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On the verge of a women's sports surge in PA

Plus, fighting to wear pants.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Tanisha Thomas

March 1, 2024
Inside this Women's History Month-themed edition: Representation milestone, pants protest, art show, firefighter feat, and stories on the trail. 
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A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

Last year, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association officially sanctioned which of the following sports for the first time?

A. Gymnastics
B. Girls' wrestling
C. Water polo
D. Badminton

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One name worth knowing: Did you know the first election of a Black female state legislator in the U.S. happened in Pennsylvania? Crystal Dreda Bird Fauset’s victory came two decades after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. She would later join FDR's “Black Cabinet.”

» One protest worth remembering: Don’t take pants for granted. Norwin High School student Hannah Kozak didn't and made national headlines in 2019 when she fought the school’s ban on girls wearing pants at graduation. Here's a brief history of "women’s fight to wear pants."

» One art exhibit worth seeing: Calling all art and history buffs. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is hosting a showcase of women-made art with help from the country’s oldest public art non-profit, per WHYY. The exhibit is free and open to visitors through March 15. 

» One story worth (re)reading: A photo of a State College fire company’s historic all-female attack line responding to a structure fire made headlines in 2023. PA Local spoke to the women behind the milestone.

» One trail worth hitting: Take the Pennsylvania Women's History Heritage Trail this Women's History Month. Sister Rosetta TharpeLouisa May AlcottEthel Waters, and more are waiting.

🗞️ ARE YOU NEWSY? Let's find out with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Vetting 2024’s voting machines, Harrisburg haggling, and the Beyoncé effect.
The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» These races could decide control of the PA House

» How PA vets its voting machines

» Federal money supercharged well plugging in PA

» Staff accuse Penn State of empty diversity pledge

» Five takeaways from our Whole Homes event

» Learn the legacy of PA’s Black Wall Street

» Ballot order is critical but determined by luck
Female baseball players in action in a black-and-white photo.
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player Marg Callaghan sliding into home plate as umpire Norris Ward looks on. (Library of Congress archives)

I have a bone to pick with Pennsylvania this Women’s History Month, and it has to do with the commonwealth’s distinct lack of professional women’s sports teams.

I share Squidward’s FOMO — in this well-worn SpongeBob meme — when I’m forced to leave Pennsylvania to catch a Women's National Basketball Association, National Women's Soccer League, or Pro Volleyball Federation game.

Living in Pittsburgh (a “drinking town with a sports problem”), there’s no real shortage of athletics. But I want more. And at one point in the not-so-distant past, I would have found it in the Keystone State.

In 1979, the exceptionally short-lived Philadelphia Fox joined the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) — for all of a month. Then there was the Philadelphia Rage, formed in 1997 under the American Basketball League (ABL). Philly native and basketball coach Dawn Staley played for the squad, which lasted a year. There was once professional women’s softball in Allentown. And Philadelphia had two professional women’s soccer teams in the last 20 years. Neither survived.

All of this isn’t to imply that women aren’t playing sports here. They are, and always have been. It’s just that too few of them are being paid for it. The tide, however, may be turning.

“The data shows the interest is there,” Karen Weaver, an expert on college sports and assistant adjunct professor at UPenn’s Graduate School of Education, told PA Local. “This isn’t just about moms and kids coming to the games. There is real sincere interest across Gen Z and Millennials that want to see wider sports opportunities and environments to enjoy the games.”

The money will follow eyeballs, and vice versa.

“We are at that moment where things are starting to turn now, and it takes investing in them,” Weaver added. “I think people are interested in investing.” Brands certainly are

Last year proved a pivotal one. The NCAA women’s basketball championship game between LSU and Iowa drew a record 9.9 million viewers. In-person Women’s World Cup attendance hit a whopping 1.98 million fans. Last October, a study by Wasserman revealed women’s sports made up 15% of media coverage. For decades, the authors wrote, "The widely accepted statistic has been 3-5.5%."

In Pennsylvania, too, momentum seems to be building. 

The full-tackle Women's National Football Conference recently added a team here: The Philadelphia Phantomz. Former soccer player Heather Mitts says she’s working on bringing professional women’s soccer back to Philly as well. In 2022, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who played basketball and lacrosse at Lehigh University, said her league was eyeing new markets and that Philly was “definitely” on the short list. The Bay Area won that round, but the door may not be closed entirely.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is paying $90,000 to study the potential for bringing professional men’s and women’s basketball teams there. The city is also hosting a Premiere Women’s Hockey League match on March 17, a test balloon, of sorts, as the PWHL seeks expansion markets.

I, for one, am here for it. So are women like Esther Rosen, who started the @WNBAPhilly account on Twitter, now X, in 2021 to showcase community demand for a franchise and highlight Philly’s “criminal” lack of representation. “We are a basketball city,” Rosen explained. “We also have a great legacy of great women's basketball here. We have amazing athletes and coaches who started here. It would be great for them to come home.”

Caroline Slade, an assistant principal at Owen J. Roberts High School in Chester County, was a season ticket holder for the New York Liberty in the mid-90s. 

“I could not tell you how excited I would be if there was a WNBA team or a NWSL team in Philly,” Slade said, referring to the premier professional leagues for women’s basketball and soccer. “I would go and work part-time just to be engaged. There would be so much interest given how much women’s sports are a really big deal in the Philly area.”

Liz Stieg, sports manager of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, who has 12 years of experience coaching women’s college basketball, has similar optimism for Pittsburgh’s WNBA prospects.

She runs a program called See Her Be Her that brings in special guests from the sports industry — players and staff from the Connecticut Sun included — to talk to young girls about their potential in sports. 

“I think it is such a great thing to showcase anything with women. I think it is such a great thing for girls to see,” Stieg said. “Having the opportunity for teams and the league to come out in Pittsburgh and showcase what it is about is only going to grow the game.”

Tanisha Thomas, newsletter writer / reporter

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A quote from a Pennsylvanian that we found interesting this week.

“It’s still very weird to me, but I’m learning to embrace it and use it to help other people break barriers into the sport.”

Upper Darby native Shariah Harris on making history as the first Black woman to compete in the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
The sun setting over Pittsburgh, via your newsletter writer. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on IG, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
a blueish night sky with a bridge and buildings  in the background
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The correct answer is "B. Girls' wrestling."

The PIAA sanctioned girls' wrestling last year, and the sport kicked off its first official season months later. Philly Mag says nearly 200 squads now compete, calling it the fastest-growing sport in the state.

Thanks for reading. We'll see you back here next week.

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