July Has Been A Significant, Memorable Month For Women In Sports
The most significant month in the history of women in sports began with a familiar success story -- a third Women's World Cup victory for Team USA. But there was something different this time. While the United States' victories in 1991 and '99 were standalone moments of triumph, this year's win and the excitement surrounding it was part of a wave of major achievements for women in sports.
From coaching breakthroughs to amazing athletic feats, July 2015 has been a month for women to take center stage in the sports world. And there's no reason to think it won't continue after the calendar page is turned. None of the women behind those moments are connected, and their journeys are as diverse as the sports they represent.
The foundation for the greatest month in the history of women in sports was laid down by the U.S. women's national soccer team, which not only won the World Cup, but did so in front of an average TV audience of 25.4 million viewers in the final. It was the largest viewership ever for a soccer game in the United States, men's or women's. It was also a larger number than any NBA Finals game drew this year. That's right, not even LeBron James and Stephen Curry could touch Carli Lloyd's hat trick when it came to attracting eyeballs.
Two days after the team's 5-2 finals victory over Japan in Vancouver, a rally was held to honor the champs in downtown Los Angeles. Most of the players expected a small turnout of die-hard fans for a weekday morning gathering on short notice.
When Alex Morgan and her teammates took the stage at Microsoft Square at L.A. Live, they were shocked to see more than 10,000 fans crammed into the area and overflowing into a closed-off street.
"They were packed in there and they were so loud," Morgan said. "The energy was amazing. I had never seen anything like it."
Three days later, Morgan and her teammates would become the first women's sports team honored with a ticker-tape parade down New York's famed "Canyon of Heroes."
"Every once in a while, the stars align and the world takes notice of the growing success of women in sport," said tennis legend Billie Jean King, who won 39 Grand Slam titles and is the founder of the Women's Sports Foundation. "I dream of the day when women's sports have as much long-term investment as men's sports and are supported with the same excitement and commitment the men have received for years. There should be ticker-tape parades for women from all sports in cities across the country."
July has been a big step in that direction thanks to some determined individuals following their passion and refusing to let their gender define or limit them.
Becky Hammon, a former WNBA All-Star, embraced her opportunity to become the first female coach in NBA history when San Antonio Spurs head coach/team president Gregg Popovich hired her last year as an assistant.
"Nothing in my life has really ever been easy. I've always been someone who did it uphill," Hammon said at the time. "I'm up for challenges. I'm up for being outside the box, making tough decisions and challenges."
She not only proved herself during the course of the 2014-15 season, but earlier this month Hammon became the first female head coach in an NBA summer league. On top of that, she became the first female head coach to win a summer league title when her Spurs won the annual tournament in Las Vegas.
A week after Hammon's Spurs were crowned champions, her tenure as the only female coach in a major men's pro league came to an end. On Monday, the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as an assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason to work with inside linebackers. She is believed to be the first female coach of any kind in the NFL.
On Tuesday, Welter explained why she's chosen this path.
"Because it's football, and I love football," she said. "And bigger than that, this isn't about me. This is about every woman and girl who absolutely loves the game of football and they haven't had a place before. ... Now they can see that there's a future in football even for women."
Breaking barriers is nothing new for Welter. Earlier this year, she became the first female coach in a men's professional football league when she was hired to coach linebackers and special teams by the Texas Revolution of the Champions Indoor Football league. Last year, she became the first female to play a non-kicking position in a men's pro league when she suited up as a running back and special-teamer for the Revolution.
"I could not have dreamed big enough that this day would come," Welter said Tuesday. "I didn't start playing football to be here. I could have never dreamed it."
Pam Shriver smiled when she heard the news about Hammon and Welter. The tennis Hall of Famer, who won 112 doubles championships in her career, had already seen the trend start last year when Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Andy Murray hired Amélie Mauresmo as his primary coach.
"That was a big, big deal in the sport of tennis to have a top male hire a female," Shriver said. "He relates well with women. He communicates well with women. His mother has played a crucial role in his tennis development, and obviously his human development, so why wouldn't a male be able to listen to a knowledgeable female about a sport? It only makes sense."
Shriver compared it to her role as a mother of three children, including boy-girl twins, and having to navigate the problems and concerns of each one.
