Bianca Andreescu, U.S. Open, Aurora Games
Bianca Andreescu of Canada in action against Taylor Townsend of the United States in the Women's Singles round four match on Arthur Ashe Stadium during the 2019 US Open Tennis Tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 2nd, 2019 in Flushing, Queens, New York City. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
Culture

New women’s sports festival gets mixed reception, but promises to return

Why this matters

Despite the success of events like the Women's World Cup, female-only sporting events do not get the support of fans or the media. The genesis of the Aurora Games is to change that mindset and create an equal playing field

Emerging tennis star Bianca Andreescu was beaming after she defeated Victoria Azarenka on the opening night of the inaugural, all-women, multi-sport Aurora Games in Albany, New York.

Earlier in the month, the 19-year-old became the first Canadian woman in 50 years to win the Rogers Cup when she beat Serena Williams on Aug. 11 in Toronto. At the Aurora Games, Andreescu talked about the player camaraderie at the Times Union Center rather than the sparse attendance. The announced crowd that watched three singles and two doubles matches was 3,920, but appeared to be a quarter of that size.

“We know that this isn’t counting toward anything, really,” Andreescu said. “So we just had fun and tried to not take things too seriously. But it’s just nice, this whole organization. Whoever made this possible is amazing because it’s nice to have all different kinds of sports together and be able to support all these other amazing women.”

The Aurora Games ran from Aug. 20-25, 2019. The competition featured six sports: tennis, gymnastics, basketball, hockey, figure skating and beach volleyball. More than 100 female athletes from 25 countries participated. The sports festival concept pitted Team Americas versus Team World. Team Americas won every competition except basketball to claim the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Trophy.

Longtime sports agent Jerry Solomon, the husband of retired Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, created the Aurora Games. Solomon was inspired after observing that female athletes received less coverage than men at the 2016 Rio Olympics, even though the U.S. team had more women than men for the first time ever.

Laia Palau, the Spanish national basketball team’s 39-year-old point guard, animatedly described her decision to come to the New York state capital: “First of all, my agent was like, ‘You want to go to New York?’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’ And then I was like, ‘OK, it’s Albany. But, OK.’ Not that bad at all! I think it’s a good place to organize this kind of event, because everything is close. And it’s a really interesting idea. Words are OK, but actions are better. I’m so happy that somebody is giving us this space, and we can use our voices to express ourselves. More and more, we have cameras and the attention of the media on everybody.”

However, that assessment is relative. Even though women’s sports are gaining traction, as evidenced by an estimated 1 billion viewers for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, an uphill battle remains, especially for an innovative newcomer such as the Aurora Games. According to the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, women’s sports get just four percent of all sports media coverage.

Corporate partnerships provided some visibility. For instance, ESPN showed the Aurora Games on ESPNU and ESPN3 and published several espnW.com articles. Dunkin’, which sponsored the gymnastics competition, hosted an Albany-area donut shop event with Kerrigan, seven-time Olympic gymnastics medalist Shannon Miller, and McKenna Kelley, the daughter of 1984 Olympic gymnastics champion Mary Lou Retton. The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by tennis icon Billie Jean King in 1974, served as the official charity partner.

Yet there was surely a correlation between the fact that pre-Aurora Games publicity beyond Albany’s Times Union newspaper (the title sponsor of the arena, whose capacity is 17,500) was scant and the announced total number of tickets distributed during the week was just 20,423. The upper deck was regularly curtained off, and no event approached a sellout.

Some eye-catching moments occurred. Alysa Liu, the youngest-ever U.S. national figure skating champion when she was crowned in January at age 13, became the first American female to do a quadruple lutz. (However, this wasn’t a sanctioned International Skating Union event. Liu officially achieved the feat at the Junior Grand Prix in Lake Placid on August 31.)

Gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, whose joyful floor routine with the UCLA Bruins in January reaped more than 110 million views on social media this year, earned the best crowd response in what was billed as the 22-year-old’s final performance. Yet some competitors and onlookers expressed concerns about the arena floor being wet during the gymnastics competition. Logistically, there is room for improvement.

 “It’s awareness and education and just encouraging people to support,” said Nadia Comaneci, the five-time Olympic gymnastics gold medalist who served as the honorary captain of Team World versus track and field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s Team Americas. “The media has to help, too. This was put together in a short period of time. Hopefully, as this goes forward, people will understand what this is and we’ll get more support.”

It was a coup the Aurora Games came to fruition. Historically, in the sporting community, attitudes toward women’s sports have often ranged between antagonism and apathy.

Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, railed against the indecency, ugliness, and impropriety” of having women in the Olympic Games. French feminist and sportswoman Alice Milliat struck back by organizing the Women’s World Games. The track and field-focused competition was staged in Paris (1922), Gothenburg (1926), Prague (1930) and London (1934). Not until 2012 did women take part in every sport at the London Summer Olympics.

Choosing Zaharias as the Aurora Games trophy namesake represents another attempt to balance the scales. Zaharias won two track and field gold medals at the 1932 Olympics and co-founded the LPGA en route to 10 golf championships. Although sports writer Grantland Rice described her as “the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen,” her name is not widely known today. 

The next challenge for the Aurora Games is to clarify its identity and outlast such short-lived women’s sports enterprises as the Women’s United Soccer Association (2000-03) or Sports Illustrated for Women (1999-2002).

The closing-day announcement that the biennial competition would return to Albany in 2021 and 2023 was a surprise. Originally, Solomon said that would depend on good attendance and the city’s commitment to building a training center for female athletes. The latter may be in the works.

“Albany is a great place for it,” Team Americas hockey coach Digit Murphy said. “When you think about it, this is where the suffragette movement started. It’s really about energy, and if people want you, you go where they want you.”

To make the Aurora Games sustainable, organizers must strike a balance between promoting feminist empowerment, inspiring young girls, and attracting hardcore sports fans. Is it about camaraderie or competition? Sisterhood or scores? 

It’s important to pick the best time of year and create the right incentives for more household names from different sports to participate – as opposed to emerging, strong but not quite elite, or recently retired athletes. And moving the needle with publicity and media is even more vital.

Of promoting women’s tennis, Billie Jean King told Sports Illustrated in 1972: “Entertainment value, getting people through the turnstiles, that’s the name of the game.” Without that, the Aurora Games will struggle to become the kind of galvanizing force for elite women’s sports that Title IX legislation has been for U.S. women’s college sports since that same year, 1972.

Lucas Aykroyd writes for the New York Times, espnW, and the Women’s Sports Foundation. Based in Vancouver, he has covered women’s hockey at five Winter Olympics and four IIHF Women’s World Championships.