Leveling the playing field even more

LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD EVEN MORE

By Anne Moore
Crain’s Business Chicago, June 04, 2012

Forty years ago this month, President Richard Nixon signed legislation that broke open the nation’s playing fields and arenas to young women. A generation later, many of those same women are running sports-related businesses, trying to complete the work that started when they were children.

Here in Chicago, those businesses range from summer sports camps to training programs for nationally competitive field hockey teams. And while some of the egregious barriers have been removed, their owners see plenty of room for improvement both in the quality of training for serious athletes and the availability of sports programming in the city.

Girls-only sleep-away camps and suburban athletic clinics have been around for decades, of course. DePaul University women’s basketball coach Doug Bruno has run a basketball camp for girls at North Central College in Naperville since 1980, for example. What’s different is that these businesses are run by women who personally benefited from the changes wrought by Title IX and see their for-profit businesses as having an overt social mission.

Barb Lazarus was cheering her son’s baseball game several years ago when she noticed girls on the adjoining field didn’t really know how to play. Their lack of skills spurred Ms. Lazarus, 52, to make a business of multisport instruction for girls. Her Game On Sports Camp 4 Girls, in Lake Forest and Chicago and a sleep-away camp in Michigan, is in its sixth year.

A former assistant U.S. attorney and media relations executive, Ms. Lazarus was in the first generation of girls to benefit from Title IX. She competed in tennis, volleyball, basketball and softball. Her athletic youth, she says, fostered her academic prowess, professional tenacity and healthy lifestyle. “It was always my dream to pass it on.” She offers campers more than a dozen sports, from lacrosse and horseback riding to karate and yoga—sometimes all in one day.

Margaret Stender, 55, part owner and chairman of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, spent two years driving her then preteen daughter to basketball clinics in the suburbs. That there were no training clinics for girls in the city gave Ms. Stender the idea to start one, with a twist, focusing less on creating stars and more on developing scholar-athletes. She teamed with Korie Hlede, 37, a former WNBA player and coach, to open Chicago-based Flow Basketball Academy this spring for girls ages 9 to 18. They have 25 girls in training clinics and 10 middle-schoolers playing on a travel team. Summer numbers already have led them to hire another trainer, former WNBA athlete Stacey Dales.

A younger example is Holly Palin, who, while working as interim athletic director at Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park, watched her field hockey athletes head to the suburbs for clinics and camps. In January, Ms. Palin started Black-Tiger Performance, with field hockey clinics held in the Parker gym. She’ll work with student athletes this summer on Lincoln Park’s playing fields and, with two partners, will open a 12,000-square-foot West Loop facility this fall, where they will offer field hockey, soccer and sports performance clinics for student athletes and conditioning for adults. Ms. Palin, 28, played Division One basketball and field hockey at Northwestern University.

Overhead is minimal for these sports-training startups: a laptop and cellphone is the office. A user-friendly website is a necessary first expense. Marketing is word of mouth, or a Facebook “like.”

Ms. Lazarus works full time marketing her Game On model to established camps. She employs a full-time director. After a brisk start, business fell off the last two years in the suburbs, because of the recession, but it grew in Chicago.

EQUAL SHOTS

Part of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX’s 37 words say nothing specifically about sports. The legislation requires equal opportunity in schools and other institutions funded with federal dollars. But the law’s implementation caused a sea change in the way schools fund and create athletic teams for girls and young women.

Not everywhere and not all at once (institutions had until 1978 to comply), young women playing on university teams received sports scholarships, matching athletic uniforms and better locker rooms. “All of a sudden, we mattered,” recalls Ms. Stender, who was playing Division One basketball at the University of Richmond when Title IX was passed.

Girls’ participation in high-school sports has grown exponentially, to 3 million today from 300,000 in 1972.

“There are so many good things sports teach girls,” says Ms. Stender, a former packaged-goods executive. The discipline, hard work and risk-taking that come from playing on a team are lessons girls can bring to the workplace, she says.

Parents of student athletes say their children are more poised and adult in their manner because of athletics.

Of course, there’s a dark side to sports: The pressure to stay fit for competition leads some girls to develop eating disorders. Tripping, ball hogging, whining and cursing are just as prevalent in girls’ sports as they are in boys’.

Ms. Lazarus and Ms. Stender spend time talking to girls about body image, nutrition, graceful winning and losing, teamwork and the long-term benefits of an athletic life. Says Ms. Stender, “We want girls to be happy with their bodies.”

Too, they want all girls to play, regardless of family wealth. It’s pricey fielding a young athlete: Shoes, cleats, sticks, shin guards, mouth guards, clinic, camp and travel fees add up. Over a year it costs about $4,500 to be on a travel field hockey team and about $2,800 for travel soccer. Six weeks of Game On day camp is $2,400. A five-day, 15-hour field hockey clinic with Black-Tiger is $350. For $400, Flow Basketball Academy offers a five-day, half-day basketball clinic for high-school students.

TIME ON THE FIELD

Chicago documentarian Maria Finitzo is finishing a film called “In the Game” that follows the girls’ soccer team at Kelly High School in the South Side neighborhood of Brighton Park. They practice at 5 a.m. because that’s the only time they can use the gym. Their school has no playing fields, and many of the girls play in flimsy sneakers because they can’t afford proper athletic shoes.

To raise awareness and funds, Ms. Lazarus last year set up Game On Sports Foundation so girls in need can go to a variety of camps and clinics. Separately, Chicago-based FC Drive, a nonprofit that runs premier travel soccer teams, last year awarded $39,000 to 30 percent of the 103 girls who play.

Says Ms. Lazarus: “We want to bring quality sports opportunities to all girls.”