What is the WNBA?

September 7, 2011

Part 3: I am a professional, but for my genitals!

Women are smaller than men.  I know; I always go for the throat right off the bat.  But stay with me now:  Dunks are exciting.  People who don’t like basketball might disagree, but an overwhelming majority of casual fans agree that, relative to, say, a well ordered pick and roll, a dunk is exciting.  For that reason, and possibly to draw more girls into sports participation, the WNBA should be folded.

There is no need to get bogged down in murky debates about ‘quality of play’ which will not help lead to fruitful conclusions.  The Spurs have been demonstrating the anesthetic quality of sound fundamentals for more than a decade now, so we don’t need to blame women for not dunking (Candice Parker excepted) or blame basketball fans for not ‘appreciating’ something something blahblahblah.  None of this is relevant.  What’s much more relevant is the lack of research to indicate what impact, if any, the league has had on participation.  Neither the WNBA or it’s big brother counterpart/financial backer is equipped to defend the WNBA on any grounds relating to social impact, or indeed anything at all other than hypothetical future profitability and current cash flow generation for stadium owners.  The former is fantasy, and as we saw when the Atlanta Thrashers moved, having an unviable team lease your arena isn’t necessarily any more profitable than monster trucks.

This moment sparked male conversation more than female participation.

The basic notion that women’s sport is enhanced by professional leagues is a claim which has been allowed as a sort of unspoken promise – the kind that never has to be delivered upon because it is never really made.  By supporting the WNBA, the NBA does not support women’s grassroots athletics.  It does not make girls healthier and better adjusted.  It does not balance societies’ inequities or create life opportunities.  Other sports have seen major increases in participation at different points in history, almost uniformly without any professional leagues being involved at all.  Women’s baseball, in gestation as it was in the AAGPBL, didn’t creep into the nation’s little leagues for more than a generation.  When my sister was an adolescent, she became able to choose between a softball league and a baseball league for girls.  I have literally never heard any argument that that choice came about because of the AAGPBL, nor (more importantly) that it could have happened sooner if helped by the presence of a women’s pro league.

The simple fact of the matter where youth rates of sports participation are concerned, is that sedentary childhood lifestyles have increased coincident with increases in television time and decreases in gym class time.  One may trump the other, or even be the only actual factor, but the information available is scant, is focused on fatness, and belies any claim to real serious-minded concern on the part of the sports industry or government.  The factors which influence the decision to participate in sports, both what they are and how they work, is a subject for research in the fields of sports psychology and sports sociology.  There may have been some research thus far, but it is apparently not enough to win the day, and actually get kids playing physical games outside in increasing amounts.

In the meanwhile, my suggestions can be found below, offered humbly, meaning without assurances that any would work.  Sure, if I was a 6’1 (6’3 in NBA press guide units) woman who could almost dunk and actually liked to play defense, I could make a career, and maybe get the league some thirsted-for ink, by throwing unconscionable elbows, dying my hair five colours, and pulling down some other woman’s shorts in the middle of a game.  It might sell tickets, but would it help women’s sport?  If we don’t want girls to play sports so that they look a certain way in a bikini, then we do not want the WNBA to succeed by the real and actual standard.  We want it to fail, and go away, and be replaced by something that actually engages women.

Suggestions for alternate ways to get encourage women’s sport:

  1. Increase P.E. hours.
  2. Increase extra-curricular sports availability (number of teams).
  3. Take the top half of the WNBA, and make it a touring, barnstorming series of weekend tournaments.   Coaching and actually meeting girls on Friday night and Saturday day, and then a few games Saturday evening and Sunday.
  4. Give Mom a role, and maybe some pointers, in a public campaign to get girls into games.
  5. Focus on different sports.  Baseball and rugby are two sports which became available to girls in my hometown within the last twenty years, having literally never before been offered.  That means the first generation of girls whose moms played these sports is just beginning life.
  6. Turn off the tv.

What is the WNBA?

August 29, 2011

Part 2: Baseball skirts and Centrefolds

Commercially speaking, women’s sports are largely about men’s sexual fantasies.  While men watch a lot more sports than women in general, there is data to suggest that women are more likely than men to attend a WNBA game, and also that television viewership for ‘the’ pro women’s league is close to 50/50.  For most sports the viewership ratio is more like 67/33.  The WNBA consistently loses money, and has to be supported by the male league, despite the fact that the highest salary in the WNBA is 1/255th that of the equivalent male hoops star salary (in other words ‘league costs’ are lower).

What does make money, and sometimes can relate to women in sports, is sex.  The names of the highest grossing female athletes can be rolled off the tongue of the average ESPN clicker, including Anna Kournikova, who’s 3.6 million in career winnings contribute to her 50 million net worth, but not Stefi Graf, who’s 21.9 million in WTA earnings represent most of her 30 million net worth.  In case the point is not clear: you can buy a swimsuit calendar of one but not the other.  The ranks of the richest include a lot of people like Kournikova, Katarinna Wit, and Danica Patrick.  To sum up; the best women athletes only make it into the ranks of the best paid if they have appeared in ‘suggestive’ ads or playboy.

