Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | May 2019 | 26 minutes (6,609 words)
The idea for womenSports magazine was born in a car suspended over the San Francisco Bay by beams of steel. Several weeks before she captivated the nation by beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in the fall of 1973, Billie Jean King sat in the passenger seat of a car and stewed. At the wheel was her then-husband, Larry, driving the couple from Emeryville near Oakland toward San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, and as Billie Jean flipped through an issue of Sports Illustrated, she complained, which is what she always did whenever she picked up an issue of SI.
“I can’t believe it,” she recalls saying to Larry after each turn of the page. “I get Sports Illustrated and all I get is men, men, men, men. Don’t they ever think about us, and the women and what we’re doing?” Larry, long accustomed to listening to Billie Jean’s frustrations about the lack of representation in the pages of America’s preeminent sports publication, answered her question with his own: What if they, the Kings, started a magazine that covered women’s sports? If you didn’t know that Billie Jean King launched a magazine, don’t be surprised. Even though womenSports existed in various forms and iterations until 2000, when it ceased publication, the journey it took over the course of its life informs the ways women’s sports have been perceived in our culture — and the challenges the media still faces when covering female athletes.
When I first began reading through issues of womenSports, requested through the archives of the Boston Public Library and delivered to me in huge binders organized by year, I was in awe. I could not believe that something like this had existed, because nothing like it exists even today, 40-plus years later. A monthly magazine dedicated exclusively to women’s sports and female athletes seemed like a dream.
“This particular woman, the woman who is active, who pursues sports, she travels, she’s a great reader, she’s a great audience,” says Susan Casey, former editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated Women, which published in 1997 and again from 1999 to 2002. “She’s kind of underserved right now and I hope that changes.” In truth, that woman has been underserved for a very long time.
“I’m sorry it went away because it was something necessary,” Billie Jean says of her magazine now, in a phone call. She and Larry had seen a problem and tried to be the solution. When asked in 1974 about a Newsweek cover story on female athletes, she told The New Yorker, “I get the feeling the women in the pictures were chosen mostly because they are pretty.” What’s illustrative about that quote is that the various stumbles that occurred in those days continue to hamstring sports media publishing today. “That’s what this magazine was started for, because we [women] didn’t have anything,” Billie Jean says. “Sports Illustrated was not covering us properly and it covered us on looks too much, not just on our performances and our accomplishments.”
The story of womenSports magazine is one of survival. In four iterations over the course of two-plus decades, it never really found commercial success — and yet it persisted. The publication continued because passionate individuals believed in it and were willing to give it a chance and take a risk. People recognized the potential that existed in a pretty simple concept: sports content for women that didn’t pander or condescend. And while those same people could have thrown in the towel along the way, the little magazine that could continued on, inexplicably, for almost 25 years.
While the notion of an athlete of Billie Jean’s stature launching a nationally distributed magazine seems far-fetched, the Kings weren’t publishing neophytes: Not only had they previously produced tennis programs for the Virginia Slims Tour and the World Tennis Association, the duo had started Lob! Magazine in the early 1970s (the title was in reference to Billie Jean and other tennis players who petitioned for equal pay, which had previously been a derogatory nickname mocking the group’s feminist values, or “women’s lob”). But still, this was a whole new animal, an undertaking without much of a playbook — there was nothing on newsstands like womenSports. Its closest competitor was The Sportswoman, a subscription-only magazine that launched in March 1973 and achieved a circulation of a little more than 5,000 subscribers within a few months.
Notwithstanding the confusing name — Jane Leavy, who worked for the magazine a couple years into its run, says, “One of the most torturous things … was the horrible title of the stupid magazine; try getting someone to spell womenSports right” — the Kings’ mission statement was explicit: a monthly publication envisioned as a version of SI but for women, and with an explicitly feminist bent.
womenSports was also very reflective of the time period in which second-wave feminism was making waves. In the two years preceding the magazine’s launch, Title IX became law and Billie Jean defeated Riggs. Each contributed to the backdrop of the women’s liberation movement. “And to some degree,” says Jim Jorgensen, the Kings’ longtime business partner and financial manager, this coalescence “it is not by chance. … Any kind of credit you want to give [Billie Jean and Larry],” they should get it. They “sacrificed time, effort, money” to push the cause of equality for female athletes forward.
