As a little girl, I sat in the stands of Pauley Pavilion for almost every UCLA home basketball game. I can remember how the cement floor had shiny flecks embedded into its surface that made it look like you were walking on stars. I remember the announcer’s voice booming, “first personal, third team foul” over the speakers. I remember the malt ice cream. I remember the Bruin Bear. And I remember John Wooden. To me, he was the old man with a cane who sat at the end of the bleachers behind the UCLA team with his legs neatly crossed. To to everyone else, he was a pseudo god, the father of basketball, an idol. I saw how my father admired him, and by the transitive property, I admired him too. As I write, a Wooden-signed basketball sits above me on my shelf, serving not only as a symbol of athletic prowess, but also as a symbol of the morals and values taught to us by Coach.
In 2010, in the midst of the basketball season, the University of Connecticut Women’s basketball team was closing in on UCLA and Coach Wooden’s NCAA record of 88 consecutive victories from 1971-74. Amidst a slurry of public unhappiness from old players, coaches, and fans, John Wooden’s daughter imparted us with her father’s feelings on the subject: “He thinks they play the purest form. He really likes the way they play. Most of the women’s teams play below the rim and there’s a lot of teamwork. He liked that. He really liked that.” Unfortunately, Wooden passed before the game could be played, but his grandson, Greg Wooden, was at the game where UConn broke the long-standing record. He said, “in the last decade of his life, coach Wooden thought the best basketball was being played at the collegiate level, and it wasn’t by the men. [He] believed that women’s teams, especially Connecticut, were playing his style of basketball, and liked the way they emphasized team above all else”.
So, Women’s basketball gets the seal of approval, recognition from the god of basketball himself; a blessing of sorts. That should be enough to earn the respect of the masses, if not at the very least the respect of aficionados of the game. Wrong.
Since the inception of UConn Women’s basketball in 1975, the Huskies have amassed an astounding .779 win percentage– the third highest in history, trailing only Tennessee and Louisiana Tech respectively. If we isolate just the last five years of UConn basketball, they have earned a .948 win percentage and have only lost five games in total. This is the single highest win percentage in Division I women’s basketball for these years. Every year, they seem to be improving, both in overall record and quality of play. This may be in part due to head Coach Geno Auriemma’s ability to recruit the best of the best. They are an athletic force that seems to be unstoppable. So far in the 2017 season, the UConn women are 16-0, are ranked number one in the nation, and are the four-time defending national champions.
As of Monday, January 30th, the Huskies have won 95 straight games, shattering their old record of 90 consecutive victories from November 2008 to December 2010 (the same year they broke the NCAA record previously held by Wooden’s UCLA team). In fact, UConn hasn’t lost a game since November 17, 2014 when they lost to sixth ranked Stanford in a nail-biter that pushed into overtime. Even more still, the Huskies have not trailed in points behind another team in about 374 minutes. They have literally been ahead of the game since December 11th. That’s unreal.
Cash, Competition and Coverage
In general media, there is a huge disparity in coverage of women’s basketball and men’s basketball. If a reader were to flip to the edition of the New York Times during March Madness last year they would see the men’s NCAA Basketball tournament’s Final Four teams front and center. If they looked deeper into the edition, they would find a short article and a photo of the women’s teams in the sports section (which included the 2016 UConn team). According to a study conducted by the USC Center for Feminist Research in 2009, 96% of sports news is dedicated to men and 2% of network news and ESPN SportsCenter coverage is devoted to women. While outrageous, such a huge disparity is produced for a very legitimate reason. People aren’t watching. Funding for streaming games, network time, and promotion goes where the audience is, and the audience is watching men’s basketball. The power to dictate where the money goes and what programs get media exposition lies in the hands of the consumer. There is even a disparity in the treatment of their various athletic programs in Universities. While over the years the economic gap has narrowed, according to the 2014 NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report, male athletes still receive 55% of NCAA college athletic scholarship dollars (Divisions I and II), while women only receive 45%. In addition, according to the Gender Equity Report by the NCAA in 2012, women’s teams receive only 40% of college sport operating dollars and 36% of college athletic team recruitment spending at the Division I level. This disparity comes down to ticket sales. The Women’s games are just not selling. According to NCAA statistics, in 2016, 27,234,610 people went to a collegiate DI basketball game and 8,286,356 people attended a DI Women’s basketball game, which was an all time record high. The tickets are not selling, so the universities are not funding. Plain and simple.