Anna Kournikova is about to go swimming.

Mrs. Kournikova in her swimming shoes.

In hockey their are two examples of female professionals: Manon Rheume and Haley Wickenheiser.  The former went the route of sensation, but avoided overt sexualization, while the latter played in one of the most competitive leagues in the world and at least in some sense seemed to fit in.  Manon Rheume was generally acknowledged not to be a big league prospect in any sense while she was playing in a couple of exhibition games for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team then as now in financial disarray.  Mrs. Rheume now runs a foundation named after herself supporting girl’s sporting ambitions.  There are a couple of relatively racy pictures of her on the internet, but relative to the big earners of women’s sport, the hockey pros come across as quite modest.

Baseball’s foray into female professionalism began during  WWII, and lasted a decade.  Women dressed in skirts played for money and played to an average of almost 1700 paying fans, just like the Marlins.  The AAGL played modified softball to begin with, and then shifted the ball and other rules towards baseball gradually.  It folded in 1954 after several years of declining revenues in a different social environment post-war.  The extent to which this league generated interest in ball amongst women and girls is difficult to assess, but as of 2004, fast-pitch softball was less popular by participation amongst high-school women than basketball, track and field, and volleyball.  We will return in the final installment to check in on the non-professional development of women’s soft and hardball.

For our present purposes the above survey is sufficient.  Women’s sport primarily makes money as a platform from which to use sex to advertise.  Would Kournikova have made 350 million in total if she had the same tournament earnings as Graf?  Of course not, the tennis has almost nothing to do with it.  None of this is should be shocking or even particularly new to sports fans, but the conclusions I would draw from it are probably new to many.

Because women’s team sports do not occasion sex symbols, they do not generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining.  Therefore they should not exist as a commercial product.  Because the profit from women’s participation in individual sports is so heavily tied to sex, promoting those sports promotes sexual objectification and inequality.  Those who support women in sport, therefore, should discourage and ignore women’s pro sports, in general, if not altogether.

Recommended further reading:

Demographics of sports fans on social networks.

WNBA tv ratings and how much they kill NHL ratings by.

Book on women in baseball.

What is the WNBA?

August 23, 2011

Part 1:  Equality in Sports?


Summertime Pro Hoops

This post was originally titled, ‘Should We Encourage Women to Play Sports?’  This title was scrapped because the question is too facetious: obviously I think everyone should play more sports.  The question is not interesting in itself, but the answer starts the inquisitive ball rolling down a path that leads quickly to territory usually ignored.  That territory will be surveyed , and a scouting report delivered, sportsvssports style, right here over the next couple of weeks.

The question obviously begged by any reasonable answer to my initial question is ‘How should we do so?’  From the first to the second question, the answers become contentious.  Children have been enrolling in sports at a declining rate, although the decline is less for young girls than it is for older children or similar aged boys.  Enrollment in Olympic sport clubs tends to rise and fall in relation to how recent Olympics were, and the rise in popularity of basketball among women certainly suggests that media exposure and ‘big league’ treatment influence children’s choices.

It would seem then that encouraging girls to participate in school can be done through mass media marketing.  Another method is by offering tax incentives for sports participation, which is likely an effective remedy of one barrier, but does not affect the child’s interest.  Without getting sidetracked with a debate about the tax incentive’s effectiveness, we can all agree that motivation to participate in sport is what we want to encourage, and where the biggest gains in actual participation can be made.  School seems like a natural place to be exposed to different sports, and given basic instruction in them.  For many if not most of us, school is where we first played the majority of sports, with only ‘big league’ team sports being played at the neighbourhood park, or on the road.

The largest body of data ever accumulated around the participation of women in sports was gathered about women in NCAA sports.  It showed that when the US college system applied ‘Title IX’ rules, around 1972, female participation grew and continued to grow through 2000, when the number of women participating in American college sports surpassed 150,000, a 372% increase from the year before Title IX was put in place.  Title IX is a set of rules attached to federal college funding (meager though it is, compared with state post-secondary funding throughout the rest of the developed world), set up to deal with academic gender discrimination, but which also stipulates essentially that colleges must provide and fund women’s teams for each sport in which they have a men’s team (excepting football).

Not surprisingly, the sport which benefits the most from this situation is the NCAA’s other big money sport, basketball.  In other words, it is reasonable to suggest, if not quite obviously fact that, NCAA gender-equality rules allowed basketball to grow amongst women.  The rules allowed that growth to continue within a certain institution, and therefore age group, for decades, and eventually this growth led to a women’s big-league.  Has the popularization of women’s hoops culminated in the WNBA?  Was said popularization better developed along different lines, with the WNBA a male-centric road-block?  Has the WNBA made basketball more popular among girls, or did girls’ interest in basketball (encouraged by Title IX) force the NBA to speculatively create its female counterpart?

Feel free to answer those questions for me in the comments section, or ask others, while I prepare part 2 of this series.  Part 2 will focus on other sports, where there is precedent for women’s pro leagues, women in men’s pro leagues, and all sorts of dangerously explosive fodder.  Picture of a young woman in skimpy clothing guaranteed.