They were helped by two women who had recently launched a magazine of their own — Gloria Steinem and Pat Carbine, cofounders of Ms. Magazine. Carbine, in particular, was instrumental, explaining to them how to run a magazine. They also relied on Jorgensen. Fresh out of graduate school at Stanford, the 25-year-old was tasked with exploring whether the magazine Billie Jean and Larry envisioned was too risky a proposition. According to Jorgensen, Larry had a new idea every day, and “most of the time, we wouldn’t do them, so [with womenSports magazine], he would have asked, ‘What do you think of this idea? Can we make any money? Is this the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard?’”
Billie Jean’s financial advisors believed so, and in meetings with Billie Jean, they likely quoted an oft-reported 1970s study that nearly half of the publications launched in the previous decade had already gone belly-up. As Jay Searcy recounted in the New York Times in September 1974, “If the magazine fails, it could wipe her out financially.” In the inaugural issue, published in June of that year, Billie Jean’s publisher’s note acknowledged womenSports’s shaky financial footing — she was “willing to risk [her] earnings” — and while Jorgensen, who ran the financials, tells me that the risk was not quite as large as it may have been portrayed, Billie Jean is more nuanced, saying, “We knew it was a huge risk. We were in over our heads financially, for sure.” But, she adds, “Larry and I never cared about that.”
The magazine also had the backing of John Beni, then the advertising director of Redbook, who taught the fledgling publication to “hold onto your money.” It also had support from Warner Brothers — thanks to Billie Jean’s celebrity, womenSports quickly inked a distribution deal with one of the the conglomerate’s divisions. The small staff, with the baby-faced Jorgensen headlining as CEO (overseeing subscriptions, advertising, and other business elements of the publication) and Billie Jean and Larry as copublishers, decamped to a nondescript office building right off Highway 101 in San Mateo, California, and began the process of hiring editors and writers.
Eva Auchincloss came in as associate publisher — funding was tight, so Auchincloss wasn’t paid with cash but rather in ownership of the magazine. Assistant production manager Tam O’Shaughnessy, who described the womenSports’s office as a raucous center of energy, came from the women’s professional tennis circuit. (Sally Ride, who would become O’Shaughnessy’s longtime partner and collaborator, was a frequent guest; Ride worked at womenSports’s competitor, The Sportswoman.) Jon Carroll, who acted as an editorial consultant and wrote for the magazine, came from Hugh Hefner’s Oui magazine, and he declined a salary, hoping that the womenSports’s articles would make up for Oui’s objectifying content. “The articles, no matter how good, don’t really matter, because what you’re selling is tits and ass,” he says. He wanted to contribute something positive and empowering to women in media — an amends of sorts, adding that he loved Billie Jean’s vision for a publication that would cover women’s sports the way men’s sports were covered. (“The rest of us had no idea that he was doing this all absolutely for free,” says features editor B.K. Moran, who previously worked at Woman’s Day magazine and wrote a book with Vivian Gornick called Woman in Sexist Society.)
Billie Jean also tasked Carroll with hiring womenSports’s inaugural editor in chief. His first choice was Rosalie Muller Wright, formerly the managing editor of Philadelphia magazine. She shared Billie Jean’s concerns about the presentation of female athletes in the national media, telling a reporter at the womenSports’s launch party, “I came into sports via the women’s movement. Sports and physical development are avenues to being truly liberated.” Wright’s EIC offer wasn’t a foregone conclusion — when Jorgensen advised Billie Jean on the merits of Wright, he said that she was the best woman for the job. Billie Jean stopped him and said, “You told me you found the best woman for the job, so was there any man you would have wanted to talk to that you haven’t yet?” There was — André Laguerre, the famed managing editor of Sports Illustrated, who took a meeting but ultimately pulled his name from consideration.
