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.