He’s told the story plenty of times now, but it definitely bears repeating. Jerry Solomon, longtime sports businessman, husband of former Olympic figure skater and Stoneham native Nancy Kerrigan, was watching the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
For the first time, he realized, there were more women on the US team than men.
But not for the first time, he noted, there was far more coverage of the men than the women.
“I understand for someone like [28-time Olympic swimming medalist] Michael Phelps, but I was representing Kayla Harrison at the time, a two-time Olympic judo champion, which was unheard of for an American, and no one knew. The disparity didn’t make any sense,” Solomon remembered. “And I said, ‘Maybe it’s time for a platform just for the women, the world-class female athletes of the world, an event every other year, and they would have a platform that is just for them. Something just designed to celebrate their power and their finesse and their style of play and everything they contribute.”
Thus was the Aurora Games born.
A little over a week from now inside the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y., the first of a six-day festival of team competition (America vs. the World) will begin, featuring tennis, gymnastics, figure skating, ice hockey, basketball, and beach volleyball, with an exhibition in table tennis.
Three years from inception to fruition is a relatively short span in the world of major sports events, yet in the context of an expanding landscape for women’s sports, the time period is both important and illustrative. The appetite for women’s sports is growing by the day, and while the fight for attendance, for media coverage, for revenue and for resonance is far from comparable with what men’s sports garner, the progress from even three years ago is undeniable.
Amid a second straight World Cup championship for the American women’s soccer team, alongside two decades of prominence for the most established women’s professional sports league, the WNBA, and among the persistent popularity of megastars such as Serena Williams, women’s sports are penetrating our collective sports psyche in deeper and more permanent ways than ever before. Which is why the concept of the Aurora Games is so interesting — Solomon didn’t feel the need to set it up side-by-side to men’s competition. In fact, he felt the opposite made sense.
The women are the point.
“I have been very fortunate in my career to be around really some of the greatest athletes of all time, to watch them and learn from them and help them, create situations for them, and the thing that strikes me is that whether you are a female or a male, the mentality, the work ethic, the hours of dedication, the single-mindedness of purpose, they are the same,” Solomon said.
“The female athletes might be playing the same sports, they’re all playing basketball, hockey, tennis, whatever, but they really play it differently. In order to really give it its due, it needed to be separated out, in my opinion. A lot of people disagree with me and think it’s best when the men and women are at the same events. There’s a place for that, and those are big events. But I think in order to really appreciate what women’s sports are all about, you have to look at it on its own without watching the women play and then watching the men play.”
The Aurora Games will test his theory, and certainly, interested parties will be watching attendance figures, our easiest metric for success. But as Solomon pointed out, success is measured in many ways, and he includes the more than 100 athletes from around the world, the more than 20 sponsors, the 20 hours of live television coverage on ESPN, as well as international TV coverage that are all lined up as evidence of interest. He points to the unique “conversations with champions” series that well be held prior to competitions and the inclusion of such luminaries as Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Nadia Comaneci as honorary captains.
“There’s a side of me that says this is sort of amazing as it is,” he said. “But I think that nevertheless we will end up getting measured based on perception people have. If we were to make $20 million, which we will not, and there were 500 people in seats every night, the perception is it was a major disaster. On the flip side, if we lose $20 million and there are five or six thousand in attendance, the perception is it’s a major success. How to measure whether it’s a success or not is going to be really on a number of different levels.”
It may simply be found in the atmosphere at the arena, a feeling of electricity, a sense of buzz, a level of excitement for a new opportunity for women athletes. The idea that this is the start of something lasting, something in position to fill an appetite that will grow as long as we keep feeding it, something to live up to the simplest translation of its name: an aurora, or new “dawn.”
With an initial idea of rotating the competition every two years among US and overseas sites, Solomon says now he’s interested in finding a permanent home, one that might eventually include training centers and educational opportunities.
“That’s a big undertaking and a big dream but there are some discussions that have already begun with Albany, and the state of New York, that are interested in becoming that,” Solomon said. “That would be an amazing development.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.