Early hires also included art director Velveteen Rose, who had pink hair and a pet tarantula (Jorgensen’s first job every morning was to make sure the spider was still in its tank), and Anne Lamott, a 19-year-old who hitchhiked to the interview then proceeded to spill coffee all over Wright’s desk (she was promptly hired). Lamott had answered an ad for a secretary at a new sports magazine for women, but when Wright sat Lamott down at a typewriter, it turned out that Lamott couldn’t actually type very well at all. So Wright made her an editor. “And she was a fabulous editor,” says Wright. “And, somewhere along the way, she learned how to type.”
Of their editorial staff, Wright said in 1975, “I was looking for the most qualified people. I didn’t set out to put together an all-female staff, but as it turns out, it is almost all women.” It was also a young staff — at 31, Wright was the oldest member of the editorial team. And that youth helped foster an esprit de corps that favored risk-taking and pushing boundaries. “I had been working in New York, where you had to wear these giant heels, and I was just so happy to be working for her [Billie Jean] and wearing tennis shoes in the office, it was really great,” says Moran.
Now that a team was firmly in place, Wright set about producing a proof of concept: the 16-page pre-issue of womenSports ran as an insert inside Glamour magazine, which had more than 1.5 million subscribers at the time. It was a mini version of what womenSports would eventually be, and it included a subscription card.
womenSports’s path from conception to reality was a short one — the first issue debuted just months after that trial publication. Billie Jean naturally graced the cover, and the copublisher also contributed the lead feature (titled “How to Win”) and starred in five advertisements. This led to some criticism that it would be a promotional vehicle for Billie Jean, but within the first year, it had built a substantial following: By February 1975, the magazine had about 70,000 subscribers, and 98 percent of the readers were women (of which, an impressive 75 percent were between the ages of 18 to 34). The magazine’s focus was wide-ranging, tackling issues like the fact that women weren’t allowed to run marathons, exploring controversial figures like jockey Mary Bacon, and covering emerging sports like kung fu. They wrote about Arlene Blum, a mountain climber who was being excluded from group climbs because there were concerns about her menstruating during a climbing trip. And then there was the Title IX issue — “The Title IX Women’s Sports Revolution” — with cover artwork that featured a bowling ball mocked up to look like a bomb ready to explode. The issue was so popular that it required a reprint. “Sports Illustrated had the [Swimsuit] Issue,” says Moran. “That was one of our questions at the time: The swimsuits weren’t even good to swim in!”
Just as womenSports was hitting its stride, though, Larry and Billie Jean fired Wright. The personnel decision happened more than 40 years ago, and the story still differs depending on who you ask. According to Larry, she was let go after publishing what he describes as “a derogatory letter” about Clairol, a Bristol-Myers product, opposite a Bristol-Myers ad. “We didn’t think that it was wise on Rosalie’s part to thumb her nose at our advertisers so we parted ways over that,” says Larry.
Carroll, Wright’s close friend, has a different recollection of the firing: He encouraged Wright to resist what he — and the rest of the staff — felt was a change in direction being pushed by the Kings, one that was less explicitly feminist and more like a women’s mag for the athletic woman. Plus, says Carroll, the editorial staff didn’t even know pre-production what ads would run adjacent to the womenSports’s copy.
Wright’s memory is a bit more nuanced and hews closer to how Carroll remembers the incident. The magazine was struggling and in need of money — it had been a year since womenSports had launched, and whether the magazine survived (or didn’t, and the Kings lost their investment) depended on advertising dollars. She was asked to publish a piece of “service journalism” written by Clairol — without labeling it as such — about the best products to prevent hair from getting brassy in the sun, and several of its recommendations were Clairol products. Wright saw it as a violation of journalistic ethics, “sponsored content” before the term existed. The Kings saw it as thumbing her nose at their much-needed advertisers — in the weeks leading up to this conflict, the $15,000 editorial budget had been slashed by 40 percent.
