April is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ fourth-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the top female high school players, influential athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. We will also be highlighting some of the best stories from the past year and trailblazers in girls sports.
When Lisa Lissimore grew up, she found athletic success without a lot to model off of in women’s sports.
Lissimore helped St. Paul Central win the first ever official Class AA Minnesota girls basketball state title in 1976 and went on to play at the University of Minnesota and Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa.
“What I saw on TV was Billie Jean King; it would have to be a major event, but that was probably it for the most part,” Lissimore said. “There was nothing on TV like we have today.”
Lissimore thinks that the times have changed since she grew up. The WNBA was not established until 1996 and the first national professional soccer league emerged in 2000, and though the Women’s United Soccer Association folded in 2003, other leagues have sprouted up.
“This is the first generation of athletes to really grow up with professional teams, and as a result of having more women’s teams, there is more media coverage of women’s sports,” Lissimore said. “Like, who would not know Lindsay Whalen?”
Now, Lissimore is in her 30th year as the Associate Director of the Minnesota State High School League, a league that is ran through one of the prominent states for girls sports participation.
Minnesota high school sports is 49 percent female, the highest percentage per-capita of any state, the Fargo-Moorhead Forum and ABC affiliate WDAY reported.
That rate has also gone up: Girls sports participation has risen 17 percent in the state over the past 10 years, according to a report from the National Federation of State High School Associations in a survey of 2017-18 participation numbers.
USA TODAY Sports reported on Minnesota being high in girls participation earlier in the month, but how can girls participating in sports make an impact?
Ellen Staurowsky is a sports management professor at Drexel University. She was the lead author of Her Life Depends On It, among other works pertaining to females in sports. Staurowsky said girls competing in sports can help with the obvious such as physical fitness, but can also improve things like social skills and confronting adversity.
“I think holding out high standards for what girls can do is very important,” Staurowsky said. “We have mixed viewpoints, still, on that and we have some coaches who will push female athletes and we have some others come into the situation still operating with stereotypical viewpoints that girls and women just are not as competitive or not as serious.”
Even with research to support positive dividends from girls competing in sports, many states still lag in high school sports participation among girls, while others are nearly equal to boys in athletic participation.
Annual girls participation numbers have not gone down across the U.S. since a slight decline between the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons. However, states like Alabama — with just 35 percent participation among girls and Tennessee — 36.8 percent — still have large disparities between boys and girls figures, as calculated from the NFHS study by Forbes.
Minnesota, Pennsylvania (47.1 percent girls participation) and Maine (46.6 percent) rank at the top for per capita numbers, according to Forbes’ calculations.
“Girls stand to benefit from physical activity across their lifespan,” Staurowsky said. “When they begin at earlier ages, they lay a foundation for long-term health.”
Asked about why Minnesota is unique across the country for sports participation, Lissimore pointed to how many different sports are available in the state. The high school league offers 17 girls sports compared to 14 boys, and it supplies students with adapted sports to compete in.
“As the momentum for girls athletics continues to build, it is my hope that more girls will follow and participate knowing that they can reach for things that are now possible,“ Lissimore said.