Thursday, December 11, 2008

WNBA Still Strong...But Women's Basketball??

Okay. So the Comets have folded. Apparently that doesn't mean the end of the league. As Indigo pointed out in a comment on yesterday's post, the league is stronger than its ever been, having just signed an 8 year contract with ESPN, which marks the first time the league has been paid a rights fee.

That's actually really big news. Professional women's basketball is still here, and they're finding ways to make it cool and exciting.


I need to know. Why is it always so hard to fill the stands at a women's basketball game? Sure, the UConns and Tennessees of the world can fill their women's stadiums pretty well, but what about the other teams?

Case study #1. Stanford women's basketball. Consistently one of the top-ranked NCAA women's teams in the country. Under coach Tara VanDerveer, the Cardinal have won 2 national titles, made 6 final four appearances, reached the Elite 8 on 11 occasions, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen 14 times. They are bajillion-time Pac 10 Champs. Last year they lost to the Tennessee Lady Vols in the NCAA finals, finishing their season with a 35-4 record. They are, by all accounts, one of the most exciting women's teams to watch.

And yet they don't even have a student section at their games. At least, the student section is nothing like it is for the men. Some of my friends have literally camped outside Maples Pavilion for 2 days just to secure their spot in line for big-time men's bball matches. The 6th Man Club for the men's team is a sea of rowdy college kids who chant in unison, boo thunderously at the refs for bad calls, and stomp the bleachers during the last 2 minutes of the game to rattle the opposing team's free throw shooters. They are a force to be reckoned with.

The women's fans? Primarily middle-aged women, families with young daughters, and senior citizens. Not the rowdiest crowd you've ever seen. And the student representation is just plain pathetic compared to the men.

Case study #2. Stanford Women's volleyball. TOTALLY different story. The bleachers are packed to see the Cardinal take on the likes of Nebraska and USC. Again, one of the most exciting teams to watch in the college game, and they have the crowd to prove it. The men's volleyball team--when is their season again? Is there a men's team?

I've been to hundreds of basketball games in my time. Maybe even thousands. High school games. Men's and women's Utah Utes and Stanford Cardinal games. Utah Jazz. Utah Starzz. Golden State Warriors. It's the same wherever I go. People just LOVE men's basketball. It is a fast-paced, exciting display of power and athleticism. Dunks are thrown down, blocked shots go into the 6th row, bodies fly into the photographers under the basket. The stuff is entertaining, right?

So why were there more fans at a Warriors game than you would be able to get into a WNBA finals game?!? (That might not be the case...I didn't crunch the numbers). The point is, what IS IT about women's basketball that just doesn't attract the same fans?

Women's tennis, golf, volleyball, figure skating--these sports all have a much easier time filling the seats. They've had their own challenges winning equal prize money (Wimbledon finally joined everyone else in 2007) and gaining media exposure and fans. But they are also wearing spandex, bathing suits, unitards, khakis, polo shirts, and skirts. They have sex appeal on their side. And sex sells.

I'm going to say that the single deep-seeded reason that the WNBA isn't anywhere NEAR as successful as the NBA is because it doesn't have sex appeal. Literally. Perhaps this has to do with homophobia. Perhaps this has to do with our culture's rigidly defined gender roles. Whatever it is--I honestly think that might be the underlying factor behind the professional league's struggles. How many times have I heard my guy friends crack jokes about seeing chicks in spandex and mini skirts? How many times have I heard other friends, male or female, joke about the "manly" women in the WNBA, with their baggy shorts and basketball struts.

I don't watch sports for their sex appeal. I watch them because I've played them and I love watching them played. I appreciate women's basketball because I love the game and I can appreciate a good women's player.

But women's basketball doesn't appeal to Joe Schmoe American who wants to be entertained. Joe probably wants to see tight shorts and a "feminine" athleticism that doesn't threaten his ideas about gender appropriate behavior. He'd probably rather not see his daughter in baggy basketball shorts playing pickup with the dudes at recess. And Joe Schmoe American is the one who has "Guys Night" every week with his buddies, either playing poker at home or heading out to a sports bar or an actual sporting event. He's the one who buys the ticket, buys 4-5 beers, then buys 1 or 2 hot dogs, and maybe even a baseball hat or a jumbo #1 foam hand. He may even paint his face...or his stomach. He, in essence, is the driving force behind the NBA or NFL or MLB's success.

So how do we get Jane Schmane American more involved if Joe Schmoe isn't going to come to the games? But also, how DO we start to appeal more to Joe Schmoe? What will it take?

THAT is what the WNBA is up against. That is why we see organizations like the WNBA clawing their way toward success. There are social factors at work that are extremely hard to overcome.