The office was tense for a week or two while an editorial mutiny — the staff was adamant the magazine not cave in to an advertiser’s demands — loomed, which threatened to derail finishing the August 1975 issue on time. When it appeared womenSports might miss its closing deadlines (which would have been more disastrous to its reputation than any spon-con), Moran tried to help brainstorm solutions; at one point, she suggested giving Clairol a special, non-editorial advertising section. But too many feelings had been frayed, and during a meeting in which Wright met with the Kings and the magazine’s advertising director, the 32-year old top editor was fired. In protest, almost the entirety of the rest of the staff walked out, which Carroll had orchestrated behind the scenes — “Jon was lining everybody up to quit on the spot,” says Moran. For her part, Wright had no idea any of these talks among the rest of the staff were going on.
With just days before the next issue went to press, the Kings scrambled to put out an magazine with a staff of just five people. Moran was offered the job of interim editor-in-chief, but she passed. “I’m kind of a loyal person but more than that, what they wanted to do was not ethical,” she says.
A few months later, Wright says that Larry tried to hire her back. “At that point,” says Wright, “I was working in the sports department of the San Francisco Examiner, and I said, ‘Well, no thank you. It was fun while it lasted, but now I’m onto other things.’” (She later joined to New West magazine, where she assigned and edited the National Magazine Award–winning story about Jim Jones and Jonestown.)
Even still, Wright has no hard feelings about her firing. She remains proud of the work she did while at womenSports and is complimentary of both Larry and Billie Jean. “I really, really, really admire Larry. He’s the one who really believed in this magazine,” she says now. “In terms of where his heart was, he really, really wanted that magazine to succeed.”
Ultimately, the incident was a result of inexperienced publisher — it made sense to the Kings to to keep the advertisers happy, but a publisher who had worked their way through the ranks would have understood the nuances of keeping business and editorial distinct and figured out a solution that worked for everyone.
Lamott, Carroll, Moran, and Rose left with Wright, and theirs is a tale of solidarity, of loyalty, and of friendship. Their crew, the OG womenSports staff, became a unit and forged relationships — both professional and personal — that continue to this day. And for a little more than a year they revolutionized what content about female athletes was allowed to look like. I don’t believe we’ve seen anything like it before or since.
After Wright’s departure, Cheryl McCall was recruited from a freelance career to be the next editor-in-chief. In some ways, the staff’s purging was a good thing for the pub, which now had a “much tighter, smaller staff,” says Larry, which saved overhead costs. Also, it allowed the Kings to revisit relaxing the wall that had previously separated advertising and editorial. Billie Jean recalls “one of the biggest joys” she had, which was sitting in an editorial meeting. The writers wanted more pages of editorial content. “I said, ‘I totally agree with you, but we can’t pay you if we don’t have these advertisers,’” Billie Jean says. “‘It would be great if we had twice as many pages of editorial, we would love it, but we can’t make it work.’”
Those advertisements were a source of conflict outside of the office, as well. Readers sometimes pushed back in letters about the companies that advertised within womenSports, and the staff sometimes shared these missives with the companies in the hopes it would get them to change course. One such example came after a flurry of letters about what readers deemed “a disgusting” and “sexist” Speedo ad; the swimwear company promptly changed its ad strategy.
Ellen Merlo, an executive at Virginia Slims, was long a champion of Billie Jean’s career, and the cigarette company was the most controversial advertiser to grace the magazine’s pages. At the time, Billie Jean defended the ads because, as a new magazine, “survival economically does not allow the luxury of doing without advertising.” Plus, as Susan Ware reported in her book Game, Set, Match, these industries had long financially supported women’s sports when most other companies had dumped their resources into various men’s sports.
In many ways, readers were the magazine’s moral compass throughout its run. The cultural movement of second wave feminism was playing out in the pages of womenSports, and each issue featured an equal mix of reader letters cheering for its feminist stance along with letters critical of perpetuating sexist coverage of female athletes.
Ware cites a reader from New Hampshire who complained that a picture in the table of contents of jockey Mary Bacon — in which her polka-dot underwear was clearly visible through her racing jodhpurs — was “exactly the kind of sexist shit that I’ve always objected to in the likes of Sports Illustrated. Please try to get away from this approach.”
