It’s one thing for a girl to see Serena Williams kicking ass and winning tournaments while pregnant and quite another for a young girl to see mom get ready to play football. A generation ago, Serena Williams would have seemed like science fiction and the popularity of recreation sports would have seemed unlikely at best. But recreational sports leagues, which have sprung up all over the country at speed and expanded to become a major business, are a modern institution. They have changed the culture around sports by bringing competition into the home in unexpected and unpredictable ways.
“The number of female members is much higher than prior to us entering the industry,” says Marc Tucci, the founder, and CEO of Austin Sports & Social Club, a 13-year-old rec league business that operates in Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Dallas. “Right now you’re looking at overall 47 percent of our participants being female.”
Austin SSC has more than 50,000 members throughout their four cities and Tucci credits the boost in female involvement with a cultural shift that happened two decades ago when competitive leagues for young girls really took off.
“The generation coming through, the female sports system was strongly encouraged,” he says. “I don’t believe prior to the 1980s, kids of both genders were playing sports at the age of 7. Now, and for the past 15 to 20 years, that’s been the case. It’s not a male-dominated area.”
Women aren’t just playing sports; they’re playing sports with men. Austin SSC is totally coed, but different sports have traditionally been more heavily male or female. That’s starting to change as well. Tucci says he’s been seeing an increase in women playing flag football. Where teams once struggle to field the requisite three women, many teams are now recruiting women to fill out deeper and deeper benches.
That’s great news for both couples–husbands and wives play together on many teams–and, as it turns out, kids. Because sports lead to sports. Monkey see. Monkey do.
Tucci says he’s seen parents who are part of softball teams bring their kids along and make the whole thing a family event. It’s not an all-encompassing trend, but once that behavior gets normalized it becomes common. “San Antonio is much more family orientated,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe how many people bring the whole family out for softball Sundays. They bring dinner, music, and they’re there for hours and hours.”
And it’s not as though the kids coming to rec league games are watching people trip all over themselves. To the contrary, many of the people drawn to rec league sports are former college athletes who are not screwing around. Kids are not just being exposed to sports, but exposed to athletes, a particularly powerful experience for girls, who, Serena aside, see fewer professional athletes of their gender.
In fact, girls often end up watching far higher caliber female athletes than male athletes. There’s a simple reason for this: Being a professional female baseball or softball player–hell, a female soccer player for that matter–is not very lucrative. Elite female athletes often forgo pursuing professional sports and pursue more promising careers instead. Eamon Hanifin, the Competitive Sports Team Manager of Asphalt Green, a rec sports league based in New York City, says this creates a situation where competitors have a massive range of abilities.
“It’s a mix,” he says. “We get people who played in high school like a track and field star, who’s looking to keep running around, to people who’ve been running on the treadmill and they think it’s time to change it up.”
For kids, that teaches an important lesson. It’s possible to be good, but it’s hardly a guarantee. And, by making it easy to identify who is good, it facilitates conversations about how they pursued excellence. What sacrifices did they make? What teams did they play on? How did they practice? By seeing women who win, girls may also see a path to excellence. (And, of course, they can ask the same questions of particularly talented men.)
Hanifin also points out that there is a significant uptick in rec league participation during major sporting events, notably the World Cup. Rec leagues give adults an opportunity to try the game they are watching and turn sports from a thing kids do, into a thing families work on together. It’s an adult trend with real ramifications for children, who suddenly have better competition in the yard and a broader sense of what’s possible.
This story is part of a series highlighting the importance of empowering girls, celebrate their athleticism, in partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the Clinton Foundation. In honor of National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, we’re working together to bring attention to this important issue and encourage you to join the conversation by using the hashtag #GirlsAre, and learn more at www.GirlsAre.org.