So why aren’t people watching? Professor Dale Spencer authored a book entitled Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment: Violence, Gender, and Mixed Martial Arts, in which he explains the disparity in women’s sports and men’s sports in terms of engagement with the public. He says, “There’s a general attitude in relation to women’s sport and what leads to the lack of viewership is the fact that women’s sports aren’t at the caliber of men’s sport. Therefore, it’s not worthy of being watched, and there’s this bigger, stronger, faster mentality”. This idea permeates our culture. A quick poll of the men and women I personally interact with on a daily basis produced the same attitude. I hear time and time again, “it’s boring. It’s just not as exciting as the men’s game. The men are quicker and stronger”. I talked to one female collegiate basketball player who explained, “people want to go to games and see someone dunk and, just due to biology, girls aren’t doing that so more people are going to go to men’s games. They’re ‘more exciting’ to a certain degree because of the pace and athletic ability, which we have no control over as women”. However, as Coach Wooden so eloquently explained to us in 2010, the female athletes of today are playing a different kind of basketball; a game characterized by finesse, technique, and teamwork on the floor.
In the 60s and 70s, men and women were playing a similar game. The NCAA had banned dunking in collegiate games for a variety of reasons and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of UCLA was one of a handful of men to develop and execute the skill. However, post-ban, the dunk became a regular part of men’s basketball and people LOVED it. The public has come to crave those so-called “highlight plays”; the breakaway, the dunk, the chase down block. Sydney Bennett, a member of the Redlands University Women’s Basketball team says, “is it simply less exciting to watch a female run up the court and meticulously plan her every move in a sea of defenders compared to her counterpart who will dunk for their two points? What makes a great team is consistency, pace, and maturity. Fans don’t care about these concepts though. They want to see fast and flashy ball where dunks are the new layup and half court swishes are the usual”. The popularity and excitement surrounding highlight plays effectively creates a disinterest in the women’s game. After all, very few women in history could dunk the ball (Brittney Griner being one of the most recent women to do so).
While many people aren’t necessarily watching women’s basketball, they are watching other women’s sports including Women’s Tennis and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). This bares another question: Why is the public watching these sports over others? Professor Dale Spencer explains that it comes down to the hyper-sexualization of athletes: “Tennis and MMA have been able to hyper-sexualize the women who participate in those sports, especially when they already have a certain physical appeal going for them. They’re able to really promote those women and maintain a level of popularity that is roughly equivalent to the male side of the sport, which isn’t necessarily a viable strategy in certain other sports because they aren’t able to shine the spotlight on a single person in the same way”. Whether conscious or subconscious, some of the popularity associated with these sports has to do with the hyper-sexualization of women such as Ronda Rousey and Serena Williams. Basketball is not privy to the increased viewership that comes with the hyper-sexualization of the female body in individual sports. One of the few exceptions to this theory occurred when professional basketball players, Diana Taurasi and Seimone Augustus kissed on the court, increasing viewership and earning them matching personal fouls.
In a blatant display of sexism, one fan commented on the kiss: “The WNBA is on to something here. More kissing will definitely lead to higher ratings from the coveted male 18-39 age group. Also, anyone committing a foul has to remove an article of clothing. The league could eclipse the NFL in popularity”……….. excuse me?
Watch a Game and See for Yourself
While this may sound like a sad data dump of facts that support the notion that women are just not getting the same exposure in sports as men are, there is hope. During March Madness and especially during the Final Four, there is a huge spike in viewership of women’s collegiate basketball that rivals that of the men. As one collegiate female basketball player explains, “I would imagine that women’s basketball is the most televised and publicized NCAA Women’s sport simply due to March Madness, and I would say that of the NCAA Women’s Basketball teams, UConn by far has the most exposure especially among the people I know that care a lot about basketball”.
So for now, we can settle with basketball enthusiasts recognizing that UConn Women’s basketball is ridiculously dominant, but how do we take it one step further and try and change the culture? We can take two basic actions (although there are probably many other things we could do):
- Attend women’s college and WNBA basketball games. Many professional teams have discounted student tickets and deals for families and many Universities have very small admissions fees if not free admission. With increased ticket sales comes increased funding for collegiate programs. Not to mention, athletes feel the love and support from fans in the stands.
- When games are aired on television channels such as ESPN, WATCH. If you like sports and you enjoy basketball, watch these women play. Observe their technique. Study the plays. I promise that you will enjoy. Networks are monitoring ratings and viewership and women’s sports will get more airtime if we increase the amount that we watch.
Collegiate athlete Sydney Bennett goes on to say, “I don’t think women’s basketball is any less entertaining, it is just different entertainment. You have to appreciate the sport to love women’s basketball […] I think it’s really sad that women’s sports aren’t as exposed because we sacrifice and endure just as much pain and struggle to be the best as men. I feel like women’s athletics has been oppressed and only time will give us the opportunity to prove what every female athlete already knows. We do deserve recognition and attention for our performances”.