When Tuscarora High School girls’ lacrosse coach Brad Gray was growing up in the 1970s, he played recreational league soccer on the same team as his sister because there were no teams for girls.
“There just wasn’t enough interest back then,” said Gray, a U.S. history teacher. “It wasn’t because she didn’t have an opportunity to play, there just wasn’t enough girls wanting to play. Now, that has completely changed.”
Although Title IX has opened doors and increased visibility and popularity during the past 40 years for female athletes, spectator attendance often lags behind that of male sports. Neither the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association — the state’s governing body of public school sports — nor the Frederick County Public Schools had statistics comparing attendance for boys’ and girls’ sports events. The MPSSAA said attendance for male and female state tournaments has remained consistent. Observations and anecdotes suggest more people attend boys’ games.
“Cable television is a big part of helping it become mainstream,” Gray said. “Not so much at the high school level, yet, but all the NCAA female championship games are now broadcast on one of the thousands of ESPN networks. The Olympics are also coming up and those female events are greatly attended, but in general, women’s sports are a little behind men in terms of spectators.”
At the local high school level, however, Gray said success at the box office is much more directly impacted by winning and losing.
“We had no random fans for the longest time. It would just be family members of the girls,” said Gray, who guided the Titans to the first winning record (10-4) in school history this past spring. “Gender was not a factor at all. This year, we had 10 times as many random people come out. I’d like to think they were always there, but in reality, it was all about us winning and putting an entertaining and quality product on the field.”
As female participation in sports has increased, the number of spectators also has risen.
During the 1971-72 academic calendar, the year before Title IX was implemented, there were 3,960,932 high school student-athletes nationwide and just 7.42 percent were female, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
In 1972-73, significant growth occurred, as 17.81 percent of the nation’s 4,587,694 high school athletes were female. In 2010-11, the most recent year for which statistics are available, athletic participation is up across the board at 7,667,955, and 41.39 percent are female.
In Maryland last year, the percentages were virtually identical to the national numbers — 58.1 male, 41.9 female — according to the MPSSAA. If football, an almost exclusively male sport with no female equivalent, isn’t counted, the percentage of female participants increases to 48.6.
“There are definitely more people coming to our games,” said Walkersville girls’ lacrosse coach Jessica Sardella. “But there is one small problem and I think it holds true in all sports like ours where there is a boys’ and girls’ equivalent. The games are generally scheduled at the same time at different schools. Friends, families and fans have to pick. Even I would like to get out and watch more.”
Many of the area’s athletic directors, coaches and administrators agree, but like Gray, they say differences in attendance are not gender related.
“Football and basketball are going to attract the most people,” said Perry Baker, Frederick County Public Schools supervisor of athletics. “Having said that, I think attendance has to do much more with who the best teams are and the level of community support. Obviously, some [teams] are better than others in every sport and those will likely have higher attended games.”
The county occasionally schedules varsity boys’/girls’ doubleheaders in several sports, but more often, corresponding junior varsity and varsity teams are paired together at the same game site.
“I don’t really know if having varsity doubleheaders has that much of an impact on attendance, and that’s why we don’t schedule them often,” Baker said. “If you are going to go to a game, you are going to go. I also think coaches prefer that the younger junior varsity kids get to see the older varsity kids play.
“It is neat for the community though to have those doubleheaders from time to time. Any game involving a rivalry like Linganore and Urbana is going to draw.”
Although the MPSSAA did not have specific numbers, the organization said attendance at the state tournaments has been consistent for both genders.
“The trend in numbers attending our state tournaments remains steady for both boys and girls,” the MPSSAA said in an emailed statement to The Gazette. “Increases are truly a reflection of the schools that make the tournament, how often they make the tournament, and the interest of the school communities in supporting their teams. Since girls started with no one watching, let alone paying to watch them play, things have come a long way.”
“The student-athletes now know no difference since they’ve grown up with males and females interacting with each other,” said Ned Sparks, who has been the MPSSAA’s executive director for 30 years. “I don’t think gender plays much of a role in regards to attendance now. The kids and their families just want to come support their friends.”