Two other readers, upset about the captioning of a photo of surfer Laura Chang, wrote, “We realize that you, too, are subjected to social conditioning which condones women as sexual objects, but we would hope that a magazine such as yours — supposedly dedicated to women’s athletic achievements — would not stoop to such standards.”
Readers were also dismayed with athletes distancing themselves from feminism in interviews. Too often, especially after Wright’s removal, the content seemed to veer away from its more explicitly feminist direction (right before the 1975 staff tumult, former art director Rose told Newsweek that it was beginning to feel like Larry and Billie Jean wanted “a sweaty Cosmopolitan”). Jan Cunningham, the coordinator of the Task Force on Sports for the National Organization for Women, reportedly had written on her to-do list in 1975, “Think a little bit about womenSports. Write letters of complaint about their sexist articles.”
Even still, the content was a revelation. In contrast to sports magazines for men, womenSports assumed the reader herself was an athlete. “I think we tackled really tough subjects,” says Billie Jean. “We knew that it was a lifestyle magazine, something women wanted, [but] it wasn’t about swimsuits” if those swimsuits weren’t for women looking for the best performance in the pool or “having some young swimsuit person on the front, it was more about, ‘This is for you, women who love sports, who like to hike, or whether they like to play football.’”
womenSports ran content about improving your golf swing and picking out the best track suit, as well as a feature called “Woes of the Weekend Athlete,” which ran in the July 1976 issue and outlined the various aches and pains casual athletes might suffer alongside the best ways to treat them. For example: “Bowler’s thumb is an inflammation of the tendon and muscle at the base of the thumb,” and it can be treated it by “mak[ing] sure your technique is correct and that the thumbhole on your ball is large enough.” They also printed the entirety of the Title IX law so that everyone could read it, covered genetic testing by the International Olympic Committee, and wrote about trans tennis player Renée Richards.
In one stroke of moxie combined with vigorous outside influence, womenSports featured Linda Jefferson, a halfback for the Toledo Troopers of the Women’s Professional Football League who would ultimately rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of her first five seasons, on its cover as the inaugural “womenSport of the Year” issue in June 1975. She won the contest, thanks in part to a “get out the vote” push in Toledo. When Jefferson donned the cover, she became the first black woman on the cover of a sports magazine, but the selection was not without controversy. According to Billie Jean, there were concerns that the issue wouldn’t sell with a black woman on the front, but the staff was steadfast: It’s nonnegotiable. This is the right thing to do. “Why did we start this magazine in the first place?,” says Billie Jean. “We’re supposed to help make a better life for women in sports in every way.”
Though subsequent “womenSport of the Year” were more traditional choices (thanks, in part, to a ballot of options for readers to pick, as opposed to write-ins) — Chris Evert in 1976 and figure skater Dorothy Hamill in 1977 — Wright, who was still the top editor at the time of Jefferson’s selection, recalls, “We were so happy to have the ability to be the first” to feature a black woman on the cover. “We weren’t even thinking, ‘We’re the first.’ We thought, ‘This is deserving, and let’s do it.’”
Jefferson’s cover was a high point of womenSports’s first incarnation, and one of the last achievements for Billie Jean and Larry as copublishers, a title they abdicated upon the decision to sell 81 percent of the publication to Charter Publishing, who owned Redbook. After just two years, the Kings were financially tapped with no fiscal stability in sight. When Charter took control of womenSports in the spring of 1976, the publication had seemingly plateaued, with just 100,000 subscribers, and single-copy sales were reportedly “unstable.” “It was basically a wash to get out of the magazine,” says Larry. “We didn’t get paid for selling it.” The sale also meant yet another round of staff upheavals: Not only did the office move from San Mateo to New York, but key founding employees, like publisher Eva Auchincloss, didn’t make the move with the magazine (McCall remained editor-in-chief, but soon left to join People).
For her part, Billie Jean told the Washington Post that the magazine “should appeal more to the active woman who plays a couple of hours of recreational tennis a week, or goes hiking or bicycling on weekends.” What she could not have known then was that she was predicting a trend toward women’s fitness coverage that would take place in the decade that followed.