The success of women's sports has been a long time coming, and it's got a long way to go. The WNBA can definitely move forward without the Comets and they still have much to celebrate in their 11 years in business. But I wonder how long it will take to change the American public so that they're ready to truly support these women.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Houston Comets Fold

Last week, the Houston Comets announced their plans to shut down operations. They're officially done. WNBA President Donna Orender released a statement on December 2nd with a brief explanation as to why one of the cornerstone teams of the WNBA must close its doors:

“Multiple investors have come forward and expressed significant interest in purchasing the Comets and having them continue to play in Houston in 2009,” said Orender. “However, we made the judgment that we would not be able to complete a transaction with the right ownership group in time for the 2009 season. The WNBA is extremely grateful to the Comets organization, to the city of Houston and to the team’s loyal fans for helping build both the WNBA and the game of women’s basketball.”

For those of us who were following the WNBA from the beginning, we remember how dominant the team was. Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson led a rock start Houston line up to win the first 4 WNBA championships from 1997-2000. Cooper was a four-time finals MVP for each of those championships. They were a dynasty and a pillar of the league.

Sheryl Swoopes joined the Seattle Storm for the 2008 season after an 11 year career with the Comets. She released the following statement regarding the folding Houston organization:

"I am saddened by today’s news regarding the Houston Comets. Having been a part of the team, one of the WNBA’s first, for the majority of my career I can’t help but think of the rich basketball history created there with the first four championships. I will always feel a deep connection with the city of Houston and Comets fans and would like to thank them for their support and passion over the years. While this situation is unfortunate, I am focused on and excited about the 2009 WNBA season."

Kevin Pelton of Seattle wrote a great article looking back on the Comets' story. You can find it here.

It's certainly sad, and a little puzzling, to see the strongest team of the league fold only 8 years after they won their last championship. Granted, they haven't been in a championship game since then. The original owner of the team, Les Alexander, sold the franchise to Houston furniture salesman Hilton Koch in early 2007, but Koch apparently couldn't keep the business afloat. It's unclear whether he lacked the appropriate resources to invest in the organization, or if he didn't have the business acumen take advantage of what appears to be a vibrant community of fans in the Houston metro area.

It doesn't help that Koch decided to put up the "For Sale" sign in early August of this year. As the economy has spiraled into a dark, gloomy place across the globe, it's no wonder that an investor was hard to come by. The WNBA has been notoriously tough to navigate financially--the NBA props up its sister league with loads of cash and a number of franchises have folded since the league's launch in 1997 (Charlottle Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Miami Sol, Portland Fire, Houston Comets), not to mention a few relocations (Utah Starzz to San Antonio Silver Stars, Orlando Miracle to Connecticut Sun). Women's professional sports teams and leagues may be the last thing on investors' minds these days. Until the economy starts to turn around, we may see a few more teams experience some rough times as they struggle to fill the seats in the stadium.

I always anxiously await the future of the WNBA, especially as I see organizations like Houston fold. I've got my fingers crossed that Women's Professional Soccer figures out the key to success for running a professional women's athletic league in the US, because Lord knows we need to get it right.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Japanese school girl going pro in baseball

Believe it. Eri Yoshida, 16, will be joining the professional baseball league in Japan when the season starts up in April of next year. I'm usually not one to follow baseball (since this is a women in sports blog...and softball is the usual path for females) but this is pretty exciting.

Check out this article in today's SF Gate.

I'll be curious to see how she performs. Apparently she's only 5 feet tall and 114 pounds--but she must have quite an arm!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Where are the fans??

So here's what I really want to know. Why did we have to come up with Title IX in the first place? And what I mean by that is, why haven't women's sports ever been enough on their own to earn equality and recognition?

Why do women's teams continue to struggle to fill their stadiums? I thought girls' participation in sports was higher than it's ever been, and growing exponentially! So why don't we see more of them in the bleachers, cheering obnoxiously for the home team?

Why don't the Sex and the City girls ditch their swanky clubs and dirty martinis for a $4 Coors Light and a foot long hot dog at the ballpark? Why does every professional women's team have to pander to youth leagues, senior citizens, and lesbians?

Where are all the straight women ages 20-50? Why do they simply disappear from the sports world entirely? Unless they're playing "team mom" for the night and dragging the carpool to a local college women's game, they are sorely missing from these events. And what makes it even worse is that their husbands are still rabid season ticket holders. The guys are still dawning their over-sized jerseys and foam hands and packing into the stadiums, even if they never touched a football in their life. They're still making small-talk about "last night's game" when they show up to work each morning.

We may be back to the age-old nature/nurture debate. Are guys simply more interested in sports because they are generally stronger, taller, and faster than girls? Maybe. But I know a LOT of guys who are about as coordinated as the mismatched socks they're wearing. Guys who don't play sports still watch 'em. So why isn't it the same with women?

