Boardman native, alum honored by NCAA at Women’s Final Four for work done by non-profit, Play Gap

Submitted photo. Boardman alum Barb Anthony is honored on the floor of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse during the Women's Final Four last weekend as one of the recipients of the NCAA's 2024 Legends and Legacy Community Award.

The popularity of women’s sports has been on the rise for years.

Since the implementation of Title IX in 1972, participation and opportunities for women in sports have grown drastically. Studies indicate that three million more high school girls and 200,000 more college women have opportunities to play sports each year, and those numbers continue to grow.

In recent years, women’s sports, in particular women’s basketball, has also seen record numbers in terms of television viewership. For example, this past week, the women’s national championship game in Cleveland broke the ESPN viewership record with 18.7 million viewers, and for the first time, it out-drew the men’s national championship game, which had a viewership of 14.8 million.

A significant percentage of that increase in participation and viewership can be attributed to organizations like Play Gap, a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing opportunities, advancing participation and building and fostering connections in sports for adult women.

Play Gap, formerly known as the Northeast Ohio Women’s Sports Alliance, was co-founded by Boardman native and Spartans alum Barb Anthony in 2020. This past weekend, the NCAA honored Anthony at the Women’s Final Four as one of the recipients of the 2024 NCAA Legends and Legacy Community Award for the work that she’s done with Play Gap to help foster the advancement of opportunities in sports for women.

“It was incredible — I tried so hard to just soak in every viewpoint and sound standing on that court looking around at a sold-out crowd for women’s Final Four weekend,” Anthony said. “I was absolutely blown away, and they clearly did a great job. It was a lot of fun to see people who were supportive of our work and to meet the other honorees, who are just incredible people.

“There are so many women doing amazing things within our organization. Every one of our board members and volunteers are just exceptional and passionate and it’s been a real pleasure to represent them through this award.”

Submitted photo. The 2024 recipients of the NCAA’s Legends and Legacy Community Award stand with the national championship trophy. From left-to-right: Ron Soeder, Barb Anthony, Matt Kaulig, Renee Powell and David Gilbert.

Play Gap’s co-founder Elise Vue nominated Anthony for the award. In Vue’s nomination, she wrote that Anthony “sets the standard for what sustainable, safe and accessible adult sports should be…to make the sports world a more inviting place for women and a system in which they can thrive.”

“I didn’t know that she had done that, and it was a huge honor to have somebody who’s in this work with me acknowledge me this way and I appreciate her nomination,” Anthony said. “We had a couple of different celebratory events leading up to the actual Final Four on-court acknowledgement, and it was really lovely to be able to talk more about Play Gap and provide visibility for the organization through this acknowledgement.”

Growing up, Anthony was always influenced by sports.

Almost everyone in her family was an athlete, including her parents, who were both college athletes, her grandparents and all of her cousins. Anthony’s grandfather was a local coach and ran open gyms at a church on the East side of Youngstown.

She would often go with her mother on weekends to the YMCA in downtown Youngstown to play in a volleyball adult recreational league.

“My parents both really valued sports in what they bring to the rest of your life and what they provide you in terms of structure, leadership and socialization,” Anthony said. “It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of which one we would choose.”

Anthony was primarily a swimmer, but she played basketball, too. However, once she got to high school at Boardman, she had to pick one because the two sports overlapped during the winter season. She ended up choosing basketball, but she also did track and field during her final two years of high school, competing for long-time Boardman coach Denise Gorski.

After an ACL injury ended her senior basketball season, Anthony chose to get surgery, which also ended her track career. But Anthony was thinking long-term.

“I thought about my life as an adult at that time and what role sports would play in my life,” Anthony said. “I made the decision to get surgery because I didn’t want to be somebody who’s in their 40s and not be able to stay active.”

After high school, Anthony attended Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa. and received her Bachelor of Arts degree in social work. While there, she joined the rowing team, and also ended up joining the inaugural water polo team, becoming an Academic All-American. After undergrad, she completed her master’s in social work at Case Western Reserve University.

“I really missed having the identity of being a student athlete,” Anthony said. “So I sought out opportunities to play other sports.”

As an athlete at heart, Anthony wanted to continue to stay involved in sports after college. But resources for adults were minimal and oftentimes nonexistent.

Thus the idea for Play Gap was born.

“I had a hard time finding safe and inclusive spaces for adult women, and honestly, for a while, I just had to let it go,” Anthony said. “But around 2017 or 2018, I started to intentionally go back looking — how can I incorporate what I know as a social worker and what I know about people’s wellness and communities to figure out how to create a space that sports can still be a part of, especially for women.

“That’s when I found my co-founder, Elise. Since 2018, this has evolved from a very grassroots organization to a fully-certified 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We’ve gone from 200 athletes to probably somewhere near — with all of our member teams — around 2,000. And that’s just here in Ohio. We’re all volunteers, so this organization is run in our spare time and on a very little budget.”

Being at the Women’s Final Four was an awe-inspiring experience for Anthony, one she wishes some of her former coaches, who were transformative in her athletic experience, were able to see.

“It was absolutely surreal. It was like an out-of-body experience in a lot of ways and also just felt like a huge celebration,” Anthony said. “It felt like a huge party for women. Any other women I talked to felt the same way. … It was just absolutely incredible to be there and I wish that some of my coaches who I had were able to see this.”

Since Anthony and Vue first started the organization in 2020, it has continued to grow. But despite the NCAA award, Anthony reiterated that there’s still much to be done to continue to build on what they’ve built.

“I almost thought it was a little bit surreal getting the award because I feel like we have so much left to do, and I have so much left to do,” Anthony said. “I don’t want anyone to think this indicates a completion in terms of the work. It was a little bit mind-blowing to acknowledge that it was happening, but also at the same time to stay focused on how much we still have to do.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Neel Madhavan by email at nmadhavan@tribtoday.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @NeelMadhavan.


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