Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 21, 2024
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We Got Next

Across North America and close to home, women’s sports are more popular than ever.
<p>Some of tomorrow’s sports leaders from Prince Edward County include (From left) Remy Dullard-Krizay, Lilja Schaer, Joni Vader, Emma Wiersma, Aubrey Kelly and Joon Taylor. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)</p>
Some of tomorrow’s sports leaders from Prince Edward County include (From left) Remy Dullard-Krizay, Lilja Schaer, Joni Vader, Emma Wiersma, Aubrey Kelly and Joon Taylor. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

I was at my old stomping grounds the other day. Athol South Marysburgh School.

The elementary in Cherry Valley was where I pored over the Toronto Star sports section, athlete autobiographies and The Hockey News. Inside the quiet school library, I absorbed stats and statistics at a Rainman rate. I wasn’t sure when and where I was going to regale anyone about hockey’s first family, but if someone, somewhere, needed to be informed about the seven Sutter Brothers from Viking, Alberta and the NHL, I was prepared. 

A tattered 1987 NHL Media Guide tucked into a shelf somewhere in the 700 section (eternal thanks Flo Clapp for introducing me to the Dewey Decimal System) was my best friend in Grade 5.

Budding hockey superstar Eric Lindros was the subject of my Grade 7 speech. If my Grade 8 teacher Mac Cirtwell needed a story for composition class, a recount of the previous night’s 1991 Canada Cup game was perfect material. I’m sure you can sense the theme.

When I wandered back onto the Athol South campus last week for the first time in ages, these memories came flooding back, along with the constant din of the gymnasium. Athletics, friendly instruction, laughter and cheers welcomed me as I walked in.

The Girls at Bat program is in full swing at my alma mater. What an inspiration to see 40 kids from Grades 3 to 8 a part of the Athol South Eagles, fielding grounders and running the bases. The Toronto Blue Jays and their Jays Care Foundation fund Girls at Bat, one of a handful of programs the ball club offers in communities across Canada to introduce and foster sport and social development among girls, new Canadians, differently abled youth and Indigenous youth. Some of the Athol South participants grace our front page this week. Find out more about the program on our sports pages.

Grass roots youth programming funded and administered by professional and collegiate sports organizations in North America and Europe is nothing new. But a wider range of investments is being made into different cross-sections of the young athlete pool — and beginning to yield a mosaic of accomplished athletes across professional sports.

And it’s not always a booming professional sports organization making these investments. Last month we reported on U14 County Clipper Jessica Davis. She wanted invite local girls into trying  basketball and hosted a skills clinic with support from The County Foundation and the Clippers. Over 30 girls showed up to try out a new sport and have some fun in a safe, encouraging setting. 

A little piece of good hardcourt karma played itself out last weekend: Ms. Davis and the U14 Clippers won bronze at the 2024 Eastern Ontario Basketball Association tournament hosted at PECI, as reported on our Sports page this week.

Sadly, it still needs to be stressed to the moms and dads out there that programming and camps for young people at this stage should never be about starting children on the path to pro sports pay days. Fun and team building should be stressed over everything else.

But as this mortal coil winds and wends, there will always be athletic talent that transcends and those superstars become lightning rods for future generations. For anyone watching – and Nielsen ratings indicate a great many tuned in – Caitlin Clark’s play at the NCAA basketball tournament last month  catapulted her and the women’s game high into the sports stratosphere. Ratings for women’s March Madness games dwarfed the men’s side of the competition in 2024. 

Eyeballs mean prime time broadcasts. And that means money.

It wasn’t just Caitlin Clark either. Playing the crucial role of foil to the Iowa Hawkeye was Angel Reece, the Louisiana State University Tiger. Battling it out for NCAA supremacy, the pair reminded of Larry Bird going up against Magic Johnson in the 1979 men’s final. 40 million Americans tuned into that game. Until 2017, that figure was a high-water mark for college basketball. 

Larry Legend and Magic dragged their rivalry into a flagging NBA of the early 1980s, where brawls and substance abuse allegations had darkened men’s pro basketball. The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers had a rivalry that sustained the league until the day Michael Jordan came along and put a basketball into the hands of every child across the globe. 

Clark and Reece are poised to do the same for the WNBA. The 2024 Women’s title game drew 24 million viewers at its peak. Heck, last week’s WNBA draft, where Clark, Reece and the rest were picked by their future pro clubs, drew over three million viewers, making it the highest rated WNBA event in the league’s 26 year history. A televised draft! 

The WNBA’s slogan “We got next” was never so accurate as it is right now.

Women’s professional sports are taking off in a way never before witnessed. There’s a new generation of highly talented stars with incredible stories to tell to engage and empower the next generations. The cycle of women’s professional sport will continue to build momentum.

The rub of comparing professional sports realms has been that the men get paid far better than the women — because of the number of eyeballs engaged. Resources follow ratings and ticket sales and that’s been at the root of the gaps. 

But the ratings in the women’s domain have taken off. It will take decades to see salary parity — but the day will dawn, sooner than we thought. And now a student at Athol can wander into the library and read about Hayley Wickenheiser and Christine Sinclair. And very soon, Caitlin Clark and Angel Reece. Read and dream.

In this new, burgeoning age of women’s sports, there’s something about seeing a young girl succeed and realize her dreams that feels good on the inside. It doesn’t feel like a surprise anymore. It feels perfectly natural.

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 17 edition of The Picton Gazette
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