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.