I'll be looking into this as an ongoing research question for this blog. If you participated in sports but now you can't remember the last time you attended a professional women's game, tell me what you think happened. I want to know.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A quick shout out to the WNBA

Detroit beat San Antonio in the WNBA finals. It only took 3 games for them to sweep the series...their 3rd national title in 6 years. Congrats to Katie Smith, Deanna Nolan, and their amazing crew.

And by the way, congrats to Candace Parker who managed to bring home a WNBA MVP award, a WNBA Rookie of the Year award, a collegiate national championship, and an Olympic gold medal. All in 2008.

Watching Game 2 of the WNBA finals, I realized that the WNBA has come a long way. They actually had fans in the stands. They had major partners like T-Mobile presenting the MVP award. IHOP sponsored the half-time show, Discover card was all over the commercials and the arena, and the usual suspects Nike and Gatorade had their own signage up. Overall, I have to say that I was impressed. I was impressed by Katie Smith's ridiculous athleticism (and rather muscular physique) and I was impressed by the general professionalism of the event. It didn't feel like a rec league for overgrown children. It felt like a professional basketball game.

I ran across this letter written by the President of the WNBA, Donna Orender, and posted by Seattle Storm blogger, Jayda Evans. Here's the par t of the letter that struck me the most:

After 12 years, the WNBA deserves more credit for what it has accomplished -- for the athleticism of the players, for the power of the game, for the emotional connection created when our teams nakedly put their passions on the floor.

The product is great; these women are fantastic. Our fans have responded to the high level of play by pushing increased attendance -- including a record 46 sellouts -- TV ratings, Web traffic and merchandise sales. These women are spreading this work ethic and universal language around the world -- note the 41 current-and-former WNBA players on Olympic rosters in Beijing, including the 12 members of Team USA who brought home their fourth consecutive gold medal.

So here we sit after the Finals, with one team -- San Antonio -- coming up short after bringing the excitement of a championship round to their city for the first time, while another team -- Detroit -- cements its legacy as a dynasty by winning their third title in six years. We were squeezed in with the baseball playoffs and football season, competing for the eyes of sports fans, but it is worth noting that just over a decade ago, the choice to tune in to the WNBA didn't exist at all, and that is something worth recognizing.

We do need to recognize the WNBA for its success. I can't believe they actually had 46 sellouts this season. But I'm still a little disappointed about a few things:

1. The Finals could only be found on ESPN2...regardless of the baseball and football seasons, they should have had at least the FINALS with a primetime spot on ESPN.

2. The Finals didn't appear to be sold out, despite the other 46 sellouts in the league this year. If you still haven't filled your stadium at that point, start giving the tickets away. Players should never have to see empty seats in the lower bowl during the WNBA Finals.

3. Please change the color of the damn orange and white basketball. For some reason, that ball makes the athletes seem less athletic. I'm being totally serious. When that ball bricks off the back of the rim, it looks worse than the standard brown basketball doing the same thing in a college or NBA game.

Considering those are my only real complaints, it looks like things are going pretty well. Madd props to you, WNBA, for boosting your ticket sales and improving your web traffic and fan interaction throughout the season. More madd props for getting better-qualified broadcasters with cooler graphics for the half-time analysis. And madd props for staying afloat for 12 whole years--you've proved a lot of people wrong.

I look forward to next year's season already.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The WNBA: Finals are here, critics appear

For all the hype around the team, it was pretty disappointing for me to watch the Seattle Storm die a slow, painful, early death in the WNBA playoffs this year. And as if that weren't enough, Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker couldn't even carry the LA Sparks through the series against San Antonio. Now the Stars are headed into the finals against the winner of the tied series between New York and Detroit in the East.

So how many of you consider yourselves sports fans? And how many of you have actually watched a WNBA game this season? And out of curiosity, how many of plopped down to watch an NBA game during their season? I have to admit that I've been slightly shocked that the WNBA is still around after 12 years. Professional women's sports teams are notoriously impossible to sustain in the US, and elite female athletes have often fled to Europe in hopes of pursuing an actual career. But the WNBA is still here. And it's stronger than ever.

I came across an opinion piece from the LA times by a woman named Melissa Rohlin. You should read her piece first before you go any further. If you don't want to take the time, here's her basic point: the WNBA is boring and professional women's basketball sucks.

Ms. Rohlin claims that she played basketball her whole life. She had dreams of playing professionally someday herself. She was "the first to get to the gym and the last one to leave," and she worshipped local role models like Kobe Bryant.

Rohlin doesn't seem to have continued playing ball in college, but she's still an avid NBA fan. An an avid WNBA hater. She thinks the women are just plain un-athletic. I mean, men are jumping 4 feet in the air, throwing down dunks like nobody's business, and sprinting down the court at the speed of light, dishing no-looks passes to their teammates and working the crowd into a frenzy. It's exciting!

