrong — I had always paid attention to (and prior to college, participated in) women’s sports. Volleyball and soccer were favorites of mine. But I never really followed them with the same gusto with which I was paying attention to Ohio State football or my hometown Chicago Cubs.

That changed during the pandemic. Suddenly, I found myself with a chosen NWSL team. Friends and I watched matches over Zoom with mimosas. I spent hours checking the box scores and stats of Ohio State women’s basketball. I dove head-first into the NCAA women’s basketball tournament during March Madness. I was watching softball on a regular basis. And it’s not that I cared less about football or men’s basketball, it’s that I suddenly had the same fervor for some women’s sports that I hadn’t previously made time for.

I recognize that “support women’s sports” isn’t a groundbreaking stance in any way. But while I can’t speak for other sports fans, I think that a lot of people feel they are supportive of women’s sports, but they don’t always go out of their way to support women’s sports. That was certainly true of my pre-pandemic self.

What do I mean by that? Well, most of us probably don’t need stats to tell us that men’s sports tend to get more viewers than women’s sports. It’s a nuanced issue and would require a whole separate column, though exposure is a large contributor. It’s hard to watch the games if they aren’t being shown on TV.

Take March Madness for example — I was able to tune into men’s games on multiple channels. I didn’t have the same abundance of options with the women’s games (which admittedly could be due to our cable package). In most cases, I had to pull up women’s games on my laptop and Chromecast them. It takes extra effort, and a lot of people — my old self included — just aren’t willing to put that effort in.

The good news is, I wasn’t the only person seeking out the women’s games. According to a USA Today article about this year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, viewership of the 2021 Sweet 16 games increased 66% compared to 2019.

But the women still only had 1.6 million viewers for the Iowa-UConn game — the second-most-viewed women’s Sweet 16 game on record. The men, comparatively, had an average of 12.9 million viewers for their Sweet 16 games.

And so, there is work still to be done. And as I said before, this is nuanced — it requires viewers, networks, sponsors, and other stakeholders to all be on the same page. As individuals, we can really only control our contribution to viewership numbers, word of mouth, and our monetary contributions by way of purchasing merchandise and tickets.

It shouldn’t have taken me this long to throw my time and energy behind women’s sports. But better late than never, and this year, with an abundance of time on my hands, I went out of my way. And then I became obsessive, in the way all the best sports fandom is. And now, as life starts to go back to what it was before, I’m dreaming about the day I can watch women’s sports in a bar with my best friends. This pandemic obsession is something I can’t wait to bring with me into the new normal.