"It's my job as their mom to be able to relate and to the best of my ability be able to understand the male and the female psyche and how to get the most out of both genders and my kids as individuals," Shriver said. "That would be the same as a coach. It shouldn't matter. I'd guess a lot of the men playing basketball and football, the most influential figures in their lives have been women. I think it's smart. Given how big these staffs are, why wouldn't you have a woman?"
A week after Team USA won the women's World Cup, Serena Williams added to the July festivities by winning her sixth Wimbledon championship. It was her 21st career Grand Slam singles trophy and fourth consecutive major title.
"In tennis, it's not so much whether it's male or female, it's whether or not it's compelling," Shriver said. "Are the athletes compelling, is the competition compelling and does it strike a chord? It doesn't matter if it's male or female."
Few competitors in any sport are as compelling as Williams, who has won her past 28 matches at major tournaments. When the U.S. Open begins next month, she will attempt to complete the first calendar-year Grand Slam in more than a quarter-century.
UFC president Dana White wasn't always a fan of women's mixed martial arts. In fact, when he was leaving a Hollywood restaurant in 2011, he told TMZ cameras that a woman would never fight in his organization. Less than two years later, he took Ronda Rousey to that same restaurant and made her the first female fighter in the UFC. Not only is she the UFC women's bantamweight champion, she's the biggest star the company has.
"She's a psychotic competitor," White said. "When Ronda wins, she doesn't just want to win, she wants to stop you. In the fight world, that's what makes people fans of certain fighters. They like people who come out and finish fights. Chuck Liddell was one of our biggest stars in the early days. He didn't want to go to the ground. He would try to knock you out, and people love him for that. People love people who want to finish, and she is one of the top finishers in the sport -- not in the women's division, in the sport."
At the last event Rousey headlined, UFC 184, there were almost 600,000 pay-per-view sales. None of the following four UFC pay-per-views garnered more than 350,000 buys. And few complained about the fast ending of the main event, when Rousey stopped Cat Zingano with an armbar in 14 seconds. As White said, that's what the fans want to see. Rousey is 11-0 as a pro and has been extended beyond the first round only once. She has ended seven fights in less than a minute. Rousey looks to continue her dominance of the sport this weekend when she faces Bethe Correia in UFC 190, her third time headlining a UFC card.
Rousey's been doing more than just training during this landmark July. She became the first woman and the first MMA athlete to win the Best Fighter ESPY earlier this month. It was one of three ESPYS won by women in categories open to athletes of both sexes. The USWNT won the Outstanding Team ESPY, becoming the first women's team to do so in 15 years, and 14-year-old Little League pitcher Mo'ne Davis became the first female to win the Best Breakthrough Athlete ESPY.
After Rousey won her ESPY, she delivered a verbal knockout punch to boxer Floyd Mayweather, who had won the award the three previous years.
"I wonder how Floyd feels being beat by a woman for once," Rousey said. "I'd like to see him pretend to not know who I am now."
Nothing that has happened this month with women in sports seems lucky or fluky or some kind of aberration that could be ignored and dismissed. What these women have accomplished and will accomplish in the future is a sign that the landscape of sports is changing.
"I think this is going to be a trend," Shriver said. "Not only are women being given opportunities, they are making the most of those opportunities."
Madison Avenue has taken notice as well. Earlier this month, EA Sports announced that Morgan would grace the cover of FIFA 16 alongside Lionel Messi, becoming the first female to do so. Meanwhile, Nike's Jordan Brand released a Maya Moore version of the Air Jordan 1 this month, putting the WNBA MVP in the company of Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook.
Morgan and Moore wouldn't be the faces of popular brands like FIFA and Jordan if EA and Nike didn't think they could sell. Business, much like sports, is about the bottom line.
When the Spurs hired Hammon last year, it might have seemed like a feel-good story, but do you think Popovich is interested in feel-good stories? He hired Hammon because he thought she was a good coach, and she proved that.
The same opportunity is there for Welter in Arizona. If she shows she can help the Cardinals be a better team, head coach Bruce Arians won't think twice about keeping her on his staff.
"Our players only want to be taught how to get better," Arians said. "They don't care where it comes from."
Women in sports have made great strides over the years, and this month will go down as a defining point in a movement that isn't likely to slow down anytime soon.