By Sarah Bagay
Stephanie Harrison wanted to enhance women’s involvement in sports, especially soccer, when she founded Steel City Football Club, a women’s professional team.
Christine Serkoch and Angela Tegnelia have become key players in the media and communications field for the Pirates and Steelers, respectively, and not only enjoy participating in key future decisions of the teams, but hope to pave the way to opportunities for other women.
James Santilli feels so strongly about bringing a pro women’s hockey and baseball team to Pittsburgh that he is starting a media campaign and will petition the National Hockey League for permission.
Women are on the rise in all professions, but there are still many battles to overcome as they try to compete in the highly competitive sports world as media professionals, players, and coaches.
Jordan Daloisio, general manager of Steel City F.C. soccer league sees women actively participating in all fields of sports.
“We are going to change the culture for the benefit of all female athletes in Pittsburgh who deserve to be recognized and respected for their contributions to their sports and to their community,” he said.
The change in culture is already starting. The Pittsburgh Banshees, a Gaelic football team, formed in 2002; the Pittsburgh Passion, the first pro football team was established in 2003; Steeler City Roller Derby was founded in 2006; a women’s professional soccer league, the Steel City F.C. originated in 2015; and the first season for the Pittsburgh Forge Rugby occurred in 2018.
Plus, women are leading the way as athletic directors, sports public relations, broadcasters, coaches and international players.
The Title IX is a 1972 law signed by President Richard Nixon that ensures educational programs and activities receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. Since then, participation in women’s sports have snowballed. The NCAA reported that in the 2015-2016 academic year, 211,886 women were involved in numerous college sports, a 25% increase over the previous decade.
On February 4, 2019, under the direction of Harrison, a special Girls and Women Sports day was held at the YWCA in Homewood. The main purpose was to get all the women’s sports teams from Pittsburgh together to advocate future women athletes in the fields of football, rugby, soccer, and roller derby.
Organizations present were the Steel City Roller Derby, Pittsburgh Passion, Pittsburgh Banshees Gaelic Football, the Forge Women’s Rugby and the YWCA members. It was a two-hour event featuring discussions and introductions about the teams and special games that the attendees could practice their sports skills.
“Many girls didn’t know that we had so many sports teams,” said Harrison.
Females in Media Relations
Chris Serkoch, vice-president of human resources and director of community relations for the Pittsburgh Pirates, recalls her role in the history of the organization and in the inception of PNC Park.
She got to plan the architecture of the stadium. At that time, she was the first female event planner. Now, she is involved in many of the events before the baseball game, such as award ceremonies, the famous pierogi races and find the singers and bands who perform the National Anthem. She recalls last season when children sang the national along with the bands.
She hopes that one day a professional women’s baseball team would come to Pittsburgh.
“Even though we have women’s softball, a baseball team would bring in big crowds,” she said.
As Serkoch’s was the first social event planner for the Pirates, Angela Tegnelia is the first female public relations assistant for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It’s long hours,” Tegnelia said, “but you do have fun, especially when you get invited to the Super Bowl every year.”
She said that as a media employee, it is highly recommended that the public relations department attended the activities during Super Bowl week. She stressed that advertisement is the key and what better place to get known and to get experience is at the Super Bowl.
In all the games, she plans and directs interviews, the players’ field positions, their biographies and their communication with the public. She has worked with Marcus Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster.
“I follow them throughout camps, practices and games, and try to give them more media exposure,” she said. “They are fun, joking all the time, but they are professional players on the field.”
Tegnelia described that the Steelers have a networking agency called the Fellowship Program for Women which is a scouting combine covering leadership and future endeavors in the sports field and possible positions in broadcasting and advertising.
Can Female Pro Sports Make It Here?
James Santelli, news producer of KDKA, knows that advertising and marketing will help increase the development of women’s sports.
During the fall of 2018, he covered numerous Pitt women’s volleyball games and noticed the increase in attendance. He said that if volleyball can attract a large crowd, then so can other sports for women, especially in the areas of soccer and hockey.
He explained that Highmark Stadium, home to the Riverhounds, would be the perfect venue for soccer. He also noted that hockey can be played at the same complex the Penguins practice in Cranberry Township.
“I already know some women who are interested,” he said. “All we need now is a marketing push.”
Even though, professional women’s leagues and coaching positions are rising every year, the salary and recognition for women in sports are not conducive to the men’s divisions. Statistics have proven that women in sports are generally ignored and are given very little importance. Women’s sports receive only 4% of all sports media coverage, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.
Santelli wants 2020 to be the target for a revolution in women’s sports.
“The market is certainly large enough,” Santelli said. He cited Pittsburghers with a love for sports can start a professional women’s soccer team and a professional women’s hockey team, and own them both like Thomas Tull, businessman and minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers; David Tepper, alumni of Carnegie Mellon University and owner of the Carolina Panthers; or Hollywood actor, Michael Keaton.
Santelli sees the Lemieux Complex as a natural fit for a sixth NWHL franchise.
He further explained that the media and marketing push would be the first step and permission from the NHL Commissioner would be another step. “Now we have to work on a name. Any suggestions?” Santelli quipped.