Though Charter essentially relaunched the magazine — for a time after McCall’s departure, just staff writers and assistant editors were putting out the issues — womenSports continued its publishing ethos of regarding women as more active participants in sports. Two early hires were LeAnne Schreiber, who had been at Time, and Jane Leavy, straight out of Columbia University. “We were sort of inventing our way through,” Leavy says. Billie Jean would sometimes stop in, usually when she was between knee surgeries or retirements — “She would hit pretend backhands against the art department wall and it was just glorious,” says Leavy, who was also invited to play tennis at the former founder’s apartment, which had an indoor court on the roof. But really, this was womenSports 2.0, and the coverage tended to be more overarching, such as further exploring the effects of Title IX and the expansion of female athletes within sports.
Leavy worked on a feature about this “big new thing” called Nautilus machines and its impact on women’s muscles (it was unknown at the time how working out would affect a person’s muscles depending on their gender) and she (twice) covered Amy Dickinson, the first girl in Little League. “Back then, there were no handlers, there was no access, there was no this or that,” says Leavy. “You could get up close to these people.”
The fledgling journalist also spearheaded highly conceptualized packages, such as one known in-house as “The Tomboy Issue,” which delved into the stereotypes and perceptions that dogged girls who liked sports or were considered tomboys. She sent questionnaires to a litany of famous writers and politicians and actors — Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown; writer Eve Babitz; author of “for colored girls” Ntozake Shange; rocker Patti Smith; former first lady Betty Ford — and “goddamn, they all wrote back.”
Another hallmark of the revitalized womenSports was how it catalogued the state of sports coverage in women’s publications. Titled “Sports Chic,” a feature package ran in the March 1977 issue and included interviews with editors like Brown and Ruth Whitney, then at Glamour (who told Leavy that the publication was “even considering getting into muscular, serious, ‘sweaty’ sports”), and explored the presentation of women’s athletics in their pages. “It was a lot of work,” Leavy says now. Included was a statistical deep dive of sports coverage — in Ms., sports content rose a staggering 320 percent in the five years after Title IX, and Redbook increased 150 percent, an increase that brought sports coverage to 1 percent of the total content — that often highlighted issues of equity, like the challenges facing female marathon runners, or monthly sports columns.
By the fall of 1977, subscribers were up to 185,000. “It was pretty ambitious,” Leavy says of their content. “And I think a lot of it was pretty damn good.” It wouldn’t last: Charter soon merged with Downe Communications. While womenSports would continue to publish under an array of ever-changing titles — for a five-year period from 1979 to 1984, the magazine was published out of Denver under the name Women’s Sports (ostensibly a bullhorn for the Women’s Sports Foundation, which was headed by Eva Auchincloss), then it became Women’s Sports and Fitness — the magazine as conceived by Billie Jean as she crossed the Bay Bridge just five years earlier was done. womenSports published its last issue in February 1978. “Even though circulation was strong and advertising revenues were good, the magazine was running a $1.5 million deficit, which was too much of a liability,” writes Ware.
The staff was blindsided — they had no idea the magazine was folding and were officially told right before Christmas. Leavy remembers the only severance she got was two smokeless ashtrays that Larry invented and maybe $200. “Oh man, it was funny,” she laughs. “I’m sure it didn’t feel very funny at the time.” Leavy briefly went to work at SELF after leaving womenSports, which she describes as a “nightmare”: “If womenSports was a magazine for women who were either interested in women who competed in sports or for women who competed in sports … SELF magazine was how you can do sports to keep your man.”
What is perhaps most striking when flipping through issues of this magazine is the sheer caliber of the staff who came through in the handful of years they were publishing. “What made our magazine exceptional were the young women writers,” says Billie Jean. “They were some of the best ever and as they grew and got older and when the magazine went away, they went on to great heights.”
