Female Participation in College Sports Reaches All-Time High

January 22, 2012

Forty years after the passage of federal legislation used to prevent gender discrimination in college sports, female participation opportunities have reached a record high.

Nearly 200,000 female athletes will suit up this year on 9,274 NCAA teams. That's an average of 8.7 women's teams per college­—the highest number ever, according to a report to be released on Monday.

Although some sports have seen a decline in participation—including ones with high numbers of minority athletes—the overall numbers have grown markedly during the past two years. That is remarkable, considering the budget constraints many institutions have faced, say the report's authors, R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, professors emerita of Brooklyn College. They've been studying women's sports since the enactment of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

"This gives credence to the good will and understanding that if athletics belongs on campus, it belongs there because it has some connection to the educational mission—and if so, those opportunities should be open to both men and women," Ms. Carpenter said in an interview.

The growth of women's sports has not come at the expense of opportunities for male athletes, the authors say. "That's certainly not an argument that is supported by data," Ms. Carpenter said, although it doesn't mean that certain men's sports have not seen sharp declines as opportunities for women have increased.

The report, "Women in Intercollegiate Sport: A Longitudinal, National Study," also found that there are more women working in college sports than in any of the past 35 years. And nearly 4,000 women are coaching women's teams this year, another record high.

An increasing number of female athletic directors may partly explain the rise in participation opportunities. Almost 92 percent of the NCAA colleges that responded to the survey employ at least one female administrator—the highest total ever—while more than one in five athletic directors across all three NCAA divisions is a woman.

"There is more female voice in the athletic department than in the past, and those voices are being heard," said Ms. Acosta. "It's one reason why more women are participating and there are more opportunities given for them to participate."

The study found several areas where women are not as well represented. Fewer than one in five Division I colleges has a female head athletic trainer. And only one out of 10 colleges has a female sports information director, or SID. (In Division I, just 3 percent of institutions have a woman SID, a decrease from about 9 percent in 2010.)

Lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport for women, with nearly 40 percent of colleges fielding a team. Soccer, rowing, and cross-country are also growing quickly.

Two sports with high percentages of minority athletes—women's basketball and track and field—saw declines in teams last year.

Basketball, which is the most popular women's sport, lost several teams last year, or nearly 50 female opportunities across all three NCAA divisions. Twelve track programs were cut.

But over all, about 200 new teams were added between 2010 and 2012, the report found. That's encouraging to the authors, who have been heartened by the growth since they participated in sports as young women.

"We had to leave anything that made us look like an athlete back in the gym, but you also left your assertiveness and sense of strong self back there because the world didn't think that belonged to the females of the world," Ms. Acosta said. "Now we see little kids walking around the grocery store in their soccer uniforms and people celebrate that. For us, it's a child-by-child celebration."