(WOMENSENEWS)–The longevity of the 12-year-old Women’s National Basketball Association and its long list of corporate backers–more than 20 according to its Web site–are victories of a sort for the Women’s Sports Foundation.
After all, the nonprofit advocacy group helped create the marketplace for women’s professional sports through its key support of Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal funds.
But today the New York-based foundation, with a $10 million annual operating budget according to its Web site, finds itself contending with its own success as it competes with professional leagues such as the WNBA for the women’s sports sponsorship dollar.
"The wonderful benefits of Title IX, by having a WNBA, by having a soccer league, by having all these incredible opportunities, they’ve given corporate sponsors other places to put their money if they want to tap into women," said Ilana Kloss, chair of the board of the Women’s Sports Foundation. "So that’s great. At the same time, it’s making organizations like ours have to rethink our model a little bit."
All of which makes this a critical juncture for the foundation, founded in 1974, which opened in June the Billie Jean King International Women’s Sports Center in the Sports Museum of America in New York to house the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and launched a new Web site.
In April it named Karen Durkin, a sports marketing executive from Stamford, Conn., its chief executive officer. The leadership change marks a shift from former CEO Donna Lopiano, who left the post in 2007 and had an academic and coaching background.
"It’s an interesting time with respect to the recent work as well as many decades of work by many people before me," Durkin said in a recent interview.
But she isn’t ready to say how she will build the foundation in this new era of competition. "It’s premature for me to be articulating a vision."
Sowing Seeds for the Future
She did reveal the kinds of questions she is mulling, though. "Where’s the fertile ground? Where are the growth opportunities, given everything that’s been done, given what’s going on in the marketplace externally, given the state of girls and women in sports today?"
Durkin served as executive vice president of communications and brand strategy at the National Hockey League for the past two years. Before that she was executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
"We’re all fighting to get our name out there to raise much-needed funds so we continue to do good work," said Kloss. "I just think for us, our goal is to have a lot more people know who the Women’s Sports Foundation is and understand the work."
Tennis star Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974–not long after beating Bobby Riggs in the famous "Battle of the Sexes" match–with the organization’s first president, Olympic gold medalist Donna De Varona. That was two years after the groundbreaking Title IX legislation, which became the foundation’s signature issue.
"It’s been the leading agent for change in women’s sports in the last 25 years or so," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Critical Foundation Laid
Citing the slow implementation of Title IX, Lapchick said the foundation’s work on legal action in the 1980s and early 1990s–when it often provided expert testimony–was critical. "I think it was those legal challenges, those successful legal challenges in court, that really pushed athletic departments to realize that ‘We’ve got to do something.’"
Participation has increased nine-fold among girls in high school and five-fold among women in college since the inception of Title IX, according to the Washington-based American Association of University Women.
In 2007, on the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the Women’s Sports Foundation produced a comprehensive report card ranking all colleges for gender equity in athletics. The findings: Although the female share of undergraduates at the average higher institution is 55.8 percent, the percentage of female athletes still lags behind at 41.7 percent. A similar study 10 years earlier showed female undergraduates at 53 percent, but participation in athletics at 37 percent.
The foundation also conducts research on topics such as the role teen athletics can play in reducing teen pregnancy.
An initiative to involve 25 million inactive girls in sports, called GoGirlGo!, has offices in Boston, San Antonio, Atlanta and Chicago. Since its inception in 2001, nearly $3 million in grants have been issued to programs promoting athletic involvement for girls. The foundation claims it has reached over 600,000 girls.
Lopiano, the Women’s Sports Foundation CEO from 1992 to 2007, ran the University of Texas women’s athletic department for 17 years before assuming leadership of the foundation. During her tenure it grew to 29 full-time employees from a staff of about a dozen.
She left last year to form her own consulting company, Sports Management Resources, and now advises clients and schools on Title IX compliance and other issues.
Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, president and CEO of Women in Cable and Telecommunications, based in Chantilly, Va., said Lopiano made a major mark on the foundation.
"It went from being a nice foundation to being really a force to be reckoned with in the sports arena. She had a lot to do with that," said Mosley, a board member and past president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Now it’s up to Durkin to move the organization forward. Durkin, who competed as a college swimmer and basketball player at the University of Rochester, wasn’t always focused on marketing. She considered joining the LPGA Tour after completing graduate school at Northwestern University. She didn’t believe she had the game for it.
So Durkin found a place for herself in sports business instead.
"I’m in many ways a product of women’s sports," she said. "I was always playing and competing in sports, which benefited me throughout my business career as well."
Viv Bernstein is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C., and a contributor to The New York Times. She is a former staff sports reporter for the Detroit Free Press, the Hartford Courant and other newspapers and has written for numerous publications.
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