When the magazine rebranded as Women’s Sports and Fitness, it similarly was at the forefront of employing fitness-centric language to address a cultural shift that had started in the 1950s. According to Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, associate professor of history at The New School who is working on a book about U.S. fitness culture called Fit Nation, “That notion of fitness as inclusive and recreational and kind of holistic, that … really takes hold and is particularly appealing to women during [second-wave] feminism.” She further explains, “Because as opposed to sports, which has such a deeply masculine coding in our culture, it kind of provided this thing for a lot of women who internalize sexism or for other reasons felt marginalized from dominant athletic culture.”
This, of course, is a positive: Getting athletic endeavors to appeal to a larger number of women who may have felt excluded by it for a variety of reasons. Where the challenge comes in, and where womenSports came closest among publications of its ilk, is that much of fitness culture brings aspects of diet and beauty culture with it. In the eyes of some staff, Billie Jean may have wanted to create a “sweaty Cosmopolitan,” but womenSports mostly managed to achieve that delicate balance.
Much of the current messaging around fitness reflects the reason many female athletes have historically tried to distance themselves from explicitly embracing feminism: They don’t want to seem too threatening to the patriarchal status quo. Essentially, “I’m active but not manly.” Or, even more problematic, fitness culture connects physical activity with thinness, weight loss, and looking conventionally attractive according to arbitrary, cishet, Eurocentric beauty norms.
But just as womenSports faltered, Women’s Sports and Fitness really struggled to find a way to appeal to a broad enough audience during the mid-1980s. The sports content was the challenge, and it’s the same challenge that continues to dog women’s sports media: audience segmentation. A runner doesn’t necessarily want to read a story about swimming — she can just pick up a copy of Runner’s World for content she cares about. Also, while these magazines strived to be the women’s version of Sports Illustrated, these publications lacked a singular focus. There was nothing comparable to the major spectator leagues: NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. There was golf and tennis, but the male sports culture that buttressed SI didn’t have a female counterpart; the WNBA, NWSL, and women’s professional hockey leagues were years away.
According to Martha Nelson, the top editor of Women’s Sports and Fitness at that time, the publishers signed an agreement for a one-year trial run with Time, Inc., who considered bringing the mag under the editorial tent and invested significant resources in it. The timing, though, was not meant to be, and during the merger between Time, Inc. and Warner Communications, Women’s Sports and Fitness was dropped in the reshuffling.
In an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat, former Women’s Sports and Fitness staffer Lisa Rubarth spoke to the tension women’s sports media faced between highlighting feats of athleticism and ensuring the athletes still looked sexy and nonthreatening. The magazine planned to feature hurdler Stephanie Hightower on the cover, clearing her last hurdle en route to setting a record. “Every part of her body was going to the finish line. Her eyes were focused on the finish line and her face was pure concentration,” Rubarth told the newspaper in 1989. Despite the fact that the story and photo was an exclusive, the publication’s ad executives made them pull the cover — “She’s grimacing,” they told the staff, adding, “The advertisers won’t like it.” Rubarth wondered, “Would they ever say that about Carl Lewis?”
Condé Nast oversaw the final go-around for womenSports. In the mid-1990s, the publishing conglomerate wanted to start a men’s sports magazine, but after being counseled that women’s sports and female athletes still represented an almost completely untapped market, Condé Nast pivoted and hired the New York Times’ Lucy Danziger to launch the publication, which was initially called Sports for Women. “We really went into it thinking that we were going to celebrate the generation that really came of age loving Mia Hamm and understanding that sports is cool and being fit is where it’s at,” says Danziger. “Whether you like soccer or skiing or running, we were going to create a magazine that celebrated all that was fashionable and glorious and empowering about that.”
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: Circulation climbed to upwards of 400,000. But Danziger says they soon hit a stumbling block. The challenge was in creating content that would appeal to the largest number of people — that audience segmentation issue again — so the solution (again) was to add a fitness angle to the magazine. She recalls, “It became very clear that fitness was what all these female athletes had in common and that we could also capture a bigger circulation” with the addition of that content.
