Evanson: Ionescu, Thorns are evidence women's sports is thriving
If you like women's sports, you're in the right place.
For as long as I can remember, men's sports have always ruled the roost in these here parts we call Oregon — from Trail Blazers basketball to Beavers baseball, Ducks football to Timbers soccer, and with names like Drexler, Lillard, Mariota and more recently Valeri hitting the loudest notes in and around the Rose City and state. But while all were — or in some cases, still are — worthy of peak water cooler conversation, the worm has turned, and it's heading in a female direction.
The Oregon Ducks women's basketball team is ranked No. 3 in the country and just clinched its third straight Pac 12 conference championship. Oregon State's women's team won the three before that. The Portland Thorns dominate the proverbial dojo when it comes to NWSL attendance, and I've even heard some college softball talk of late in the circles I regularly walk.
In addition, the University of Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu has become an icon of the women's collegiate basketball game, making a case as the greatest college basketball player of all time as the result of her recently never-been-done-before accomplishment of 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists — a feat likely never to be accomplished again.
The senior point guard notably caught the eye of the late Lakers great Kobe Bryant, has become a regular on ESPN's Sportscenter, and will in all likelihood be the No. 1 pick in this spring's WNBA draft.
Also, her jersey sales have been through the roof, there's talk of Nike making her one of their signature endorsers, and with the WNBA's New York Liberty owning the league's top pick, Ionescu could take ownership of a fairly large share of the Big Apple's market in lieu of a competitive Knicks team.
What does all of that mean? Simply that the women's games have never mattered more and the people of this state seem to know it.
Relax. I know there are a number of you getting worked up into a lather right now regarding my assertion of heightened attention for "inferior content."
"The basketball is still played below the rim!"
"The soccer is a slower version of the game!"
"Softball? It doesn't compare to America's pastime!"
Angry words of Neanderthals threatened by what is ultimately not a threat, but rather a willing partner in an everlasting quest to grow the games.
True, the women aren't dunking on a regular basis, the soccer from a physical standpoint is technically slower, and softball is in fact dissimilar to baseball. But none of that makes it better or worse — it just makes it different.
Basketball is in a good place, but why not make it better?
It never hurts to have more soccer fans.
And where's the harm in more kids — girls or not — reaping the benefits of what sports like softball or volleyball bring to the table? Women are not a threat to the sports world. They're actually a somewhat untapped resource for proponents of fitness, exposure and yes, ticket and merchandise sales for fans of business.
The Portland Thorns averaged more than 20,000 fans for their 24 regular season games last season, a nearly 20 percent increase over the year prior and nearly double that of their nearest competitor, Utah Royals FC. The Oregon Ducks women's basketball team averaged nearly 11,000 people per game this season, up from just over 7,000 last year. And up the road, the No. 14-ranked Beavers averaged just under 7,000 fans per home game, well above the nation's average, evidence this state likes its women's sports. One could argue it's the tip of the iceberg regarding progress for the women's games.
The Timbers are still good, the Oregon Ducks men's hoops team is on the cusp of a Pac 12 title, and the Blazers remain this city's first love, but Oregonians love their women's sports — and that is a good thing.
Wade Evanson is sports editor of the News-Times.
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