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  • Writer's pictureJo Clubb

The Big Opportunity for Female Professional Sports: Be Different in All the Right Ways

In this collaborative article, Teena Murray and Jo Clubb discuss five areas that leaders can impact female professional sports by thinking differently.


Author Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping point as ‘that magical moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a critical threshold, tips, and becomes a transformational movement.’ 


Most would say we have finally reached a ‘tipping point’ for female professional sports. After a long, and very slow climb, it appears female sport has gained enough momentum to be classified as a “movement.” The question now is, will it be transformational in all the right ways?


As two women who have worked in multiple men’s professional sports leagues, we have witnessed first-hand the best of what professional sports has to offer. We have also recognized and analyzed the missed opportunities. 


Rather than a carbon copy of what already exists, we encourage female professional sports leaders to think more broadly and deeply about the powerful opportunity to be different in all the right ways. 


Below are five areas where, we believe, female professional sports can inspire and impact in a bigger way by thinking differently:


  1. Health and Performance Research

  2. Data Infrastructure

  3. Coach (and Leadership) Development Pathways 

  4. Purpose and People 

  5. Social Impact


Health and Performance Research in Female Athletes


Historic underrepresentation of females in scientific research has created a prevailing ‘gender data gap.’ For example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health spent $45B on biomedical research in 2022, yet only 15% of this budget was allocated to female health. The result is limited knowledge of female performance, injury prevention, recovery, nutrition, equipment, and mental health needs. The outdated "pink it and shrink it" strategy used for decades, is unacceptable, as illustrated by over 80% of female players in top European teams reporting footwear issues. 


A call to action to accelerate health and performance research has been sounded. Urgency is needed. Thinking creatively about league-wide, and multi-center research collaborations could be a favorable solution. The Feminae Project, an international multisite initiative for female athletes, exemplifies this approach by pooling talent, expertise, and data to accelerate learning and reduce research waste. Similarly, the FIFA Female Health Project is an example of a unified international effort to accelerate research and development in health, well-being, and performance in soccer. 


As new leagues form, leading with infrastructure that supports fast learning around female health and well-being, injury mechanisms and trends, and associated rule and equipment changes is paramount. This involves embedding third-party epidemiology, equipment, and health and safety partnerships from the beginning.


Regarding research priorities, periods get the press, but female athlete health goes beyond the menstrual cycle. A comprehensive view is needed, encompassing aspects such as reproductive health, pregnancy, pelvic floor health, breast health, hormones, and menopause. This research is needed to form the basis for tailored strategies, allowing leagues and governing bodies to provide guidance throughout athletes' reproductive journeys. A current example is the Pregnancy Guidance created by U.K. Sport.


Periods get the press, but female athlete health goes beyond the menstrual cycle. 

There is also the need to emphasize diversity within female athlete research. For instance, the soccer cleat study found racial differences, with more black female players reporting heel discomfort. Likewise, socio-cultural factors across the world can influence hormonal contraception use and other health considerations. In seeking to address one data gap, it is paramount we do not create another one.

Two girls sat on a soccer pitch stretching.
Diversity within female athlete research is important to avoid creating more data gaps.

Lastly, ensuring practitioners on the front lines are educated on gender differences is essential. Beyond the menstrual cycle, understanding pregnancy and menopause, and how training, fueling, and recovery should be adapted individually, both acutely and over time, to optimize health, performance, and career longevity is critical. 


Data Infrastructures


Intertwined with the need to accelerate research on female athletes is the need for thoughtful design of data infrastructure to support innovation through technology. In society, and especially sport, we have witnessed a rapid influx of technology in a short period. This trend is expected to continue. Ecosystems within and across leagues must allow data to be effectively harnessed to address gender gaps, enhance practitioner knowledge, modernize practices, and, ultimately, impact outcomes like player availability, player development, player readiness, and career longevity in a positive way. 


In addition to multisite collaborations such as the Feminae initiative, considerations on how data can be linked across leagues, sports, and nations in a suitably private and ethical manner are crucial. Historically, data sharing and research in men's professional sports has been limited. Yet, where this has taken place, such as the UEFA Injury Research studies in European Soccer, the knowledge generated is significant. Female sports should grasp the opportunity to harness these benefits by reimagining public-private research collaborations. 


Data ownership might also present a unique opportunity for innovation. There is growing interest across professional sports for athletes to access and potentially manage their data in pursuit of the best and most personalized care. While maintaining privacy and ethical standards, embracing athlete engagement in data may position female sports ahead of the curve, unlocking new possibilities with technology. The Professional Tennis Players Association's recent announcement of PTPA Mednet represents a sign of the time.


For health and performance practitioners, the ability of game data to improve player development and management is clear. By quantifying game demands, data allows for daily targeted individualized prescriptions and progressions to reduce injury risk and optimize game day preparation. While in-game player tracking remains relatively new, sharing within and across leagues has either been discouraged or has lacked coordination. Moreover, in some leagues, the freedom to publish game data has been prohibited. Creative sharing and open access to game data represent an exciting opportunity for women’s sports to learn fast and progress faster. 


A picture from a female basketball game. One girl in black uniform matches up against a girl in a white uniform around the basketball 3-point line.

Addressing the gender data gap will require a multifaceted approach. By dispelling myths, leveraging existing research, broadening the scope of investigation, and thinking differently about data management and sharing opportunities, we can usher in a new era of inclusivity and innovation.


Female Coaching and Leadership


Current data on females in the coaching pipeline in the U.S. is limited.  What is clear is the absence of targeted sports leadership and coach development programs in North America. 