At around the same time, Women’s Sports and Fitness had been put up for sale, and Condé Nast purchased the title, merging it with Sports for Women and creating yet another Women’s Sports & Fitness. “I was like, ‘This is going to be a tough road to hoe because we don’t want to be disrespectful to everything that Billie Jean had done,” says Danziger. For the top editor, this feeling was especially pronounced: Billie Jean had been a childhood idol of Danziger’s. She owns the actual racquet that Billie Jean used to beat Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. “I really wanted to make sure that I was being respectful of her no matter how we did this.”
But once the magazine relaunched, to Billie Jean’s mind, the spirit of what the mag had once represented was gone. “It failed when the big guys had it,” Billie Jean tells me. “Condé Nast are the ones that let it go. They bought it and then they couldn’t make it work because they kept trying to make it fashion.” For Billie Jean, fashion and beauty coverage was fine if it was about the best clothing for a hike or the best sunscreens to protect and moisturize skin while a woman is on the golf course.
Danziger felt that all of these facets could exist in the same woman. “I think we were ahead of our time in some ways, and part of it was that even though we added fashion and beauty, which at first I thought, ‘Why beauty for athletes?’ says Danziger. “Then I realized, athletes want to be beautiful. We’re all women as well as being athletes. Everybody wants their hair to look good after you get out of the pool.”
“That’s a very delicate balancing act, I think,” Billie Jean says. “I felt under Condé Nast and Lucy that it had a great chance to really blossom and again and get new people in. … I thought it had a chance because they had the money.”
Like all the other incarnations of womenSports, Condé Nast’s version was short-lived. Ultimately, the magazine wasn’t profitable — as always, it couldn’t secure enough advertisers, and soon folded into SELF.
“That became the biggest problem,” Danzier says. “It wasn’t even circulation. Our circulation was solid. It wasn’t huge, we weren’t like the biggest magazine at Condé Nast, but we were holding our own. … It was really about the advertising dollars.” At one point, she tried cut back as much as she could to keep the magazine afloat, but it just wasn’t feasible. “We had Annie Leibovitz shooting for us. We did some really beautiful and special portfolios and we did great journalism,” says Danziger. “We were nominated for a National Magazine Award; I mean, we really took it to the max and I don’t regret that.”
In the end, womenSports struggled in the way that coverage of women’s sports always has. The concept means different things to different people. Some are hard-core competitors, others weekend warriors, and still more just want self-help articles. And even more problematically, while some, like Wright, embraced the relationship between feminism and sports, there is a sizable chunk of the population that could care less.
This has long been the rub with women’s sports publications. Condé Nast’s WS&F folded around the same time Sports Illustrated — the inspiration for the original womenSports all those years ago — attempted to launch its own publication geared toward women. Sports Illustrated Women, with Casey as the editor-in-chief, lasted less than three years. Even with a subscriber base of nearly 1 million — and much larger than what womenSports had achieved three decades earlier — Sports Illustrated Women “was not considered to be at the scale that Time, Inc. wanted their magazines to be. To my mind, [SI Women] would have been a success, but we weren’t given enough runway to do that. And we were showing pretty good signs of progress,” she says.
Casey adds, “With men’s sports mags, the audience is more spectator, and aren’t necessarily athletes themselves. With women’s, the expectation is more participatory in nature.”
“I’m really proud of it to this day because I know it affected a lot of people,” says Billie Jean. “And I still get women to this day saying they waited — especially women who lived in the rural areas of the country — they could not wait to get that monthly edition in their mailbox. … They would run down to the mailbox and get this magazine, they just loved it. I mean, women cry when they’re talking to me about this magazine to this day.”
As I said at the beginning, I’ve never seen anything like the content that appeared in womenSports magazine. After all these years, Wright, its first top editor, is happy to talk about the little magazine she helped build from the ground up, the magazine she says she started with a vision that sports were about freedom and feminism. “I’m glad that somebody’s finally noticing.”
For an audio companion piece to this story and to hear more about womenSports magazine (including Britni’s interview with Billie Jean King), download this week’s episode of the Longreads Podcast.
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance sports writer living in Boston. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, Bleacher Report, and more.
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