Motivation and hard work are the key factors in any sports, but women are faced with more struggles than the traditional men’s teams.
“You can’t be afraid to ask questions, get involved and run,” Tegnelia said.
She said that the journey in sports begins in high school and continues through college with networking.
Gina Naccarato, vice principal of Monessen Elementary Center and athletic director for the Monessen School District echoes Tegnelia’s philosophy of networking.
“If you work hard, give 110%, and are organized, good things will come your way. Have a positive mental attitude and never give up,” she said.
Naccarato has never given up. She is Monessen’s first female athletic director. In 2015, she was inducted in the Mid Mon Valley Sports Hall of Fame for her accomplishments in basketball and coaching. She cited that her role model was Susie McConnell-Serio from Pittsburgh, who won gold and bronze medals at the Olympics, played professional basketball and was the women’s basketball coach at Duquesne and the University of Pittsburgh. Narracato said that McConnell-Serio was a positive influence on the female athletics during the 1980s. She stresses that to be successful you have to keep plugging away at whatever you do.
The players of the Pittsburgh’s only professional football team, The Passion, know only too well the struggles they had to overcome.
Kaitlain Niedermeyer, defensive tackle, remembers one particular game in early April. “We had rain, lightening, and ended up with two inches of snow.”
Her favorite memories were the championship games of 2014 and 2015 and celebrating to the song, “We are the Champions.”
The coach, Lisa Horten, always played sports with her brother and other boys. Her love was football and in 2007, she won her first championship with the Passion.
“Football is the ultimate team sport,” she said. Morgan Cross, offensive linebacker agrees with Horten. To her, sports were a way to test mental, physical, and emotional conditions. She played softball, soccer and volleyball in high school and Powder Puff games.
“You are part of a family, and experience the good and bad times,” she says. She recalls a nail bitter with Boston with the final score in favor of the Passion’s, 44-42. It was the first time in 10 years that they beat them.
Monique Fluharty played in little league football, but was not allowed to participate in high school. “It was a boy’s sport, and girls were not considered to be athletic enough,” she explained.
When the Passion football came along, she jumped at the chance to play and discovered that women are better than men and can play any position.
All four women, though, were discouraged from playing professional sports. Their parents were afraid of permanent injury and wanted them to play girls’ sports. However, first year coach, Ron Zieger, soon found out that they easily picked up the plays and were playing as a team.
“It is a sisterhood,” he said.
Point Park University’s soccer coach, Maggie Kuhn, thinks that the emergence of Title IX has helped increased the equality between women and men in the sports field.
“More women are competing in various sports and in many capacities and are getting noticed by professional sports’ team in all divisions,” she said.
Just recently, more women are getting hired as coaches in professional football.
As reported in The Associated Press, Bruce Arians, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, recently hired two female assistant coaches.
“They’re good fits for what we need,” he told reporters.
Arians has been bringing female coaches to the NFL, starting with the hiring of Jennifer Welter as an assistant coaching intern in July 2015 when he was with the Arizona Cardinals.
Kathryn Smith was the first full-time female coach when the Buffalo Bills hired her as a special team’s quality coach in 2016. Katie Sowers has spent the past three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers as an offensive assistant.
Kelsey Martinez spent the 2018 season as the Oakland Raiders‘ strength and conditioning coach. Sarah Thomas, the NFL’s first full-time female referee, became the first woman to officiate a playoff game when she worked as a down judge in the matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots in January.
Arians says he thinks the NFL is just five years away from it being normal to see women on the sidelines coaching.
In a study of four major newspapers, USA Today, the Boston Globe, the Orange County Register and the Dallas Morning News, women-only sports stories totaled just 3.5% of all sports stories.
The lower coverage of women’s sports results in less viewership and a smaller fan base. The lesser viewership ultimately leads to less advertisement and sponsors, which results in a lesser pay.
This pay discrepancy was evident in 2015 when the U.S. Women’s National Team earned $2 million for their World Cup Soccer Victory, but in 2014 the U.S. men’s team collected $9 million for being in 11th place.
Tennis is the most money-making sport for female athletes. All grand slam tennis tournaments have paid male and female champions equally since Wimbledon begun doing so in 2007. However, Novak Djokovic, the men’s number one, earned twice as much as Serena Williams, although both had won three of the four grand slams.
In March of 2019, the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer, accusing it of gender discrimination. The complaint, filed in California district court, argues that U.S. Soccer has a policy and practice of discriminating against members of the women’s national team on the basis of gender, by paying them less than members of the men’s team. The lawsuit seeks to be a class action, representing other women who’ve played for the U.S. national team and who may have been denied equal pay for equal work.
The suit comes less than three months before the Women’s World Cup kicks off in France.
The U.S. women’s team is ranked No. 1 and hopes to defend the World Cup it won four years ago. The men’s team has failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The lawsuit contends that women’s players are paid less for each match, they’re paid less for making the team’s World Cup roster, and they’re paid much less for their performance at the World Cup.
Harrison pointed out that men are still the controlling factor in sports, but the more women get involved, the more equal sports will become.
“There is still work to be done, but we have to stay inspired to do it,” she said.