We know the story in men’s professional sport: very few female assistant coaches and no female head coaches. In women’s elite sport, the data is only marginally better. For example, at last year’s Women’s World Cup 20 of 32 head coaches were men. In U.S. college athletics, the percentage of female head coaches for female teams has dropped to 40-45% from 90% in 1972 when Title IX was passed. And, according to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, 75% of current youth head coaches in the U.S. are men.


Beyond token efforts to check boxes, fixing a broken talent pipeline to create generation after generation of elite female coaches and leaders will require an aggressive, sustained, and coordinated investment between leagues, academic entities, and sports governing bodies.

Intertwined, is the need to elevate the overall legitimacy of the coaching profession for females.


Whereas most head coaches in men’s professional sports are former players (sometimes with limited education/credentials), there is an immediate opportunity to establish coaching as a legitimate discipline with aligned education, credentialing standards, and continuing education requirements for advancement into the highest ranks. This must include a curriculum dedicated to gender-specific health, performance, and well-being.


Improving support for female coaches already in the game must also become a priority. This requires rethinking the role of females as mothers and caregivers. Modernizing family support, creating world-class maternity packages, providing family travel opportunities, and establishing pay equality for females at all levels of the profession is an immediate imperative. 


 75% of current youth head coaches in the U.S. are men.

We are in an age of rapid social reform, where gender equity, diversity, and inclusion are no longer a ‘nice gesture.’ Society, fans, participants, sponsors, and the coaching workforce expect equality. In fact, a recent survey of NFL and NBA fans reported 93% would support a female head coach, and 83% thought it was important that females were represented more across all men’s leagues. Improving conditions and opportunities for females in men’s professional sports should be a priority, but above all, female professional sports leagues must provide elite high-paying job opportunities and succession planning for the best females in the game to thrive short-term and long-term, and not be marginalized as a developmental environment.


Purpose and People


Balancing the welfare of players, coaches, and staff while building thriving communities within and around professional sports is a complex challenge. It presents a unique and powerful opportunity for differentiation. 


Men’s professional sports teams and leagues have historically been reactive and results-based, notorious for high rates of turnover. In the English Premier League, the current average tenure for managerial roles is 241 days, the shortest ever. For a General Manager (GM) in North American pro sport, the average tenure is about the same, with the NBA currently sitting at 30 months (see figure below by Business Insider). The unintended but unavoidable consequence of this chronic instability, which typically includes short-term contracts, a prevailing 'this is how we've always done it' mindset, and heroic ownership, is unhealthy and unattractive work environments with immeasurable social, physical, and mental health consequences.


A bar chart with the title of average and medican length of tenure for current coaches and managers. On the y axis the number of seasons with current team/club is shown. On the x axis bars are grouped by average and median, with the series colour coded by NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and English Premier League
Cork Gaines/Business Insider https://www.businessinsider.com/coaches-managers-tenure-nfl-mlb-nba-nhl-premier-league-2016-12

Thankfully, a human-centered approach to building modern sports organizations is emerging. Those committed to sustained high performance are adopting new organizational design models, updating leadership profiles, and expanding access to leadership roles. They are also prioritizing high-performance cultures where stability, diversity, cross-functional collaboration, innovation, and learning are the norm.


Female professional sports organizations have an opportunity to lead from the front in this endeavor, prioritizing people, doubling down on purpose and culture, leaning into conscious leadership, embedding ecosystems of innovation, and committing to a power-with versus power-over paradigm. This will unlock a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining the best talent in the industry.


Social and Environmental Impact of Sport


Professional sports is one of the most influential institutions in modern society, and the digital era continues to expand both reach and opportunity for social impact. There are a growing number of thoughtful examples, but Angel City FC may lead the pack. Committed to being a force for good in the community they are building a powerful collective of corporate and community partners in Los Angeles. Beyond giving back 10% of sponsorship dollars to education, equity, and essentials, they are building green spaces with Klarna, internship programs for high school girls with Birdies, and advancing women's financial success with PNC Bank.


We need more great examples of creative local, national and global collaborations to address the urgent and pressing needs of our time from climate to education, equality and community health. 


Perhaps the best place to start is with where we play. Most of our beloved arenas and stadiums are energy liabilities, leaving behind a huge carbon footprint. Many lack fundamental recycling programs and sustainable energy infrastructure. 


At the league level, the carbon footprint left behind from travel is being called into question. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays emitted roughly 35,900 metric tonnes of carbon in the 2019 MLB regular season — equivalent to the annual energy use of over 4,500 homes — 70% of which was due to fan travel, according to an estimate from student researchers at University of California, Santa Barbara. Ideally, female professional leagues will lead with innovation, setting a new standard for eco-friendliness, raising awareness, and inspiring action among fans in the process.


Summary


Without question, it is the best of times for female professional sports. It is also the most important time in a very short history to capitalize on timing and momentum. Rather than playing small, female sports leagues and leaders have a unique opportunity to influence some of the biggest challenges of our time by leveraging collective genius and co-creating within and across leagues, sports, and nations in creative and powerful ways. By sharing a new spirit of consciousness and connectedness, female professional sports can define success well beyond the win column, and deliver on being transformational in all the right ways, for everyone involved.


Authors


Teena Murray

Consultant, The PICTOR Group

Managing Partner, PROSPER.

Former NHL & NBA Executive


Jo Clubb

Founder, Global Performance Insights

Former EPL, NFL & NHL Applied Sport Scientist 


This article was originally published here on a LinkedIn.

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