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50 years after Title IX, Kansas City Current lead charge into next 50 years

New business model could alter women’s pro sports
KC Current open new training facility
Posted at 6:13 PM, Jun 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-23 19:52:59-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Title IX became federal law 50 years ago Thursday when the Education Amendments of 1972 went into effect.

Thirty-seven words that forever transformed the landscape of athletics for girls and women:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Now, Kansas City has become ground zero for charting a course for the next 50 years of growth and development for women’s sports in the United States.

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There can be a misconception that Title IX was a panacea, tearing down all the barriers that prevented girls and women from being able to participate equitably in athletics.

The truth, of course, is much more convoluted.

It took a long time before the realization that athletics at public high schools and colleges were covered by the law and a decade for the NCAA to embrace women’s sports.

“It wasn’t like a switch was flipped and everything was great,” said Brenda VanLengen, a national sports broadcaster who lives in Olathe and frequently covers the Big 12. “It took a couple of years to even realize it applied to sports, and then year and year after that with battles of trying to make sure that women were given equitable opportunities.”

It’s a fight that sometimes rages to this day, including a flap over men’s and women’s weight room facility discrepancies during the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments.

“The shift in the past couple of years — the focus and the attention that has been placed on females in general and specifically on women athletes — has really lifted the veil that many of us had seen but had never been addressed,” Kansas City Current President Allison Howard said. “Now, it’s something that’s never going away.”

VanLengen grew up in Roseland, Nebraska, during the 1970s. She was a three-sport star and went on to a distinguished career at Nebraska-Kearney, formerly Kearney State University.

But she didn’t have female role models to aspire to as a high school and college player.

Future Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller was beginning to draw national attention for her basketball prowess, but with no women’s games on TV, most of VanLengen’s athletic heroes were men’s players.

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The late 1990s represented a turning point for women’s sports.

The WNBA was founded in 1996 and the Women’s Dream Team won gold at the Atlanta Olympics that summer.

The late Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt became a household name, building a women’s basketball dynasty with a three-peat from 1996-98.

Brandi Chastain’s celebration after her penalty kick delivered a win for the U.S. Women’s National Team against China in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final has been immortalized with a statue outside the Rose Bowl.

But the USWNT only recently won equal pay with the U.S. Men’s National Team after a lengthy court battle despite a more successful and noteworthy track record.

“That whole time in the late 90s really helped launch and explode women’s sports,” VanLengen said. “Now, we have a generation of girls and women who have grown up watching women compete at an elite level in sports. They see it on television, they see the highlights on ‘SportsCenter,’ and those women now that are growing up, those girls, have role models they can see. And if you see it, you can be it.”

Title IX deserves credit for laying the groundwork that made those moments possible.

“Title IX was absolutely critical in creating opportunities, especially in high school settings,” VanLengen said. “Most high schools did not have sports for girls, did not have state championships for girls until Title IX was passed. You can’t have college sports really if you don’t have high school sports so that athletes can learn their skills, get better at them and rise to an elite level. That also made college sports a more viable option and more robust over the years. Title IX made all of the difference.”

But translating opportunity to interest and professional opportunities has been a more difficult task.

Many women’s athletes — including Brittney Griner, who is currently imprisoned in Russia — have to go overseas for the life-changing paydays men’s U.S. athletes get across most pro sports.

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The Kansas City Current stands on the precipice of a grand experiment. One that could revolutionize women’s sports at the professional level in the same way Title IX spurred high school and college athletics for girls and women.

The Current unveiled a new $18 million training facility earlier this week. It’s believed to be the first of its kind.

Another first is coming in 2024 when the Current plans to open a new stadium at the Berkley Riverfront. The club will break ground on the $117-million project in the fall and expect it to be completed by the end of next year, Current President Allison Howard said.

“This is a brand-new model,” Howard said. “I think it’s really going to make people think.”

Never before has an ownership group for a women’s sports team poured so much capital into facilities, but Current co-owners Chris and Angie Long are confident it will work.

“When we look at the business case, there’s so many more revenue levers that you can control when it comes to owning your own facilities,” Chris Long said. “At the end of the day, the product being women’s soccer, we have the best players in the world. For them to have the best facilities is such a no-brainer. It all aggregates up to a return on investment that we think is pretty obvious. Many haven’t, but for us, it was honestly not a hard decision to go down this path.”

From the beginning, the Longs and fellow co-owner Brittany Mahomes have said the goal is for the Current to be the best women’s soccer club on the planet.

“How can you be the best club in the world and not even have facilities under your name?” Angie Long said. “How can your athletes be as good as they can be without a place to call their own?”

It represents a new frontier for players, too.

“We gave the players a sneak peek a couple of days ago to come through here, and to see the look on their faces when they walked in (was incredible),” Howard said. “To really show them this is something they have always deserved. That does something for an athlete.”

Opening the training center, and eventually the stadium, represents the realization of the vision the Longs had in re-starting an NWSL franchise in Kansas City.

“There wasn’t a bad reaction in the bunch — it was joyful,” Angie Long said. “The best players in the world want to get better. The player development is so incredibly important to them. Winning championships is so incredibly important to them. This is a big leg up for us to be able to do that as a team.”

This isn’t a charity for the Longs, who also own Palmer Square Capital Management, a Mission Woods-based investment firm with more than $22 billion in assets under management. They are seasoned investment professionals and believe the new training complex, which eventually will grow to 10 fields, and new stadium will be revenue-generators that bolster the Current.

“It is such a huge deal that Chris and Angie Long and Brittany Mahomes are investing in women and the fact that Kansas City is a beacon and a role model for the rest of the country and the world to show what can be done when you invest in women’s sports at the professional level,” VanLengen said. “Their leadership will create opportunities and create a ripple effect throughout the world.”

It’s an open question whether the Current’s owners face more pressure to make it work or whether other NWSL owners do in the quest to keep up with the Joneses, but there seems to be a renewed appetite for investment.

The Current may have been the first to create purpose-built training and playing facilities, but they probably won’t be the last.

“I hope it puts a lot of pressure on,” Howard said. “What I have said is I’m creating a playbook that we’re going to want to share because it’s going to be a successful playbook of how to do it.”

Success may pave the path forward for women’s sports for the next 50 years.

“We want to win championships,” Chris Long said. “We want to celebrate at Union Station. We want to do it just like we’ve seen with our beloved Chiefs and Royals. And we want to have a model that transcends, not just soccer, but all of women’s sports.”