And the WNBA is just plain boring.

Candace Parker--I don't care if you won the McDonald's All-American dunk competition when you were in high school (over 5 male competitors). So what? Kobe would school you any day. And Sue Bird? Are you even related to Larry? Because his passes were so much more crisp and accurate.

Wait, wait, wait. Is Rohlin actually claiming to be a FAN of basketball? Or here's the bigger question. Is she actually claiming that the WNBA is boring because women just aren't good athletes?

There's a fundamental issue underlying Rohlin's claims that makes me sick to my stomach. She's saying that the WNBA is boring because women are inferior athletes. She's chomping into an apple, then sucking on an orange, and complaining that the orange just isn't crisp and crunchy enough for her taste. And the apple just doesn't have enough citrus.

Ms. Rohlin--I, too, was that kid in high school showing up early to practice and leaving late. I, too, had the dream of playing hoops in college. I didn't end up following that path, but good LORD do I love the WNBA.

In fact, I'm going to say that any legit female basketball player with an appreciation for the game should love watching the WNBA. I even argue that those of us who were the true gym rats in high school and college are the ones who can appreciate the women's professional game the most.

Should we really be embarrassed that it was such a big deal to see Candace Parker dunk in a game, when it would be "laughable" to make such a hoopla around an NBA player doing the same? Ms. Rohlin, you are an idiot.

I doubt you ever threw down a dunk. In fact, I doubt you were ever much of an athlete at all. I dare you to body up against Tina Thompson in the post, or try to drive past Sue Bird. Just try to stop one of Lisa Leslie's bank shots. Maybe you'll only be impressed if Candace Parker actually jumps over you to slam the basketball. Is that what it would take?

I watch the NBA and I grew up with posters of Michael Jordan on my walls. And yet I knew that I wasn't going to grow up to BE him. When the WNBA came along, I couldn't imagine anything better for every girl growing up in America who needed to have their own role models to look up to in their sport. How can you, as a self-proclaimed athlete, claim that the WNBA is boring? Answer: you never learned how to appreciate the game, and that's why you have to hate on it.

There's my scathing review of your article. If you want an amazing perspective from one of the best women's basketball players in the world, check out Diana Taurasi's response here.

And let's play a little 1 on 1 sometime. I'll kick your ass.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The L Word - Homophobia in Sports

You can't talk about women in sports without addressing the L word issue. It affects every aspect of women's participation in sport--from a woman's personal comfort on a team, to the role models she has in coaches and older players, to the team dynamic, and all the way up to pro athlete marketability. People crack jokes about how lesbianism runs rampant in women's sports and yet there are still only a handful of athletes who are "out and proud."

Unless you're Ellen DeGeneres and you can laugh your way through it, it's really hard to navigate sexuality when you're a public figure. (Actually, I take it back. It's never easy to navigate your sexuality when you're a public figure...especially when you're gay).

And when your sport becomes your career, you have to make careful choices about what you're willing share about your personal life and how it could affect your next endorsement deal. Sheryl Swoopes officially "came out" in 2005 with an endorsement deal with Olivia (a San Francisco-based travel and entertainment company for lesbians) and she seemed to weather it well. But then again, she's Sheryl Swoopes. She was the first woman to have her own line of Nike basketball shoes and she is a 3-time WNBA MVP. She made numerous appearances with Olivia for years, talking about her decision to come out and embrace her sexual identity despite the consequences it may have on her endorsements. Read this article for her own words on the matter.

When you take a step back from the pros and take a look at collegiate sports, homophobia is also prevalent. Coaches are constantly trying to recruit the best talent for their program and many won't hesitate to suggest that competitor teams are full of lesbians. This negative recruiting tool is designed to scare parents into preventing their daughters from joining a program where they may fall victim to lesbian attacks (whatever those are).

But there are a number of female athletes who have been very successful even after coming out. Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Rosie Jones to name a few. And more recently, Natasha Kai from the gold medal winning US women's soccer team in 2008.

This year, Billie Jean King celebrates the 35th anniversary this year of her victory over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match. She now runs the Women's Sports Foundation, which promotes girls and women's participation in athletics, and even has a task force for addressing homophobia in sports.

The times may be changing a bit, but homophobia still runs deep in our society. The California Supreme Court recently made a ruling to allow gays and lesbians to marry in the state, however there's a proposition on the ballot this November that could amend the California state constitution to remove that right (again).

If you're a female athlete, chances are you've had to deal with homophobia before. Whether it's your own or one of your teammate's or gossiping about other teams and coaches. It's very real. I intend to blog about this more but I wanted to open up the forum and get people thinking about their own experiences with this issue. Please feel free to comment on the post and let me know what you've witnessed.